Entering the season, the Michigan football team’s game against Washington was supposed to be a “measuring stick.”
The billing was attractive: a primetime bout between two Power Five teams; a look at offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’s third-year offense against a formidable opponent; a test of how much Jim Harbaugh’s new-look coaching staff could revamp the program by Week 2.
The Huskies’ Week 1 loss to FCS Montana hampered that billing, but the matchup still offered the opportunity to see how the Wolverines would perform against decent talent.
In that test, Michigan (2-0) scored well and defeated Washington (0-2), 31-10. For the second consecutive game, the Wolverines found the bulk of their offense in the run game and forged an identity around a single characteristic:
“If we would have an identity, it’s physical,” sophomore running back Blake Corum said. “Physicality. We’re real physical up front, real physical receivers, real physical backs.”
For the most part, that physicality showed itself most in the run game.
In the first quarter alone, Michigan tallied 72 yards on the ground, 49 of which came from senior running back Hassan Haskins. The one-two punch of Haskins and Corum that was so effective against Western Michigan continued to grind out yards, while the passing game mostly floundered.
Though junior quarterback Cade McNamara entered halftime with just four completions for 30 yards — 33 of which came on a single throw to junior receiver Cornelius Johnson — the Wolverines made up for that with 195 yards on the ground.
“The line really did a great job,” Harbaugh said. “I mean, obviously, if you rush for (343) yards, that’s gonna be the case, but it was even more than that. Washington kept changing their defense — from four down, to three down, to bear, to strong safety SAM blitz, corner blitz, double corner blitz — they were doing everything they could, but they were just having a hard time tackling the backs.”
Even with that fierce run game, though, Michigan struggled to score touchdowns early. A possession that opened with a 16-yard Haskins scamper inside the Huskies’ 40 stalled and ended in a field goal. On the following drive, a first-and-goal from the two-yard line resulted in a turnover on downs after a goal-line stand from the Washington defense.
But as the offensive line continued to assert itself, the breakthroughs arrived.
In the second quarter, that meant a 67-yard touchdown run from Corum following a gutsy fake punt on the previous play. Later in the game, successes more so came in the form of exhaustingly long touchdown drives where the Wolverines ate clock and barely — if at all — threw the ball.
Michigan’s possession beginning with 5:54 remaining in the third quarter epitomized that effort. In it, McNamara attempted just three passes for 15 yards — the only positive passing plays in the second half — while the backs combined for 45 yards on the ground. By the time Haskins ended the drive with a six-yard touchdown rush, just 13:56 remained in the fourth quarter.
“Going into the game, (we knew we were) not gonna win by throwing the ball outside the numbers,” Harbaugh said. “Those corners are really good, so we were gonna fare a lot better running the ball 52 times than we would’ve throwing it 52 times.”
Much of that same physicality defined the Wolverines’ defense as well. For most of the game, Washington quarterback Dylan Morris struggled to get comfortable in the pocket, thanks to a tenacious pass rush led by senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. Michigan tallied four sacks — three of which involved Hutchinson — and seven tackles for loss on the night.
Thanks mostly to a conservative pass defense that left short out routes open, the defense did concede 10 points late, but those late concessions didn’t matter much. Michigan’s ability to pound the ball on the ground left the Huskies without time to stage a comeback.
Even if the game wasn’t the marquee matchup it was originally billed as, it offered a reaffirmation of what seems to be the Wolverines’ identity thus far:
Establish the run, and play physical.