The Michigan football team earned another unexciting victory.
For the second straight week, the Wolverines rolled to an easy win at Michigan Stadium, this time against UNLV, 28-7. Michigan plowed through the Rebels’ defense for 254 rushing yards, 6.5 per carry. Though two long plays provided a few fireworks, the ground game again featured mostly short runs up the middle, while the defense stifled UNLV to protect a comfortable lead.
While Saturday’s game unfolded in a similar fashion to last week’s, the Wolverines did unveil some new wrinkles in moving to 2-1 on the season.
Here are five things we learned from Michigan’s win:
1. Michigan has a running back situation, if not a controversy
After the game, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh refused to acknowledge a running back controversy between the Wolverines’ ball carriers.
“It’s as clear as I can tell you,” Harbaugh said. “The more good players that we can have, the better for our football team. We’re encouraging that as much as we possibly can, and our players are responding to it.”
Still, Saturday’s game considered, Michigan has a decision at the very least.
Junior De’Veon Smith headed into the day as the clear No. 1 running back after rushing 23 times for 126 yards against Oregon State. But Smith couldn’t get going against UNLV, totaling just 33 yards on 13 carries. Midway through the third quarter, his last two runs were stopped at the line of scrimmage on 3rd– and 4th-and-1 from the UNLV 36-yard line. Redshirt junior Drake Johnson and junior Ty Isaac — who ran for a 76-yard touchdown in the second quarter — took over the workload from there.
Johnson and Isaac both dwarfed Smith in yards per carry, perhaps giving themselves an opportunity to see more playing time moving forward. Smith still received as many carries as Johnson and Isaac combined, though, and he’ll likely be the starter again next week. But Harbaugh and the staff proved they aren’t afraid to feed the hot hand, so Johnson or Isaac could see their numbers called again at some point.
2. The Michigan secondary might finally be worth fearing
The Wolverines have insisted they’ve seen their defense force loads of turnovers in practice, just not in games yet. Losing the turnover battle likely cost them the game at Utah in the season opener.
So they made it a goal to change that Saturday against an overmatched UNLV team, and they accomplished it.
“You’ve got to have that, or the (opposing) offense has no fear when it comes to throwing the ball,” Harbaugh said. “The more you can get your hands on the football, the tighter you make the quarterbacks throw, and the execution and the timing has got to be really good by an offense. Can’t just feel like they can throw it into your secondary with no consequences.”
The Michigan secondary gave both UNLV quarterbacks problems all afternoon. The Rebels started Blake Decker, who was questionable with a groin injury, and he threw two interceptions. Backup Kurt Palandech came in for part of the second half and went 6-for-10 for just 47 yards.
3. Jake Rudock’s turnover problem is not yet solved
Michigan passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch said Wednesday that if Rudock could just string together a few games with no interceptions, he could bring down his average from two per game, where it was last week.
Rudock is now averaging fewer than two, but he did throw his fifth pick of the year against UNLV, bringing him to his 2014 season total at Iowa. This one came early in the second quarter with Michigan ahead, 14-0. Redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers had just returned a punt 24 yards to the Michigan 48-yard line, so the Wolverines had a short field to build on their lead.
Redshirt freshman Wilton Speight has come in to run out the clock in each of the past two weeks, so Michigan’s apparent plan is to redshirt junior Shane Morris and stick with Rudock. That said, Rudock will have to limit his miscues going forward in order for the Wolverines to keep winning.
4. John Baxter’s methods are showing progress
Harbaugh brought the highly respected Baxter to Ann Arbor to manage the special teams after a year off last season. Michigan’s unit was average at best in 2014.
Baxter’s coaching appears to be showing results, though they might be small. The Wolverines were within inches of blocking multiple punts against Oregon State, and the effort was more tangible this week. Peppers broke six tackles on his 24-yard punt return — for context, Michigan had 13 returns for 88 yards all of last season.
Fifth-year senior punter Blake O’Neill also continued to improve, pinning UNLV inside its own 20 four times in five tries and booting two more than 50 yards. He did, however, shank one kick that went just 17 yards.
5. Bold Prediction: Peppers will score a touchdown in the next two weeks.
Peppers drew tremendous hype as a five-star defensive back recruit last year, most notably a comparison to Charles Woodson. To be fair, it was probably unrealistic to expect a player to make significant contributions in all three phases of the game as a freshman.
Peppers brought Michigan fans back down to Earth after he injured his ankle early in the season, playing in just three games.
But he has returned to form this year, proving that the hype was warranted. He has started every game at safety and been an asset to the Michigan secondary, so there’s always the small possibility he could run back an interception. He has been the Wolverines’ most active playmaker in the return game. Though he has been forced to call for several fair catches, he has a 36-yard kick return and Saturday’s electrifying 24-yard punt return.
And it wouldn’t be a shock to see him on offense when Big Ten play starts Oct. 3 — no one in the program has ruled it out.
There’s a big difference between almost running a kick back and actually doing it, but Peppers is getting closer.