The Michigan Wolverines moved to 1-0 on the 2021 football season with a 47-14 win over Western Michigan on Saturday. Mostly everything about the effort was businesslike and what a Big Ten team should do to a MAC opponent.
Each week, we will put together grades for how each position group performed in each game. It is, of course, a sliding scale given the opponent they play. If you think that we shouldn’t grade out a group highly “because it’s Western Michigan,” we can’t really have a fair conversation about it. You would not punish someone because of how easy it was for them. You grade what they did with the challenge that was in front of them at the point of taking the test.
So let’s do that.
Michigan only threw the ball 17 times, so there was not a ton to review here. But Cade McNamara completed all but two of his 11 pass attempts, both of which were batted balls at the line of scrimmage. He took what the defense game him, made the appropriate read, and made the throw. Doesn’t have to be much more difficult than that. His touchdown to Ronnie Bell accounted for 76 of his 136 yards passing on Saturday, so he was not totally unleashed. There is not a negative to point out about his performance that wouldn’t be a nitpick. Nice work by No. 12 and exactly what Michigan needs out of him.
J.J. McCarthy, well, you saw the touchdown throw. A five-star talent making a five-star play. Outside of that, he looked like a freshman, and that’s fine. Michigan was able to give him an extended run due to a blowout. The more snaps he gets, the better. He is going to be too good to keep off the field at some point. The more he plays, the more Michigan expedites his development.
Running Backs: A
Michigan called Blake Corum (14 rushes, 111 yards, TD) and Hassan Haskins (13 rushes, 70 yards, TD) their 1a and 1b running backs for a reason. They told us all along it would be the case and Saturday backed that up. Corum’s quick-twitch athleticism and elusiveness were on display and he looks like a true game-breaker at running back, as a pass catcher and returning kicks. Haskins is exactly what he has been over the last few seasons as a steady, powerful back that wants to run through you. It’s hard not to get excited about what this duo can provide. Michigan is right to build around these guys as the lynchpins of the offense.
Donovan Edwards got some run in the second half with six rushes for 27 yards and a catch for three yards. The key with him this year is to be productive with his opportunities and it was a good start for him on Saturday.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B+
Ronnie Bell was far and away Michigan’s best receiver in Saturday’s game, which makes his knee injury all that more devastating. They probably should not expect to have him at all anytime soon, or potentially the rest of the season. That is brutal for the senior captain. He had what would have been the catch of the day (year?) along the sideline that was called back and the 76-yard score from McNamara. That’s probably our last look at him for a while.
It’s hard to grade these guys with so little action on the day, but it did seem like the non-Bell wideouts were not quite as open down the field. However, they were tremendous in the run game and as blockers (hello, Mike Sainristil). AJ Henning (74-yard rush TD) and Roman Wilson (43-yard rush) are burners in the open field and with Bell out for the foreseeable future, Michigan has to find ways to get them involved. Daylen Baldwin was also impressive on his touchdown from McCarthy. You can see the extra gear that Michigan liked to his game, too.
Offensive Line: A-
It’s impossible to not grade these guys out highly when you rush for 334 yards. They did what they should do to a MAC defense. It was a bit of a slow start for everyone on offense, but it seemed like the script flipped when Zak Zinter, who did not start due to a hand injury, was inserted into the game. There had been hype that he is considered Michigan’s best offensive player, which might be a bit ambitious. But he certainly made his case as one of their biggest impact guys. Andrew Vastardis had a really nice showing, as well. All in all, a job well done from a group that had to have a day.
Defensive Line: B+
Western Michigan took it to Michigan’s defensive front early on in the contest. They were not getting a ton of pressure and as a result, the Broncos were able to move the football early. Michigan came out in a two-down lineman set with Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith on the field. As the game picked up, those guys got better. Julius Welschof and Mike Morris had a few moments, as well. We’ll see about these guys when the games get tougher.
Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo started the game as Michigan’s edge defenders with Jaylen Harrell and Taylor Upshaw getting out there, as well. Hutchinson was a nightmare all day even if the stat line (4 total tackles, sack) does not show it. Ojabo struggled a bit early, but played better as the game went on. Josh Ross and Nikhai Hill-Green started in the middle and were fine. Ross had a pair of quarterback hits and was used a bit as a pass rusher, which was cool to see. Once the pass rush got cooking, Western fell apart offensively. It’s going to be a work in progress here, but they are off to a promising start.
Defensive Backs: B
The Wolverines defense started the day in a five-defensive back look with Vincent Gray and Gemon Green at corner, RJ Moten and Brad Hawkins at safety and Daxton Hill playing in the slot. Hill was predictably outstanding and it is a good move by the coaching staff to have him playing as close to the ball as he possibly can. Gray got beat a few times, but recovered nicely and made plays in coverage. It was a bit of a rough showing for Green and the safeties weren’t spectacular overall. There’s a lot of newness being through at a group that probably is a bit more talent deficient than it has been in the earlier stages of the Jim Harbaugh era. Putting struggles on tape is fine. We’ll see if they are able to correct it.
Special teams: A
The return game was great and explosive. The kicker and punter did their jobs. The coverage units were good. They blocked a kick. Nothing more to say here other than a tip of the cap to Jay Harbaugh for having those guys ready.
Team Performance Grade: A-
If you were to punch all of these grades into a GPA calculator, it spits you out a score right on the fringes of the A- range. I had said on the postgame podcast that it felt like a B+ performance and came away a little more impressed upon second viewing. But there are still things to clean up.
It was a nice job of the coaching staff getting the team ready for an opponent that had them on high alert. You can see the seeds planted of what they want to be. What will make or break them moving forward is what they are when an opponent throws a wrench in their plans.