After a disappointing performance last weekend in South Bend, Michigan returns to Ann Arbor to take on Western Michigan on Saturday in the home opener.
We’ve identified five things that you should keep an eye on during the contest.
Michigan’s Third Down Defense
Last season, Michigan finished No. 1 in the nation in third down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 26.1 percent of the time, or 47 times on 180 chances. Notre Dame converted 7-of-15 third down opportunities, which comes out to 46.67 percent. In a 13-game season, that puts Michigan on pace to allow 91 third down conversions, almost double last year’s total.
In the first half alone, the Fighting Irish officially went 5-for-8 on third downs, but that doesn’t include the two times Michigan gifted them first downs by way of a penalty. Notre Dame also converted its lone fourth down attempt.
The average length of Notre Dame’s third downs was 8.9 yards, which means Michigan was allowing Notre Dame to convert in situations where the defense had the advantage. That was highlighted by Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush scrambling to pick up a first down on third and 18 in the second half. Michigan was also bailed out by a penalty on the Fighting Irish in the second half that negated a first down on third and 11.
Western Michigan’s offense is no Notre Dame, but it did record 621 total yards against Syracuse, despite going 2-for-10 on third downs. Look for U-M’s defense to play more like it did in the second half, when it held Notre Dame to 2-for-7 on third down and allowed just three points.
Contain Western’s Big Play Ability
One of the few drawbacks to Michigan’s aggressive defensive style is that it can be susceptible to big plays down the field. It gave up only one to Notre Dame last week, a 43-yard touchdown pass from Wimbush to wide receiver Chris Finke.
Western Michigan, which lost to Syracuse 55-42 last week, had a number of big plays and was led by wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge who had eight catches for 240 yards and two touchdowns. He hauled in four passes that went for more than 20 yards and two that went for more than 50 (one an 84-yard score).
The 5-foot-9 wideout has good speed and will be a test for Michigan’s secondary which struggled at times against quick receivers in the slot.
Both WMU running backs also broke long runs against the Orange. Jamauri Bogan recorded a 59-yard run and LeVante Bellamy had a dash that went 64 yards.
Containing these types of plays should help make this one an easy win for the Wolverines.
Consistency At Offensive Tackle
Michigan’s offensive tackles were revolving doors against Notre Dame. Left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. allowed three sacks in his first start at the position and never really looked comfortable. Right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty struggled at times, as did the entire line.
It’s not going to be a one week fix. Michigan is likely going to struggle at tackle for a large part of the season, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be improvement. Can the o-line pass the eye test against a team with far less talent that Notre Dame? Can it keep quarterback Shea Patterson upright? We shall see.
It would be smart to get James Hudson or Jalen Mayfield in the game at either tackle spot should the game get out of hand. Any experience they can get will go a long way, especially if one ends up starting at some point this fall.
Get The Medium Passing Game Going
Michigan’s offense seems to favor short, quick hitters or deep balls in the passing game.
That’s fine, but that becomes predictable. Nico Collins hauled in a nice deep pass from Patterson for 52 yards, but there really wasn’t much in the way of a medium passing game, which I’d define as passes that go 11-25 yards through the air.
The few plays that ended up in the teens typically got there because the receiver gained yards after the catch. Donovan Peoples-Jones caught six passes for 38 yards (6.3 average), Grant Perry nabbed five for 48 yards (9.6 average) and Oliver Martin caught three passes for 29 yards, with a long of 21 (9.7 average). Even Collins’ two other catches only totaled 14 yards. Running back Chris Evans had Michigan’s second-longest reception (24 yards), but much of that was due to Evans’ running ability after the catch.
Some of this ties into the offensive line. It has to give Patterson enough time to find a receiver more than 10 yards down the field, but there also needs to be some variety in the play-calling that allows these type of plays to be made.
Give Chris Evans The Ball
I don’t think you’ll find many people who will argue Chris Evans is a better running back than Karan Higdon, because he’s not. However, he should be getting more than two carries and four total touches per game, which is what he had against Notre Dame. He picked up only one yard on his two carries, but tallied 37 yards on his two receptions.
Evans is best when he gets the ball in space. He’s fast, elusive and explosive. That type of player needs to get more than four opportunities to touch the ball in a game. Even if Jim Harbaugh chooses to lean heavily on Higdon in the running game, Evans should be very active in the passing game.
This week, look to see a more balanced attack. Reaching 250 yards on the ground as a team seems like an attainable goal.