The Michigan football team may play its easiest game of the season Saturday, barring further collapse by a Big Ten team such as Rutgers or Maryland.
This week, the UNLV Rebels (0-2) visit Michigan Stadium to give the Wolverines a non-conference tune-up. Brigham Young comes to town next week before the conference season starts, so Michigan would be wise to tighten up each of its units now.
Here’s what to watch for in Saturday’s game.
1. How does Michigan start?
The Wolverines have started the game on defense in both games this season and have surrendered long drives both times — a long field goal at Utah and an easy touchdown drive against Oregon State. Michigan has settled in both times but could use a better start this week.
UNLV, meanwhile, was overmatched against UCLA last week but did take a 17-3 lead early against Northern Illinois in the season opener. The Rebels’ slim chances of an upset would stay alive a little longer if they can get off to a strong start.
But the first quarter seems to point Michigan’s way. Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas seats 36,800, about one third of the capacity of the Big House, so that could be an adjustment for the Rebels. UNLV also hasn’t played in the Eastern time zone since 2010, and Saturday’s game kicks off at noon Eastern — 9 a.m. in Las Vegas. The Wolverines could let their fans relax a bit if they can take advantage of the time difference.
2. Will a backup quarterback (or quarterbacks) see substantial playing time?
Junior quarterback Shane Morris lost the starting competition to fifth-year senior Jake Rudock, but common wisdom — as well as the depth chart — implies he is still the No. 2 quarterback. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh confirmed that fact after the Oregon State win Saturday, even though redshirt freshman Wilton Speight, not Morris, came in to take a knee at the end of the game. Harbaugh said Morris, a junior who has seen game action, had come too far to be the quarterback who cleans up at the end of the game.
Morris could redshirt this season if Rudock remains the starter all season, so the Wolverines will use him only if they need him in a close game. Speight played just a few snaps against the Beavers, but if this week’s game turns into a blowout sooner, he could get a little extra playing time. We could even see a third quarterback, depending on the score.
3. What will Michigan’s defense throw at UNLV?
The Wolverines admitted they were partially caught off-guard by Utah’s up-tempo offense in the first game. But they returned to form by dominating Oregon State last week, allowing just 59 total yards after the first drive of the game. The Beavers also took one sack from Michigan’s Chris Wormley and completed just one pass in the second half. They eventually switched quarterbacks in search of a spark, but to no avail.
So what do Wormley and Co. have in store for the Rebels? Blake Decker started UNLV’s first two games at quarterback, but he is questionable for Saturday with a groin injury. If he can’t go, sophomore Kurt Palandech will get the nod in a loud environment. The Wolverines and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin could dial up the pressure early on to try to get to the quarterback.
Michigan has also made it a goal to force more turnovers. Its only takeaway at Utah was an interception on a Hail Mary at the end of the half, and it forced one more last week. The players and coaches insist their performances have been better in practice and that it’s just a matter of time before it shows up in games. This week would be a good week to start.
4. Does anyone besides De’Veon Smith have a chance at running back?
Smith, junior Ty Isaac, junior Derrick Green and redshirt junior Drake Johnson were all competing for the starting job in fall camp. Though the coaches were open to playing more than one initially, they said before the season they were looking to establish one as the workhorse. It appears after two games that Smith has become that guy.
In two games, Smith has 40 carries, compared to 10 each for Isaac and Green and one for Drake Johnson, who is still regaining full speed after a torn ACL last November. More notably, Smith has had success in those carries, breaking out for 126 yards and three touchdowns last week.
After that performance, the window for the other backs may be closing. If Saturday’s game is lopsided and one of the other three gets an opportunity, it might be one of their last chances to seize playing time before the De’Veon Smith Show keeps rolling into the Big Ten season.