In a game billed to be Michigan’s first big test of the season, the results are … dubious. Sure, the Wolverines beat Washington by three touchdowns and its defense looked impenetrable for most of the game, when Michigan usually struggles in big matchups.
But also, how good is Washington really, and what in tarnation was that offense?
The Huskies don’t seem primed to be a contender in the PAC-12, and maybe the embarrassing loss to FCS Montana wasn’t a fluke. All told, this game is probably not the test we thought it would be when Washington was ranked 20th at the start of the season, and the “lessons learned” may just be built on a house of cards.
The running game, though, seems built with brick walls. It is a unit that, at least, can lead Michigan toward a season that matches its (more reasonable) preseason expectations. Doomsayers won’t have to worry about embarrassing losses to bottom-feeders Maryland, Rutgers or Nebraska if the Wolverines can pound the rock like that.
“It means a lot to me knowing that we have two solid running backs (and) that we can run the ball and do the things we’ve done the last two weeks, I think it’s phenomenal,” sophomore running back Blake Corum said. “It definitely puts other teams in a situation, cause you don’t really know who to stop.”
This ‘thunder and lightning’ pairing of Corum and senior running back Hassan Haskins offense is the new evolution of Michigan’s offense, closer to the early days of Jim Harbaugh. The days of Karan Higdon and De’Veon Smith, when running was the first-choice option and the floor seemed to be 8-5, with the ceiling one yard short of the playoffs.
The offenses of Michigan have evolved since then, but the one thing they all have in common is their ceiling: below Ohio State.
But that Washington game also gives glimmers of hope on the other side of the ball, the defense. One of the biggest weaknesses of last season for the Wolverines, the changes seem to have made this defense formidable. But shutting down Western Michigan, a good MAC team — but a MAC team nonetheless — and Washington, which scored seven points against Montana, aren’t necessarily good measuring sticks.
The stats are there for Michigan: It notched the third-most rushing yards under Harbaugh’s tenure on Saturday with 343. On the defensive end, it held Washington to 50 rushing yards.
Conversely, Michigan is averaging 33.5 more rushing attempts than passing attempts through its first two games. The next-closest Big Ten champion in the playoff era is Ezekiel Elliott’s 2014 Ohio State, which averaged 18.7 more rushing plays than passing.
But what made that team even more dangerous was its passing ability. It took big shots and kept defenses honest through explosive passing plays.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, have recorded 60% of their passing yards on two plays, both against Western Michigan, and are averaging 130 passing yards a game. They didn’t want (or need) to utilize the passing game to beat the Huskies, but that won’t be true forever.
Against teams as talented as the Buckeyes or Penn State, running every play won’t get you anywhere in an eight-man box. Junior quarterback Cade McNamara will need to be more than just the game manager offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has deemed him to be. To finish better than 8-4, McNamara will have to make game-changing plays.
Can he? We don’t know yet.
The great yardstick that was Washington turned out to be no more useful than the game against Western Michigan. The next test — a real test — for Michigan will be at Wisconsin, on Oct. 2. Until then, we won’t be able to figure out if this is a mediocre, good or great team.
Managing Sports Editor Kent Schwartz can be reached on Twitter @nottherealkent