The Michigan Wolverines are 7-0 for only the second time since 2006. Coming off the bye week, the Wolverines were right to expect a stout early test from head coach Pat Fizgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats.
The first half was an uncomfortable, 10-7 slow grind worthy of Urban Meyer. But behind an unrelenting rushing attack in the second half, Michigan was able to pull away and easily secure a 33-7 victory.
This game was the perfect rust buster sandwiched between an idle period and next week’s trip to East Lansing to face the undefeated Michigan State Spartans.
As with every game, we learned a lot about Team 142 against the Wildcats. But on Saturday, these were the three things that stood out to me.
0-100 Real Quick And 100-0 Even Quicker
By their own volition, this team can create momentum from nothing and lose it just as quickly. With three trips to the red zone and a smothering defensive effort, Michigan should have entered halftime up 21-0 against Northwestern.
However, after stalling on one drive deep in Northwestern territory, a defensive lapse springing a 75-yard Evan Hull touchdown run, and a Mike Sainristil fumble at the 5-yard line, the Wolverines only led 10-7.
In classic Michigan fashion this season, when the team needed it the most, the Wolverines opened the second half with a seven-play, 74-yard touchdown drive, and never looked back.
Much like playing at Nebraska two weeks ago, when trailing for the first time (and only) this season, following quarterback Cade McNamara’s first (and only) interception of his career, the Wolverines created momentum from nothing. With their backs against the wall, the Wolverines delivered.
Or against Rutgers, when the defense needed to make a stop and they did it three consecutive drives to cling to the 20-13 win.
This ability to weather storms and momentum swings is something teams in recent memory (2017-2020) have struggled with. While most of the swings are self-inflicted, so far the Wolverines have always found a way to recapture what was lost.
Handling adversity is a trait reserved for the elite; inflicting adversity upon yourself is reserved for the mediocre. Michigan can balance both against inferior opponents, but in the final five games, success will require the latter to be minimized.
Screens are the New Slants
Under former defensive coordinator Don Brown, Michigan’s defense being susceptible to slant routes was as sure as gravity. Slant route, take a shot. It was frustrating, yet tolerable until opponent’s expanded upon the weakness with crossing routes. Now Don Brown is coaching in the Pac-12.
Mike Macdonald has innovated the defense in his first season at Michigan, but no defensive scheme is without its flaws. As shown ad nauseam against Nebraska, Northwestern attacked the Wolverines with similar tactics utilizing misdirection and screen passes.
These are lingering problems that could be exploited down the stretch. Similar to the slant routes a few years ago, they were not major issues until Ohio State head coach Ryan Day gashed them in the season finale in back-to-back years.
Book it, Michigan State will implement some misdirection and screens with their triumvirate of elite play-makers, so we will see if the Wolverines can avoid schematic exploitation.
Fortunately, it is a much better problem teaching an aggressive defense discipline, than teaching a disciplined defense aggression. And unlike Brown-coached defenses, the Macdonald scheme lives in deception with multiple fronts and coverages.
Let’s get into it.
During Saturday’s game against Northwestern, Fox analyst Joel Klatt added fuel to a fire we have all known is simmering: an inevitable quarterback controversy is brewing and will come to a head. It could be next week, it could be next season, but it is coming between Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy.
Now, “Put the back-up in!” is the laziest take a football fan can muster (close second is anything to do with play calling: “jUsT rUn oUtSidE”), but remains an inevitable argument when any starting quarterback shows signs of a struggle.
As a Michigan fan, everyone remembers, “Put in O’Korn, put in Peters,” from 2017 or “Put in McCaffrey, put in Milton,” or most recently in 2020, “PUT IN CADE!”
A calling as old as fandom, but this year, it has been different. McNamara has not been a bad quarterback, but he has been limited. The calling of his job stems from the rest of the team’s potential, and that elevated play from the quarterback position could change this year into the year.
McCarthy provides an intangible x-factor at the quarterback position that is innate for a select few. He plays with a fire and Brett Favre-esque arrogance that has galvanized pockets of fans and even pundits as educated as Klatt to want to see the high-reaching limits of his abilities.
However, he is an inexperienced freshman, an unproven commodity who could be prone to mistakes that McNamara is not. But he is also a commodity who could take this team to a level McNamara cannot.
That said, Michigan is 7-0 for a reason, and that is in large part due to McNamara’s efficiency and ball security. If McNamara can regain the touch on his deep ball, he should remain the quarterback for the rest of the season.
And if he cannot regain the touch and the offense begins to falter, make the switch. But let’s not summon McNamara to the transfer portal gallows just yet.
A crazy theory is maybe head coach Jim Harbaugh, who is on a restructured, incentive-based contract that rewards winning, is going to go with the option that provides this team the best opportunity to win. Crazy.
In the end, whoever it is, McCarthy, McNamara, McDonald’s, McNuggets… Just win.