On Saturday, the Michigan football team reminded anyone in attendance at Michigan Stadium for the Wolverines’ home opener that, despite a rout of Florida, this team is still very young.
Mistakes were aplenty in multiple facets of the game. There was blown coverage, fumbles and a myriad of questions to be answered on special teams. And by the third quarter, Michigan was legitimately on upset alert.
In the end, though, junior safety Tyree Kinnel and junior wide receiver Grant Perry managed to combine for the 14 points that the Wolverines needed to ensure they didn’t swallow a loss that would have jeopardized their season.
Here are five things we learned from Michigan’s first home game of the season:
1. The defense can be a crutch.
For the second straight week, Michigan’s defense put a game to bed.
Against Florida, redshirt junior defensive end Chase Winovich sacked quarterback Malik Zaire in the end zone. The ball came free, and senior linebacker Noah Furbush cleaned up the garbage — diving on the ball to give the Wolverines their final touchdown and a comfortable 33-17 lead in the game’s final two minutes.
When Michigan faced Cincinnati, it was more of the same. With just over four minutes remaining, sophomore cornerback Lavert Hill picked off quarterback Hayden Moore and took it to the house to put Michigan up by 22 and extinguish the Bearcats’ hope of an upset.
Hill’s pick-six was the second of the day, as Kinnel recorded one of his own to give the Wolverines a quick 14-0 advantage on Cincinnati’s second drive of the game.
The pick-sixes were the highlights, but all day, Michigan’s defense halted an upset-minded offense in a game that could have been a crushing loss.
The unit held Cincinnati scoreless after it cut Michigan’s lead to three on the first drive of the third quarter, leaving the Wolverines with some peace of mind despite a series of blunders throughout the game.
Once again, sophomore linebacker Devin Bush Jr. starred alongside Kinnel. The pair combined for 16 tackles and two sacks, while sophomore linebacker Khaleke Hudson pitched in six tackles and two sacks of his own.
For much of Saturday, Michigan’s offense sputtered and the Wolverines were on upset alert. The defensive unit ensured Michigan’s season stayed on course. And while they have yet to face an elite passing attack, we can likely expect that trend to continue.
2. Jim Harbaugh is dead inside.
It’s no secret that the Wolverines are young, and their inexperience was on display against the Bearcats. There was a collection of special teams gaffes, including a punt that bounced off Benjamin St-Juste’s leg and turned into a Cincinnati touchdown drive.
Harbaugh elected to replace freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones with Perry after Peoples-Jones fielded a questionable punt, but the former figures to still have his role intact — if for no other reason than that Harbaugh needs the Wolverines to accumulate game experience.
Harbaugh acknowledged that the majority of his team is going through certain aspects of the game for the first time — whether it be handling emotions, playing after a week of class or keeping nerves in check.
He admitted that he has needed to find a happy medium between taking a more patient approach and still not babying the Wolverines.
And in further explaining what he meant, Harbaugh employed an … intriguing metaphor.
“I’m dead in here,” Harbaugh said. “I’m burnt wood.”
3. You don’t want to make Rashan Gary angry.
On Michigan’s first defensive series of the fourth quarter, the sophomore defensive end came around the edge and laid a crushing hit on Moore. Gary was called for roughing the passer, and the play went under review to determine if he would be ejected for targeting.
It was determined that the play was not targeting, and Gary remained in the game. During the next set of downs, Gary looked like he had an extra gear — getting to the quarterback with a mission.
He dealt another blow to Moore, was credited with a quarterback hurry and very nearly a second and generally wreaked havoc in Cincinnati’s backfield before the Bearcats went three-and-out.
Gary has yet to record a full sack this season, but if the series was any indication, it’s just a matter of time before he does
4. Ty Isaac is separating himself.
For the fifth-year senior running back, it has been an up and down career to say the least. After transferring from Southern California three years ago, Isaac has struggled to put forth consistent performances and claim a significant share of snaps.
But on Saturday, he may have buried that in the past. Isaac rushed for 133 yards on 20 carries, and his long rushes came at crucial points in which the Wolverines needed to regain momentum.
More importantly, though, is that Isaac was the starter against Cincinnati. After rushing for 114 yards on 11 carries, Michigan’s coaching staff opted to go with Isaac instead of sophomore Chris Evans to open the game — and the former finished with 20 of Michigan’s 37 carries.
Then Isaac rewarded them for it.
5. BOLD PREDICTION: Isaac scores two touchdowns against Air Force.
If there is anything that could have made the last two games better for Isaac, it would have been finding the end zone.
He has racked up 251 yards on 31 carries but has yet to score a touchdown for the Wolverines. Still, Isaac has already recorded multiple big runs — during which he came one man short of turning it into a touchdown highlight reel.
Against Air Force, Isaac’s moment will come in a big way.