The wait is almost over: Team 143’s chapter in the annals of Michigan Wolverines football lore is about to be written. Expectations are high this year, and Saturday’s noon bout against Colorado State heralds to help them ease into another championship hunt.
While much of the plot is unlikely to be spoiled, we can expect at least some preliminary answers to whom this year’s iteration of Michigan football will shape out to be. Here are three things we’re hoping to learn from the team this weekend.
Is Michigan willing to utilize its talent on the perimeter?
In last September’s Maize Out against Washington, Michigan ran the ball 52 times to drub the Huskies. Many snide comments were made at how conservative the play calling was.
Call it what you will, it worked: It established Michigan’s run-first offensive identity for the rest of a championship season. The question now is whether the non-conference slate will feature a more diversified offensive attack than last year and if the game plan will augur the approach taken in the rest of the season.
As I wrote in a previous article, Michigan is stacked at the wide receiver position. With the ongoing quarterback battle and the weakness of the opponent, Matt Weiss has a prime opportunity to work out any kinks in the passing game on Saturday. Putting the game on ice through the air early will assuage the concerns of many fans (myself included) that Michigan won’t utilize the talent compiled at skill positions.
Harbaugh’s crew can win through the air this year, but is it willing to do so? We might get a clue on Saturday.
Lightning without thunder?
A strong argument could be made Michigan would not have won the Big Ten without Hassan Haskins — let alone win in Lincoln and State College. His ability to grind out tough yards will be sorely missed, but his absence opens the door for more explosiveness at tailback.
Michigan led the nation in plays of 50+ yards last year, and a decent portion of those are thanks to the lightning speed of Blake Corum. Evasive outside the tackles and a pass-catching threat out of the backfield, Michigan will lean on his fleetness to spark the same big plays he made last year. But will he be called on to tote the rock between the tackles?
Without a clear road grader behind him in the depth chart and Harbaugh’s affinity for ground and pound, Corum may be asked to run it up the gut more. With his bigger stature, Donovan Edwards could fill that role, but he’s better suited for off-tackle runs and tosses than “three yards and a cloud of dust.”
How will Michigan pick up tough yardage on third and short? Will Corum and Edwards be up to the task, or will someone like Tavierre Dunlap make his case to replace the thunder to accompany Corum’s lightning?
What will be the defense’s identity?
In another article, I made the case new defensive coordinator Jesse Minter will put Michigan in a better position to force interceptions. Minter employed a zone-focused scheme that allowed his guys to capitalize on offensive mistakes, even without a hint of a pass rush.
Michigan has a much deeper and skillful set of pass-rushers than Vanderbilt could expect to compile, so the need to run as much zone coverage will be negated by Michigan’s increased ability to get to the quarterback. However, without Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo living in the backfield of opposing teams, Minter may look to the linebackers to drop back in coverage to exploit miscues. As much attention is being devoted to the defensive line, this defense could become a linebacker and safety-led unit.
Honorable Mention: Who’s the quarterback?
Before the news broke Saturday, all signs pointed to McNamara being the man to beat for the position. Now that J.J. McCarthy will be given the reigns in week 2, the floodgates are open to a true week-to-week — maybe even drive-to-drive — quarterback competition.
McNamara should view the game versus Colorado State as a fight for his job. The fact that a Big Ten Championship-winning quarterback will not be the guaranteed starter for the foreseeable future does not bode well for him. However, with a stellar performance Colorado State, we may not be writing McNamara’s football obituary just yet.