This time last week, the Michigan football team was preparing for a nationally-televised primetime tilt under the lights at Michigan Stadium.
It’s safe to say that this week’s contest — a noon kickoff against Northern Illinois, a middling MAC program — has less electricity around it. Yet for the Wolverines, who are coming off a resounding marquee victory against Washington, it’s imperative to avoid any sort of hangover.
Here’s what to watch for this week as Michigan looks to remain undefeated.
How will the secondary fare against Rocky Lombardi?
Northern Illinois boasts a familiar foe in former Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who picked the Wolverines apart last season to the tune of 323 yards and three touchdowns in a stunning upset victory. Those within the program insist that Lombardi’s performance still stings.
“We know that was the quarterback from last year,” junior cornerback D.J. Turner said on Tuesday. “We just have to stay locked in and go 1-0 this week.”
Lombardi has mixed flashes of brilliance with stretches of futility so far this season, just as he did as a Spartan. He led the Huskies to a Week One victory over Georgia Tech, but proceeded to throw a pair of interceptions in an ensuing 50-43 loss to Wyoming.
Through two games, Michigan’s secondary has held its own, albeit against a pair of teams that emphasize running the ball. Senior cornerback Vincent Gray has seemingly rebounded from a woeful 2020 campaign, and senior cornerback Gemon Green has fared well opposite him, besides a couple of hiccups. To stymie Lombardi, both players must continue to build upon their early season success.
“They understand what’s at stake in the game,” Michigan defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said on Wednesday. “They’re ready to go.”
Will we see more of Cade McNamara?
It’s certainly no secret that the Wolverines prefer to run the football. Through two games, Michigan has racked up a whopping 678 rushing yards, demoralizing their opponents with steady offensive line play and the explosive running back duo of senior Hassan Haskins and sophomore Blake Corum.
That’s somewhat ironic, considering the fact that offensive coordinator Josh Gattis recently lamented his team’s disparity between rushing and passing last season. At the same time, the Wolverines maintained throughout fall camp that the ground game would lead their offense, and they’ve made good on their word.
For now, though, the emphasis on rushing the ball is certainly paying dividends. On Monday, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh had a very on-brand answer when asked about the stark disparity between the rushing game and passing game.
“Heard a little bit of noise about it,” Harbaugh said. “‘Why so much running? You gotta throw more.’ That kind of thing. There’s a lot of ways to travel. Some people choose to travel on the ground, some people by air. George Patton was able to get his job done on the ground. Neil Armstrong through the air.”
In small samples, McNamara has looked serviceable — against Western Michigan, he went 9-of-11 with 136 yards and a pair of touchdowns and followed that up with a mediocre 7-of-15, 44-yard showing against Washington. He hasn’t tried to force anything and, generally, has made the right read.
Of course, McNamara’s task is made all the more difficult by the absence of senior receiver Ronnie Bell, who will miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury. Without Bell, the receiving corps is largely inexperienced, placing more of a burden on McNamara’s shoulders in the passing game.
How much playing time will the freshmen receive?
There’s a good chance that this game becomes non-competitive in the second half, thereby providing an opportunity for us to glean another a glimpse of the future.
Michigan fans are still salivating over freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s throw against Western Michigan, a picturesque, cross-field 69-yard touchdown pass. McCarthy’s talent is undeniable — on Tuesday, senior receiver Daylen Baldwin, who was on the receiving end of McCarthy’s pass, didn’t hesitate to label McCarthy a “big playmaker.” Saturday may allow for McCarthy to see game action for the second time in his budding collegiate career.
Beyond McCarthy, freshman running back Donovan Edwards, the second crown jewel of Michigan’s 2021 recruiting class, could also crack the backfield picture late in the game. So far, Edwards has just seven carries for 31 yards across two games.
Though Edwards is evidently behind Haskins and Corum on the running back depth chart, he may begin to see the field more often; Michigan running backs coach Mike Hart said on Wednesday that he’s “got to get (Edwards) on the field more.” That may start this week against the Huskies.