Breakdown: No. 21 Michigan vs. Western Michigan
Six days after losing to No. 8 Notre Dame, the sky still isn’t falling and Michigan football is still playing in its home opener on Saturday against Western Michigan.
But what happened in South Bend was more realization than revelation — the oft-praised Wolverines (0-1 overall) had problems to manage on both sides of the ball. The offensive line alone provided a season’s worth of concerns limiting Michigan’s potential.
But Jim Harbaugh announced that he had no plans to make personnel changes just yet. So the same rotation that took the field Sept. 1 will get its chance at redemption in front of its home crowd against the Broncos (0-1).
Western Michigan lost its season opener in a shootout at home to Syracuse, 55-42. While the Broncos showcased an explosive offense, their defense was the polar opposite, a concern that set the Wolverines as the 25.5-point favorite to win.
Here’s how Michigan matches up against Western Michigan on Saturday.
Michigan pass offense vs. Western Michigan pass defense
Tackles Jon Runyan Jr. and Juwann Bushell-Beatty would have been better off as ghosts on some plays against Notre Dame. All three sacks came from Runyan on the left side, but Bushell-Beatty had his own struggles surrendering pressure on the right. Even established players struggled. Sophomore center Cesar Ruiz allowed a hurry that resulted in a Notre Dame interception.
Michigan has a more than capable quarterback in junior Shea Patterson, who has weapons at his disposal in a deep tight end and wide receiver group. But Patterson will need time to throw — a proposition that looks feasible against the Broncos’ weak defensive front.
Western Michigan gave up just 11 completions against the Orange, but got burned for 226 yards and two touchdowns when the Broncos were already getting pummeled by the Syracuse rushing attack. Western Michigan’s defense totaled two sacks and three hurries, hardly surpassable numbers against stronger competition. It also floundered against taller receivers — a fate that could bode well for 6-foot-4 Nico Collins. Saturday could be a breakthrough opportunity for the Wolverines’ unproven offense.
Michigan run offense vs. Western Michigan run defense
Michigan’s supposed running back rotation never came to life against Notre Dame. Senior Karan Higdon toted the ball 21 times for 72 yards and a touchdown, while junior Chris Evans recorded just two carries the whole night. Higdon’s touchdown — the offense’s lone score — came in what was essentially garbage time late in the fourth quarter.
The coaching staff clearly sees Higdon as a three-down back, despite rushing for only 3.4 yards per carry behind a flat-footed offensive line. If there was ever a time to rotate with Evans and No. 3 back Tru Wilson, it’s in the non-conference slate.
The running game should have no trouble getting back on track, though, against the Broncos. Against the Orange, Western Michigan surrendered 200 rushing yards to Eric Dungey, who now holds the Atlantic Coast Conference’s single-game quarterback rushing record. The Broncos also allowed five touchdowns on the ground.
Michigan is yet to establish a prominent run game yet, though history suggests that will be short-lived with Western Michigan’s front seven. Patterson doesn’t have to be a hero in this one.
Western Michigan pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
Cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich knew Notre Dame would catch the ball against his secondary. The Fighting Irish’s primary receivers were no less than four inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than his defensive backs, and their size was on full display in the first half before a relative shutout in the second half.
Safeties Tyree Kinnel and Brad Hawkins led the way with eight and six tackles, respectively, while fifth-year senior cornerback Brandon Watson intercepted a pass. Star corners Lavert Hill and David Long struggled early on, but regained their footing.
The defensive back rotation may not have much work to do given the pressure that Broncos’ quarterback Jon Wassink will face, but could see a different kind of battle on Saturday than they did the previous week. Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge, at 5-foot-9, put up video game numbers against Syracuse, hauling in eight catches for 240 yards and two scores. His counterpart, Jayden Reed, had a noteworthy seven receptions for 121 yards and a touchdown himself.
The numbers are jarring, but Wassink will likely have less time to throw. Michigan’s secondary is still elite, and will ultimately have what it takes to limit the Broncos’ aerial attack.
Western Michigan run offense vs. Michigan run defense
LeVante Bellamy has 4.4 speed and a solid offensive line that helped him pull off a 64-yard touchdown versus Syracuse. But he is largely unproven and has never faced a defensive front like the one the Wolverines boast.
Last Saturday, Michigan often found itself overcommitting against dual-threat quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who had success finding his receivers on crossing patterns or taking off running himself. But Wassink isn’t Wimbush, and the Wolverines mostly had success stuffing Notre Dame’s running backs.
Western Michigan doesn’t bring anything that Michigan either hasn’t seen or has gotten burned on in the past. With Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich coming around the edges and Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson crashing down, the defense should have its way on Saturday.
Early on, the Wolverines’ and Broncos’ special teams units are hardly differentiable, though Michigan holds the slight advantage. Sophomore Ambry Thomas broke off a 99-yard kick return touchdown when the Wolverines needed it in the worst way against Notre Dame. But sophomore Donovan Peoples-Jones misplayed a punt return to end the first half and showed little more. Sophomore Will Hart booted three punts for an average of 44 yards, compared to the Broncos’ five punts and 36-yard average.
Michigan redshirt sophomore kicker Quinn Nordin hit a 28-yard field goal, but missed his chance at a second when new holder Will Hart botched a hold. Western Michigan’s Josh Grant missed his only attempt of the year, but was 6-for-6 on extra points. Both teams have their respective issues, but the Wolverines have had the more concrete results to start.
Michigan has the most at stake given its expectations and desire to rebound. Patterson, while showing flashes of confidence, is still looking to prove his worth alongside his receiving unit. The offensive line, deemed a strength by Ruiz, needs immediate improvement.
Western Michigan is still working out the kinks with its second year coach Tim Lester. The Broncos are young and introduced the second-best recruiting class in the Mid-American Conference, but are still putting the pieces together after an undefeated 2016 season. That chemistry doesn’t seem like it can happen at Michigan Stadium.
The Wolverines have the upper hand in every category, but as seen on Saturday, improvement opportunities are aplenty. Western Michigan has playmakers, but its defense could face problems against a Michigan offense that is still figuring through things on its own.
Prediction: Michigan 41, Western Michigan 17