Nothing against Butler – the redshirt freshman has performed well enough to share playing time with more experienced tight ends Tyler Ecker and Mike Massey in Michigan’s first two games. But Butler finished Saturday’s contest with three receptions for 26 yards. (Sophomore Mario Manningham had 27 receiving yards but just two catches.) When that stat line leads the team, it makes you wonder whether the Wolverines have what it takes to launch a successful aerial attack this season.
Even so, don’t make any “Chad Henne sucks” T-shirts just yet. Even though Michigan’s passing game has been unimpressive thus far, it isn’t as bad as it looks. It hasn’t had a chance to be.
In the Wolverines’ first two games a year ago, Henne attempted 75 passes, completing 39 of them for 450 yards and three touchdowns. This season, the junior’s production has been cut more or less in half. Henne has connected on 21 of 41 pass attempts for 248 yards and two scores.
The difference this year is that Michigan established a dominant rushing attack right off the bat. Through two games, the Wolverines have amassed 498 yards on the ground, compared to just 322 yards at the same point last season. Neither Vanderbilt nor Central Michigan could figure out how to slow down Mike Hart and the rest of Michigan’s deep, talented backfield. Why would offensive coordinator Mike DeBord decide to throw the ball and risk an injury to Henne when the Wolverines could pound it on the ground, control the clock and still score 41 points like they did on Saturday?
When Henne has been given an opportunity to pass, he’s shown flashes of improvement from last season. One of the few bright spots in Michigan’s Alamo Bowl loss was Henne’s newfound willingness to run with the ball when his receivers were covered. Henne will never be a scrambler, but he has continued to get out of the pocket and gain positive yardage when needed. In the Wolverines’ win over Vanderbilt, Henne finished with 20 yards on eight carries.
Michigan’s signal caller has also gotten better at throwing on the run. Saturday was the first time I saw Henne look comfortable moving out of the pocket and attempting a pass. In the second quarter, Henne rolled right and threw to Massey for a 20-yard gain. Late in the third quarter, Henne rolled left and completed a pass to Butler for five yards.
That said, the passing game will have to improve if the Wolverines hope to hang with teams like No. 1 Ohio State or No. 2 Notre Dame. As Lloyd Carr said after Saturday’s win, “Do I like where we are? I think we have to get better.”
The improvement needs to start up front. Michigan’s offensive line has looked great in running situations; the new zone-blocking scheme seems to be a perfect fit for the Wolverines’ slimmer, stronger linemen. But the o-line’s pass protection has been inconsistent at best. Michigan has given up just two sacks in two games, but both of them resulted from poor protection rather than Henne holding onto the ball too long.
Of course, it doesn’t matter how well Michigan’s offensive linemen protect Henne if his receivers can’t catch the ball. Against the Commodores, the Wolverines dropped a half dozen passes that hit them in the hands or the numbers and should have been easy grabs. Michigan’s receivers looked better this week, but there were still a handful of mishandled passes, with Steve Breaston once again the worst offender. Receivers aren’t going to catch every ball, but the Wolverines won’t be able to afford so many drops in the tough matchups they have coming up.
Perhaps the most glaring problem in Michigan’s passing game is the absence of the deep ball. Against Central Michigan, the Wolverines’ longest completion was 20 yards, and Michigan didn’t seem to even consider airing it out. In truth, the Wolverines haven’t had a consistent downfield threat since Braylon Edwards in 2004. Manningham showed promise last season; against Wisconsin he caught four passes for 106 yards, including a career best of 49 yards. But the sophomore has struggled to duplicate his impressive debut so far. Breaston has proven better at catching short passes that give him room to run than running deep routes.
“The deep ball will come,” Henne said. “But if we’re seeing the secondary drop back in coverage, we’re going to take the under routes. If they try to go man-to-man, we’re going to definitely take advantage of that.”
The Wolverines don’t seem worried about their struggling deep game, but I think they should be. Michigan might be able to run all over the Fighting Irish, just like it did against Vanderbilt and Central Michigan. More likely, this weekend is going to be the first time the Wolverines will have to throw the ball well in order to have a chance to win the game.
Michigan doesn’t have to turn into Texas Tech overnight. The Wolverines have a long tradition of riding a first-rate rushing attack and stout defense to the top, and I like that they’ve returned to that so far this year. But at least one of this season’s opponents will undoubtedly slow down Michigan’s running game. When that happens, a reliable vertical passing attack will be invaluable for the Wolverines.
If they can’t get one going, let the criticism begin.
Central Michigan: 17
– Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org