What to watch for: SMU

Thursday, September 13, 2018 - 5:42pm

Michigan's offensive line notched 308 yards on the ground last Saturday in a 49-3 win over Western Michigan.

Michigan's offensive line notched 308 yards on the ground last Saturday in a 49-3 win over Western Michigan. Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/Daily

The Michigan football team proved last week that it can still beat up on bad teams.

That isn’t anything new. The 19th-ranked Wolverines have blown out lesser opponents pretty consistently in coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure, though last season’s games against Cincinnati and Air Force weren’t awe-inspiring.

Still, after the Week 1 loss to No. 8 Notre Dame, Michigan (1-1) needed a big win to get a good feeling back into the program.

This week, the Wolverines have an opportunity to build some momentum, as SMU (0-2) rolls into town coming off two blowout losses to No. 15 TCU and North Texas.

The Daily breaks down what to watch for in Saturday’s seemingly lopsided matchup.

Continued offensive line improvement

Michigan’s offensive line has been the most hot-button issue over the first two weeks of the season.

After the loss to the Fighting Irish, many blamed the line’s poor play for the lack of offensive potency. Then, after the Wolverines’ 49-3 win over the Broncos, the unit was praised for its immediate improvement, albeit against lesser competition.

“(The line was) much better in week two than in week one, but it’s a work in progress still,” said offensive line coach Ed Warinner. “(It was redshirt junior tackle) Jon Runyan’s first two starts as an offensive tackle. He’s played solid and continues to improve there. (Fifth-year senior tackle) Juwann Bushell-Beatty has improved, and I think he’s played better as well. I still want them to push and develop.”

Runyan and Bushell-Beatty, in particular, were heavily maligned after the Notre Dame game, with some calling for their backups — freshman tackle Jalen Mayfield and redshirt freshman tackle James Hudson — to replace them.

That notion wasn’t quieted when Michigan dominated Western Michigan, and Hudson and Mayfield got in late during the game and played well. It may have even picked up steam after Harbaugh and Warriner both praised the freshmen.

“It was good to see Jalen Mayfield get in the game, it was good to see James Hudson get in the game and do well,” Harbaugh said during Monday’s press conference. “We’ve got good hopes for both those tackles. It’s kind of a race to see how fast they can get up to speed.

“... They’re in the ballpark (of starting). So that bodes well for us. (We) want depth there. … Whether they’re the best player at the position? Time will tell.”

That saga notwithstanding, the general message from the offensive linemen this week was a positive one, brushing off the criticisms from the past to keep an eye on what’s to come.

It’s hard to compare SMU’s defensive line to the Broncos’, just as it’s hard to compare a moldy loaf of bread to a curdled gallon of milk. The Mustangs gave up 239 rushing yards and had zero sacks against the Horned Frogs last week.

The Wolverines can and should dominate SMU in the trenches. Watch to see if Michigan can top its 308 yards on the ground from last week, how much Hudson and Mayfield play and whether or not the unit can continue its upward momentum.

Defense against tempo

Sonny Dykes, the Mustangs’ first-year head coach, brought with him an up-tempo, high-paced offense when he came from California.

In weeks one and two, that offense has struggled to get off the ground.

First, against North Texas, SMU had 48 total yards through most of the game. The Mustangs were down 36-0 until they scored three touchdowns in garbage time, inflating their offensive stats all around.

They did fare a bit better against the Horned Frogs, scoring on their first drive before floundering the rest of the game en route to a 42-12 loss.

When SMU did have success, though, its up-tempo offense was hitting on all cylinders.

The Wolverines struggled with that type of offense in the first half of the Notre Dame game before buckling down in the second half and then suffocating Western Michigan’s no-huddle attack.

With that said, it doesn’t feel like the Mustangs have a ton of hope of breaking out of their slump. But quarterback Ben Hicks did set the program record for touchdowns in a season last year, and there are some athletes on that side of the ball.

If SMU is to move the ball at all, it will likely have to click on all cylinders and give Michigan’s defense no time to breathe.

Hilarity

There is only one thing I feel confident in guaranteeing about this game. There will be something weird that happens, if not many odd things.

The Mustangs’ one touchdown last week came on a 51-yard touchdown run from running back Braeden West, who should have been tackled at least twice.

SMU then went up 9-0 on a play that I’m going to try and describe very carefully. For context, this game was delayed for hours by a thunderstorm. Alright, here we go.

TCU lined up for a punt with the ball on its own 28-yard line. The snap bounced off punter Adam Nunez’s hands, careening toward his own end zone. He scooped up the rain-slicked ball and tried to get a kick away, but the ball slipped out of his hands at the last second. The Mustangs’ Ben Redding tried to slide and recover the loose ball, but misjudged and kicked the ball through the back of the endzone for a safety. Truly an extraordinary football moment.

Later in the game, SMU gave up a fumble return for a touchdown when Hicks had the ball knocked out of his hands after a sloppy mesh point on a zone read.

Also, the Mustangs gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown to erase all hopes of a comeback against North Texas.

Bottom line and prediction

One of two things will happen in Saturday’s game.

Either SMU finds a way to hang around through deep shots and weird stuff, or the Wolverines dominate like they did last week in all facets of the game. My bet is on the latter, with some exceptionally strange plays along the way.

Michigan keeps its momentum rolling against the Mustangs.

Prediction: Michigan 45, SMU 6