After lighting up Central Florida for a combined 195 receiving yards and two touchdowns in their second game of the season, Michigan fifth-year senior wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson looked right on their way to becoming the best pass-catching duo in the Big Ten.
But it was a different story Saturday against Colorado. Chesson finished the game with no catches, and Darboh had just two. Each managed to score touchdowns using their feet — Chesson turning on the jets for a 17-yard end-around and Darboh riding some great blocks to turn a dump-off pass into a 45-yard score — but both struggled to find success downfield against the Buffaloes’ talented cornerbacks.
“Offensively, they tested us,” Chesson said. “They blitzed us really good. Also in the secondary, they tested us. But we didn’t respond as well as I’d like us to respond, and I think I can speak for the other leader of the receivers, Darboh.”
Colorado cornerback Chidobe Awuzie was a known threat coming in, but the added bonus of strong play from fellow defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon helped the Buffaloes shut down the Wolverines’ downfield attack for most of the game. Darboh’s touchdown and sophomore wide receiver Grant Perry’s 54-yard reception in the third quarter were the two longest passes of the day for Michigan, and both receivers did the bulk of their work after the catch.
Luckily for Michigan, redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight had a reliable safety net: senior All-American tight end Jake Butt.
After taking a number of hits early on, including a strip sack that led to a defensive touchdown for the Buffaloes, a rattled Speight was finally able to recover in the second quarter by targeting Butt on short passes that ultimately set up two touchdown drives.
Butt later downplayed his role in the momentum swing, saying that the offense was simply taking the opportunities the opposing defense gave it.
“That’s just kind of the way the shots were called on Saturday,” Butt said. “I don’t look at it like we were trying to get me the ball to spark the team — we were just calling the plays and I guess I would just pop open and Wilton just kind of found me underneath. … It’s always good when you can help your quarterback get into rhythm a little bit, especially when he’s getting hit or guys aren’t getting open as much as they would have liked.”
The Wolverines have the luxury of multiple weapons on offense if players are having an off day, and Speight has said previously that he would trust any one of his three favorite targets in a one-on-one matchup, no matter who is playing in the secondary. Chesson knows he still has that trust, but neither he nor Darboh were satisfied with their personal performances Saturday.
It wasn’t so much an issue of Michigan’s receivers being unable to create separation, he said, but rather not doing their part to make plays in single coverage.
“See ball, get ball,” Chesson said. “It’s frustrating for (Speight), I know, when he trusts us to make a play and we don’t make a play. It’s also frustrating for us, but whenever we get the opportunity when it’s a one-on-one or whatever it is, when the ball’s up in the air, that’s the mentality you have to have.”
The Wolverines’ concern at the receiver position can’t be very high — Darboh and Chesson were the third-best receiving in the Big Ten last year in terms of yardage, and that was with Chesson not really taking off until the second half of the season.
Still, Michigan will need all of its receivers — not just Butt — to be firing on all cylinders against tougher opponents down the road, and that fact isn’t lost on Chesson. In fact, he’s glad there’s still room for the offense to develop.
“You don’t want to say this is the best it can be, right?” he said. “Because if it is, you have lots of games to go. … It’s growing, it’s gonna continue to grow, and we have no option but to get better.”