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Wolverines showed willingness to experiment in season opener

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The Wolverines treated Middle Tennessee State like a scrimmage and it showed.

Dustin Johnston - Maize N Brew

Well, we made it. After a long off-season, the Michigan Wolverines finally kicked off their season against Middle Tennessee State over the weekend. The results were mixed, though sloppiness was the name of the game across the country for most top teams. Clemson’s passing offense never got going against Georgia Tech, Alabama slept walked through their game with Duke, and Ohio State essentially played FAU to a draw for the final 53 minutes of their contest. This is why you schedule cupcakes to open the season instead of traveling into South Bend.

People are going to overreact to this game, and drowning out that noise will certainly be tough. However, if you feel the urge to get your Chicken Little on this week, please try to keep things within context. You’d be correct in pointing out that a similar effort is unlikely to knock off Army or Wisconsin, but I’d also suggest that it’s fair to expect a completely different level of focus and intensity. Michigan treated Middle Tennessee State like the tune-up game they were, and it showed in a number of ways.

The Game

We got our first look at the long-awaited #SpeedInSpace offense from Josh Gattis. I’m getting a sense of frustration from some fans, but I saw basically everything I wanted to. The no-huddle is a work in progress, and the two QB formations are awful, but conceptually I came away impressed.

Shea’s ball security was turrible, Kenny, but he looked quite good throwing it. What issues there were with holding the ball too long and some second half inaccuracy can be fixed by rhythm and more reps. The QB switching appeared to throw him out of his groove, but I get why Harbaugh and Gattis moved all the pieces around. That’s what these games are for. Running the ball 60 times for 400 yards and running up the score doesn’t make this team better. That’s why Gattis is here to begin with.

Zach Charbonnet looked every bit as good as advertised, and I’m excited to see him wear opponents down in upcoming fourth quarters. This was probably a game where the Wolverines of yesteryear run him 20-25 times and beat the hell out of him for no reason. Again, mixing in other backs and keeping his carries low will only help keep him fresh in the future. Really liked what I saw there.

On the outside, it was good to see Michigan’s weapons turned loose, particularly Tarik Black and Nico Collins. There are going to be very few, if any, secondaries that can compete with Michigan’s size and athleticism on the outside. Black, Collins, and Donovan Peoples-Jones were all highly rated recruits, and their ability to consistently win one-on-one matchups will be paramount going forward. Add in what appeared to be a revitalized Sean McKeon as well as Nick Eubanks, and the pieces are there for the Wolverines to have a big year through the air.

After the slow start, I thought Michigan’s offense looked at its best for the final ~20 minutes of the first half. In my opinion, that’s the offense we’ll see most in the games that matter. Lots of spread looks that lean heavily on RPO and intermediate down field passing concepts. When Shea was in rhythm, that attack was humming. I think with the first game jitters gone and a higher level of focus, we’ll see that more against Army.

Now, defensively, I’m frankly feeling a bit doom and gloom. Statistically, it was another good night for Don Brown’s unit. The starters didn’t really allow any long drives, and MTSU’s two touchdowns came on shortened fields. From a 30,000 foot view, things looked good. Fix the slop, and we’re golden, right? Wrong.

What worries me is that the same problems from last year reared their head again: struggles to contain a mobile QB, open receivers across the middle on mesh patterns, lack of an answer to quick passes, etc. Those issues didn’t show up in the scorebook against Indiana and Rutgers, but they did when Michigan faced Dwayne Haskins instead of whatever those teams had. I felt similar on Saturday night. Middle Tennessee State was not good enough to take advantage of the mistakes, but Wisconsin and Penn State probably will be. Notre Dame and Ohio State will definitely. A couple positives were that Josh Metellus did a great job of keeping his name out of the broadcast. As a safety, that’s almost the best possible outcome. The Blue Raiders never really threatened down field, and a lot of that can be attested to safety play.

Additionally, the Wolverines did run some zone. In fact, on Ambry Thomas’ interception, you can see the linebackers drop into a soft shell and then roll with the quarterback. That’s certainly a positive to see.

In general, I’d say that’s my biggest takeaway. Michigan came out ready to experiment. I’ve said it multiple times, but it bears repeating - Harbaugh and company could’ve come out, run the ball 60 times and used just a handful of defensive plays and probably won this game by 30-40. We’ve seen them do that multiple times over the years. Those games don’t make the team better. Tune-up games should be taken seriously, but they should also be treated as sandboxes for experimentation. Michigan certainly tried to mix things up.

Looking Ahead

Army needed a late touchdown to overcome an uninspiring Rice team indicating they’re likely not as good as the team last year that almost knocked off the Sooners in Norman. Monken is an excellent coach though and the triple option presents a unique set of Jeff challenges every time out. Brown’s unit will need to be much sharper next week.

I don’t think we’ll see Donovan Peoples-Jones but Jon Runyan, Michael Dwumfour, and Donovan Jeter could all return. Dwumfour and Jeter, in particular, will play key roles in slowing down Army’s ground game if they can play. Ben Mason showed some really quick get-off in his first game at defensive tackle, but he’s probably not the guy you want out there for a majority of the game.

My hope for next week is that the team’s focus is on getting in and getting out, just taking care of business. Army’s not really a team I want to mess with or let hang around. Would also, again, like to see less of McCaffrey. The switching breaks up the flow of the offense, which is something the team can’t really afford with a date in Madison coming up.

Around the Country

Some quick hits since the weekend really lacked marquee matchups outside of the Oregon-Auburn game.

The SEC East had a no good, very bad weekend with Aubrey Solomon’s Tennessee Volunteers, South Carolina, and Missouri losing games that they shouldn’t.

Michigan State’s defense looked tremendous in their opener, but the offense is likely to be a problem once again. Nevada beat Purdue on a 57-yard kick from a freshman walk-on, and the kid was given a scholarship over the weekend.

Stanford prevailed in their rock fight against Northwestern while USC avoided a trendy upset bid from Fresno State. With Washington and Washington State putting up solid efforts, the Pac 12 was really an Oregon win away from a great opening weekend. Unfortunately for the Ducks, odd-year Auburn can summon Cthulhu

Dan’s Picks for Week 2

Cincy @ Ohio State -16.5

LSU @ Texas +4

Call @ Washington -11.5

UCF -7.5 @ FAU

Nebraska -7.5 @ Colorado