All the games count the same for the Michigan football team, but it’d be hard to fault the Wolverines if they looked past Massachusetts, their opponent on Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
No. 17 Michigan enters the contest as a 45.5-point favorite, the largest spread in program history. And for good reason, too — the Minutemen are in their first season of FBS competition after making the move from Division-1 FCS play. They spent last week getting throttled by Big Ten bottom-feeder Indiana, 45-6.
As if that weren’t enough reason to take this Saturday’s game lightly, the Wolverines are also well aware that a primetime matchup with rival Notre Dame looms just a week away.
But despite all the reasons to overlook Massachusetts, players and coaches alike insist that they aren’t succumbing to that temptation.
“I think we’ve done a nice job of taking them one at a time,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “But at the same time, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing. It’s really about us and how we prepare and how we improve and how we practice every week.
“Every week the discussion starts with us and what we need to do as a football team.”
Redshirt junior safety Thomas Gordon echoed Hoke’s sentiments when asked how the team was making sure it focused fully on Massachusetts, despite the apparent lack of a challenge that the Minutemen pose. Gordon pointed to Arkansas’ loss to Louisiana-Monroe last week to emphasize how any team could lose at any time.
Massachusetts should prove worthy of the Wolverines’ attention for a number of other reasons as well.
For one, it boasts a familiar face in starting running back Mike Cox, who used the NCAA graduate rule to transfer there after spending the last four years in Michigan’s backfield. (Players are allowed to transfer to another school without sitting out a year if they complete their coursework at their initial university and pursue a program at their new institution that the original school doesn’t offer.)
All week, Gordon and his teammates expressed happiness for Cox’s opportunity and said they would be rooting for him every week of the season except this week.
And anyone on Michigan’s team who arrived before Hoke became the head man last season will remember the last time that the Minutemen came to Michigan Stadium in 2010. Those Rich Rodriguez-led Wolverines won that game, but only after overcoming a stiff challenge from Massachusetts — they led by just four points at halftime and had to hold on for a narrow 42-37 win.
“I don’t think we’re particularly thinking about that this week,” said fifth-year senior center Elliott Mealer. “We’re, I think, focusing on Michigan more so. We obviously have some corrections we need to make on ourselves. … (But) that is a lesson — we know we’re going to get everybody’s best shot, so I think we’re always prepared for that.”
Mealer isn’t wrong in saying his team has plenty to work on. Luckily for Michigan, this game should provide plenty of opportunity for it to do so.
Hoke identified several areas where he’s looking for improvement on Saturday, among them increasing his offense’s time of possession and winning the turnover battle. (Michigan has a minus-four turnover margin through two games after finishing last season at plus-seven.)
But the facet that Hoke mentioned that most will be watching with a close eye is the Wolverines’ running game, particularly with redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.
Senior quarterback Denard Robinson proved against Air Force that his legs are once again a serious threat after he struggled in the opener against Alabama. But Michigan’s running backs have been stymied in both games, including Toussaint, who managed just seven yards on eight carries against the Falcons in his first game action of the season.
The position group to watch is the offensive line, which took responsibility for Toussaint’s poor performance. It’s still trying to develop cohesion after losing two starters from last season.
“There are some growing pains that go with that,” said offensive coordinator Al Borges. “But I think the more the same five work together, the better you’re going to see them play, and they did some really nice things in this game to spring Denard. … We gave him room to run, so now we just have to take the next step with our tailbacks. (Toussaint) and everyone else, too.”
Should the offense — particularly the running game — be able to find more consistent, sustained success, Michigan’s defense will find itself with less pressure on its shoulders after two subpar efforts to open the season.
The good news for that unit is Massachusetts won’t present nearly the challenges that Alabama’s uber-talented offense and Air Force’s confusing triple-option system did.
But just like the team at large, don’t expect the Wolverine defense to take the Minutemen lightly.
“You can’t overlook any opponent,” Gordon said. “We’re going into this week with that mindset.”