Last week, the Michigan football team entered Notre Dame Stadium looking for a statement win. And as had been the case the previous 16 times the Wolverines played a ranked team on the road, they didn’t get one.
On the surface, a 24-17 defeat at hands of the country’s twelfth-ranked team isn’t that concerning. But aspects of Michigan’s performance were.
Western Michigan (1-0 overall) doesn’t provide a chance to snap an ugly streak or earn that marquee win. But it does supply the 21st-ranked Wolverines (0-1) an opportunity to shore up areas that cost them last week.
Here’s what to watch for in Saturday’s home opener.
Offensive line play
Shea Patterson spent much of his Michigan debut under duress. The junior quarterback was sacked twice and pressured on numerous other occasions — sometimes even left with no fighting chance just moments after the snap.
Simply, the Wolverines’ most glaring issue last week was its offensive line. But you wouldn’t have known it from what Jim Harbaugh said Monday.
“Yeah, I thought it was improved,” Harbaugh said. “We look at it and there was probably a few boxes that you check and say, ‘Hey, this is improved.’ That was another area I think was improved and we continue to get better in that area, but I think it was one of the areas that I think we’re improving on.”
Though many college teams have established chemistry by the end of camp, junior tight end Sean McKeon thinks more game experience will aid Michigan’s offensive line.
“I thought (the line) looked good,” McKeon said. “The offensive line, obviously, they gotta work to build chemistry, maybe even more than they tried to build in camp. So just got to build more chemistry up front.”
Well, Saturday is another chance for that — although one has to wonder if the Wolverines will consider playing redshirt freshman James Hudson or true freshman Jaylen Mayfield more at tackle. Senior Jon Runyan Jr. was noticeably overmatched against the Fighting Irish, but Harbaugh said he’s sticking with the same group of Runyan, Ben Bredeson, Cesar Ruiz, Michael Onwenu and Juwann Bushell-Beatty this weekend.
Regardless of who finishes the game, however, for the sake of Patterson’s health and his offense, Michigan’s offensive line needs to show improvement.
Tight ends, Oliver Martin
Michigan’s tight ends were the lone bright spot of its passing game a season ago. But against Notre Dame, McKeon as well as juniors Zack Gentry and Nick Eubanks combined for just 31 yards on five catches.
As 6-foot-7 target, Gentry helped the Wolverines pick up a first down early, but couldn’t pull down a catchable potential touchdown pass in the second quarter. McKeon and Eubanks, meanwhile, were held quiet by the Fighting Irish’s speedy linebackers.
Yet the ho-hum effort could be viewed as a positive for Michigan. The Wolverines finally got solid production from their receivers, who caught just two touchdown passes all last year. Though they didn’t get to the endzone last Saturday, Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Grant Perry and Oliver Martin were productive with 17 catches for 181 yards.
Now the challenge is ensuring the tight ends and receivers are effective concurrently.
When asked if Michigan would look to its tight ends more against the Broncos, Harbaugh on Monday didn’t give an explicit direction. But the answer should be yes.
The Wolverines need more from Gentry, McKeon and Eubanks. Combining the reliability the group provided last season with the flashes the receivers showed Saturday would make life significantly easier for Patterson.
And so would more of Martin.
In his first collegiate affair, Martin did exactly what receivers are supposed to do with a scrambling quarterback: find open space. On a third-and-seven late during Michigan’s lone offensive touchdown drive, Martin saw Patterson moving to his right and jolted towards the hash to catch a 21-yard pass.
“I had a seam release corner, and cover-2, and I kinda got bumped outside a little bit early,” Martin said on Tuesday. “So I got on the sideline quick, and then I saw Shea scrambling and kinda motioned me in. And I saw the defense kinda overplay a little bit, so I just cut back across the field and there was that little hole in the defense that he hit me on.”
Despite the lopsided score, the play didn’t go unnoticed. Receivers coach Jim McElwain mentioned that Martin and freshman Ronnie Bell would receive more playing time this week.
Josh Metellus’ (second) debut
Josh Metellus finished his day in South Bend after just five minutes and 54 seconds. Attempting to dislodge a pass on the Notre Dame’s second drive, the junior safety was called for targeting and ejected.
Cornerbacks coach Michael Zordich said the play made him re-examine how the targeting rule is called.
“Was it helmet to helmet? I don’t know,” Zordich said. “Looked like a shoulder to me. But you gotta be smart. The play was made.”
Sophomore Brad Hawkins was adequate after the ejection in replacement — besides allowing 43-yard touchdown pass to Chris Finke — but Saturday will be Metellus’ first true opportunity of the season. Despite being an All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2017, Metellus acknowledged he needed to improve in man and slot coverage — a priority across the safety position in fall camp.
And though Western Michigan is no Notre Dame, it has weapons that could make Michigan’s defense pay. Wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge caught eight passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse, using his straight-line speed to burn the Oranges’ safeties over the top.
Former Michigan receiver Drake Harris is also a threat for the Broncos — though he made only one catch last week. Still, there’s a rare challenge in facing a player who knows the Wolverines inside and out.
“We know Drake is a really good athlete. Hell of a basketball player,” Zordich said. “He can jump through the roof, so you gotta watch him. And then (Eskridge), really, damn good game last week. Really explosive, very fast, so there’s a challenge for (both) of those guys for us.”
Added Harbaugh: “(They’re) very aggressive. The game against Syracuse was a hard-fought game. They battled. So, that’s what we’re getting to know right now. We looked at the team in the summer. … Been impressed.”
Bottom line and prediction
Last week wasn’t a confidence-inspiring performance for Michigan. Notre Dame stepped on the Wolverines’ throat early, and even when momentum looked to swing, the contest never really felt close.
Thus, Michigan needs a strong effort from start to finish this Saturday. That means no early defensive lapses and while keeping its quarterback upright — in addition to capitalizing on redzone opportunities. It would take a lot for the Wolverines to fall, but a lackluster performance could further cut confidence in Jim Harbaugh’s team.
Prediction: Michigan 27, Western Michigan 13