Amid fans airing grievances after the Michigan football team’s 24-17 loss at Notre Dame, it was difficult to focus on anything but the negatives of the Wolverines’ performance.
But with 48 hours to digest Saturday night’s game, a big picture outlook of Michigan football is in order. Or in other words, every cloud has a silver lining.
It was Week 1, with new offensive pieces, against a ranked team, in the Fighting Irish’s own stadium, nonetheless. The defense, especially in the second half, was mostly consistent and junior quarterback Shea Patterson showed glimpses of why he was already a fan favorite.
But no player took a leap and inspired new confidence like sophomore wide receiver Nico Collins.
“He seems to be catching everything,” said junior left guard Ben Bredeson prior to Saturday’s game, a foretell of his expanded role. “I’m no wide receivers coach here … but it seems like whenever we’re getting into the red zone or something like that — we need a touchdown — Nico is usually the guy getting it for us.”
The 6-foot-4 Collins was thrown into the No. 2 spot on the depth chart after Tarik Black’s foot injury. Hype swirled around as chatter surfaced about what the unproven Collins could do to fill the void left by Black.
“Before he got hurt, we always talked about what we would do in a game together — celebrations and whatever we had,” Collins said. “When he went down, our receivers got together and was like ‘Alright, let’s do it for Tarik.’ ”
Collins didn’t find the end zone on Saturday, but hauled in three catches for 66 yards in his starting debut — he tallied just three catches for 27 yards all of last season. The numbers don’t pop, but Collins proved his worth.
On the Wolverines’ first offensive drive of the season, Collins caught Patterson’s first passing attempt at Michigan with a trips screen pass, barreling eight yards after the catch through junior tight end Sean McKeon’s blocks.
To begin the second quarter, Collins was split left, and caught a six-yard slant for the first down inside the red zone.
And for his final reception, to start the second half, Collins outran Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love on a deep post and snagged an underthrown, 52-yard heave.
“Loved the big play,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Thought he did a great job of running his route, burst of speed and did a great job of tracking the ball — and that fantastic catch.
“Blocked well and consistently ran good routes the whole game.”
Added Collins: “It meant a lot to this team. We made an adjustment at the halftime. After I caught that we were just like ‘Okay, let’s go score the ball.’ Made a little spark to the offense, move the ball.”
For Collins, the promotion was quick, but seamless. Another year corrected a lot of mental lapses according to him, and being the next man up is something he’s been ready for since the spring.
“Last year I wasn’t ready, didn’t really know anything my first year,” Collins said. “The playbook is a whole different level than what I was used to in high school. Just having that first year under my belt, learning from freshman year, it kinda brought a little juice to me in the spring.”
But it wasn’t Collins’ own development that improved, but his connection with Patterson. According to Collins, Patterson is unlike any quarterback he has played with before, a proposition that forced Collins to change his attitude when running routes.
“With him, the play isn’t over,” Collins said. “We’re all trying to find ways to get open. Scramble drill and find the open spot. … He’s a really explosive quarterback. He can find ways to get the ball to you and find ways to make plays.”
For an otherwise stagnant offense, Collins’ consistency was a flower in a dirt field. Losing Black, of course, was painful. But after 60 minutes of Collins in the starting rotation, Black’s absence did not seem like a make-or-break loss. For a Michigan team looking to rebound, it can be thankful that it has at least one less issue that doesn’t need urgent help.