Throughout fall camp, the Michigan football team maintained that it had moved on from last season. Nonetheless, the Wolverines remained defined by last year’s successes — a triumph over Ohio State and a Big Ten Championship — as well as its death knell, a deflating loss to Georgia in the College Football Playoff.
Saturday, after an offseason of waiting, Michigan could officially begin anew.
The Wolverines wasted little time starting the season on a high note, crushing Colorado State, 51-7, in its season opener.
“The thing that strikes me the most is, the opener is usually when you get the most blown coverages or muffed punts or turnovers, and there was really nothing (today),” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “… I can’t really think of any instance from the team where I didn’t think that we improved from today’s efforts. Good learning experiences across the board.”
Senior Cade McNamara — appointed QB1 for Week One — engineered a scoring drive on Michigan’s second possession, needing just two plays to find the endzone. Junior receiver Roman Wilson caught a screen pass and burst down the sideline, juking out a defender on his way to a 61-yard touchdown, setting the tone for the day.
But, despite what the score suggests, the endzone became an elusive target for the Wolverines as the game progressed. On three occasions in the first half, Michigan settled for field goals after entering the red zone, with McNamara scuffling. Hampered by injuries to graduate offensive tackle Ryan Hayes and senior offensive lineman Karsen Barnhart, the Wolverines’ offensive line proved vulnerable. Michigan’s receivers — highly-touted throughout the offseason — showed rust, too, with a couple of dropped passes.
“It just looked like a first game, I felt like, on the offensive side of the ball,” McNamara, who finished 9-of-18 with 136 yards, said. “We’ve definitely got to clean that up and I’m gonna be a part of that.”
To move the ball against the Rams, the Wolverines leaned on last year’s bread and butter: the run game. While not quite the same bruising unit without Hassan Haskins, sophomore Donovan Edwards and junior Blake Corum produced 140 total yards and two touchdowns. Corum’s score late in the first half propelled a comfortable 23-0 halftime lead.
Under first-year coordinator Jesse Minter, Michigan’s new-look defense flourished, ensuring that the game stayed out of reach. For one day, at least, the Wolverines did not miss Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, with the defense generating seven sacks and consistent pressure along the line. Senior edge rusher Mike Morris, who contributed two tackles for loss, maintained that the defensive line played with a chip on its shoulder; the rest of the defense appeared to have mimicked that mantra, too.
“There’s been a lot of talk about that we lost a lot of guys,” sophomore linebacker Junior Colson said. “I just think we proved that we can still be dominant without them.”
They did just that against the Rams, also forcing a pair of turnovers — one of the unit’s concerted efforts during the offseason. Senior cornerback D.J. Turner notched a 45-yard scoop-and-score early in the second half to put Michigan up 30-0, erasing any concern of a collapse.
With the outcome a formality, Michigan gave fans a treat by turning to its Week Two starter, sophomore J.J. McCarthy. In what may be a sneak peek of next week’s performance, McCarthy flourished in the read option game, rushing for 50 yards and a touchdown — a performance Harbaugh dubbed as “electric.”
In the public eye, Saturday marked the first step towards replicating — and perhaps besting — last year’s success. Not everything was rosy, but the Wolverines merely did what good teams do, avoiding any notion of an upset.
Postgame, Harbaugh noted that he judges each game based on three criteria: winning, getting better and staying healthy. And with year eight of his tenure as Michigan coach under way, he could categorize Saturday’s performance as a stellar start.
“I just think it was a good warmup,” Colson said, candidly. “It was a good warmup game.”