After a lackluster offensive performance against Arkansas State last week, first-year coach Stanford Lipsey hit a crossroads in our NCAA 14 simulation of Michigan football.
Defenses clearly figured out how to slow down the “throw it to Nico Collins” philosophy that worked so well in the opener against then-No. 4 Washington. The Wolverines will need to find other ways to move the ball, especially when the toughest part of the schedule arrives in November.
Luckily for Michigan, it opens up Big Ten play with three of the conference’s bottom feeders — Northwestern, Maryland and Rutgers — offering ample opportunity to experiment with new looks and get the offense back on the right track.
Game 5: No. 3 Michigan vs Northwestern
Over the years, this particular matchup has developed a special talent to age viewers by decades. What I mean is, games between the Wildcats and Wolverines are terrible.
How can we ever forget the 2014 meeting, forever enshrined as the M00N game because of the scoreboard’s endless display of 0-0? Or the previous year’s matchup, where Michigan won in overtime after neither team scored a single touchdown in regulation?
This game was no exception. It felt like a Michigan v. Northwestern game from the very first drive, when redshirt junior quarterback Dylan McCaffrey fumbled the ball on a scramble at the Wildcats’ 15-yard line. The horrors continued three minutes later, when Lipsey inexplicably elected to punt on a fourth-and-1 at Northwestern’s 40-yard line.
But the Wolverines’ luck turned late in the second quarter. After McCaffrey found sophomore wide receiver Mike Sainristil in the endzone to open the scoring with 54 seconds remaining, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald decided to be aggressive and go for a game-tying touchdown, a strategy unheard of between these two teams.
Sophomore cornerback Vincent Gray intercepted the pass and a touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Nico Collins followed moments later. It was the last touchdown of the day and Michigan won, 17-6. Stat of the day: On eight combined red zone trips, the two teams totaled two touchdowns and one field goal.
Game 6: No. 2 Michigan at Maryland
The Wolverines’ offense did its job. Sophomore wide receiver Giles Jackson cut through the defense, notching 139 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches. All season long, he’s been a huge part of a deep receiving corps that’s earned Michigan the second-best passing offense in the country.
This time, it was the Wolverines’ defense that prevented a blowout victory. Michigan won, 34-29, but the Terrapins’ 460 yards of offense — 360 of which came through the air — kept the game close throughout. Maryland wide receiver Brian Cobbs torched defensive backs all game, pulling in nine catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
After 55 minutes of being straw men, the defense finally stepped up on the final drive of the game. Led by quarterback Josh Jackson, the Terrapins made their way into Michigan territory before a third-down sack by senior defensive end Kwity Paye shut down any hopes for a comeback.
It was an ugly win, but the Wolverines are still undefeated halfway through the season. They’ll be fine.
Game 7: No. 2 Michigan vs Rutgers
On the first play from scrimmage, McCaffrey found Collins for a 75-yard touchdown. The next drive, he threw another touchdown to Jackson. The drive after that, Jackson again.
Michigan won, 52-14, on a Heisman-level performance from McCaffrey. His 21-for-31 passing night resulted in 430 yards and five touchdowns. Four of those were caught by Jackson, tying the record for most receiving touchdowns in a single game in school history.
Across the board, the Wolverines put up similarly ludicrous numbers. Rutgers totaled 283 total yards, but only 45 of them came on the ground. In their six trips to the red zone, the Scarlet Knights scored just two touchdowns and no field goals. Even Michigan’s punting was dominant — each of its punts went for 52 yards and no return.
In the end, the No. 2 team in the country was playing Rutgers. You can fill in the rest of the equation.
Around the country
Last week, I called the situation around the country “markedly ordinary.” That take aged poorly.
I’ll get right to it: Indiana is ranked seventh. The team it replaced? Ohio State, which dropped to No. 13 after losing at home to now-No. 11 Cincinnati. Arizona State snuck up to No. 9 after a big win against No. 25 Colorado, which is, in this game, still coached by a virtual Mel Tucker who follows through on his promises. LSU dropped out of the rankings, after losing three consecutive games to No. 14 Mississippi State, No. 3 Florida and Tennessee.
McCaffrey’s performance against Rutgers propelled him to third in the Heisman watch, behind Alabama running back Najee Harris and Boston College running back David Bailey.
Michigan’s pretty happy with 7-0 right now, but it can’t get too comfortable. Its next three games, against rival Michigan State, Penn State and the seventh-ranked Hoosiers, will be a real test of the team’s toughness.