Coming off a primetime, nationally televised tilt against Washington, the Michigan football team faced a far more mundane matchup on Saturday against Northern Illinois. Speculation about how a young, inexperienced team would handle the stark difference in both opponent and atmosphere seemed valid.
Yet the Wolverines (3-0 overall) avoided a post-Washington hangover with ease, dispatching the Huskies, 63-10. It’s their third consecutive win in non-competitive fashion, building upon an impressive start to a season that began with minimal expectations.
“It’s very inspiring, the way the guys played,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game. “They’re playing so hard. Really tremendous play.”
As has been the case so far this season, a potent Wolverines’ rushing attack appeared to demoralize the Northern Illinois defense. The “thunder and lightning” duo of sophomore Blake Corum and senior Hassan Haskins again paced the offense, combining for 181 yards and five touchdowns.
Michigan’s run game proved methodical and relentless. Haskins churned his way in between the tackles, embracing his bruising playstyle with a one-yard touchdown run in which he leapt into the endzone. Corum flashed both his patience and quickness, repeatedly bouncing outside after the offensive line had already cleared a sizable hole.
Every play on the ground seemed to work against the beleaguered Huskies — even sophomore receiver A.J. Henning dusted the defense on a series of end-arounds.
In the second quarter, having already established a 21-3 lead, the Wolverines began to diversify their play calling. Michigan’s one-dimensional, run-heavy offense drew criticism the week after junior quarterback Cade McNamara threw for just 44 passing yards against Washington, a seemingly unsustainable imbalance.
On Saturday, McNamara surpassed that mark in the third offensive series, ultimately finishing with 191 yards in just two quarters of action. His performance was highlighted by a picture-perfect 87-yard touchdown pass down the sideline to junior receiver Cornelius Johnson, which pushed the lead to 35-3 late in the first half.
“Whatever team it is, that’s gonna influence what we call and what we run,” McNamara said, maintaining that the outside critique had no effect on the gameplan. “Whatever’s called and whatever’s run, it’s our job to execute no matter if it’s a run or a pass. We saw a weakness in Washington’s defense in running the ball and we took advantage of that weakness. Then this week, we saw a weakness in being able to take some shots, and we took advantage of that weakness this week.”
By complementing the rushing game with a more consistent passing attack, Michigan’s offense proved unstoppable, even as the backups saw the majority of second-half action. And if the 32-point halftime margin left any doubt as to the final outcome, the opening possession of the third quarter erased it. Corum tightroped the sideline for a 51-yard touchdown, adding to an insurmountable lead.
Michigan’s offense may steal headlines with the 63-point outburst, the highest single-game total since 2016. But its defense excelled as well, stifling a past nemesis in former-Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi.
Nearly a year after he picked apart the Wolverines’ secondary to the tune of 323 yards and three touchdowns, Lombardi failed to amount much of anything against the Michigan defense this go-around. He finished 9-of-17 for 51 yards, engineering just two scoring drives, one of which occurred with the game well out of hand.
In many ways, the defense’s performance reflects the team’s growth from last season to this one. The secondary, similar in personnel to the one that Lombardi torched last year, blanketed the Huskies’ passing game. Tangible progress like that begins on every single day that isn’t Saturday, so it’s no surprise that Harbaugh referred to this past week of practice as one of Michigan’s best.
After the game — in which a whopping 106 Wolverines saw playing time — Harbaugh noted that there are a number of players who are “getting used to being good.”
That holds true for the Wolverines in general, at least for the time being. Having emerged from their non-conference slate unscathed, Michigan enters the rigors of Big Ten play with both a bevy of optimism and an acknowledgement that a 3-0 record isn’t necessarily a harbinger of things to come.
“You don’t want to fall in love with stuff because you can get better,” Harbaugh said. “It’s kind of a race to see how good you can get. A lot of great things are happening when your players are playing as hard as they are. … We take that to the Big Ten season.
What we’ve done up to this point is good, but now it really starts counting.”