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Why you shouldn't overreact to Michigan football's underwhelming performance vs. Middle Tennessee

Wolverines win sloppy opener in Ann Arbor

Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins (4) celebrates his touchdown with quarterback Shea Patterson (2) during the second quarter of an NCAA football game against Middle Tennessee in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins (4) celebrates his touchdown with quarterback Shea Patterson (2) during the second quarter of an NCAA football game against Middle Tennessee in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – For Michigan football fans who spent the entire offseason hearing about how dynamic the offense would be and how much the defense wanted to avenge last season's poor finish, Saturday's opener probably wasn't what they had in mind.

Sure, Michigan beat Middle Tennessee State pretty handily, outgained the Blue Raiders by 150 yards and was never in danger of losing the game. But it wasn't a crisp, dominant performance for the Wolverines.

Michigan turned the ball over twice, fumbled multiple snaps, piled up 55 penalty yards and allowed 301 yards.

There are certainly areas to improve, but Week 1 was far from a disaster.

New offense

Josh Gattis' offense was the most anticipated change heading into 2019, and while there are plenty of issues to smooth out, he passed his first test as a full-time play caller.

Michigan's offense put up 40 points and featured a very balanced attack en route to 453 total yards.

As advertised, Michigan used a variety of offensive weapons. Tarik Black and Nico Collins were the featured wide receivers, combining for seven catches, 129 yards and two touchdowns, but freshman Cornelius Johnson, sophomore Ronnie Bell and a host of others got involved as well.

Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins (4) celebrates his touchdown with quarterback Shea Patterson (2) during the second quarter of an NCAA football game against Middle Tennessee in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins (4) celebrates his touchdown with quarterback Shea Patterson (2) during the second quarter of an NCAA football game against Middle Tennessee in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Even without Donovan Peoples-Jones -- perhaps the team's best offensive athlete -- the talent in Gattis' arsenal was obvious. He has a deep wide receiver corps and showed a willingness to incorporate tight ends and running backs into the passing game. That should make Michigan dangerous.

In terms of the running game, true freshman Zach Charbonnet was as advertised, ultimately winning the No. 1 running back spot and rushing for 90 yards on just eight carries.

Christian Turner was solid as a backup, gaining 49 yards on 11 carries.

Bell dropped a couple of catchable balls and Shea Patterson didn't have his best game, but overall, there were glimpses of the offense Michigan hopes to ride to a Big Ten championship.

Defensive inconsistency

Don Brown has a lot of new faces starting on the defensive side of the ball, and early returns suggest Michigan might not be as dominant this season.

Other than Jordan Glasgow's two sacks, Michigan didn't get as much pressure as Brown would have liked on quarterback Asher O'Hara. Part of that can be attributed to MTSU's quick-passing game plan. Part of it is losing the likes of Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich and Devin Bush to the NFL.

Even if Michigan isn't a top three defense for the fourth year in a row, it should be a strong unit. Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas looked excellent in coverage, and the Blue Raiders were held to just 2.4 yards per carry.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh argues a call during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against Middle Tennessee in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh argues a call during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against Middle Tennessee in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

In the end, Middle Tennessee scored just three touchdowns -- two after Michigan turnovers and one against the second-string defense.

Middle Tennessee only had one drive longer than 50 yards, and it was the final drive of the game, with Michigan's starters on the sideline.

Middle Tennessee State

Michigan didn't look as impressive as the likes of Penn State and Maryland, both of which scored 79 points. But that's largely because Michigan played a much tougher opponent.

Middle Tennessee has finished with a winning record four years in a row. Last season, the Blue Raiders lost in the Conference USA championship game.

MTSU isn't a pushover. Should it be competing with Michigan? No, but in reality, the game wasn't very competitive.

The Blue Raiders are a solid opponent who put up a solid fight. In this era of college football, that shouldn't be a surprise, especially with Michigan breaking in a new offensive scheme.

Across the country

Michigan's struggles would be more alarming if there hadn't been so many underwhelming victories for favorites around the country.

Consider these somewhat unimpressive results:

  • Ohio State jumped out to a 28-0 lead in the first quarter against Florida Atlantic before losing the final three quarters 21-17.
  • Georgia failed to score a second-half touchdown against Vanderbilt.
  • Michigan State managed just 303 total yards against what was a porous Tulsa defense last year.
  • Iowa held a slim 10-7 lead over Miami (Ohio) at halftime.
  • Iowa State needed overtime to survive a test from FCS foe Northern Iowa.
  • Nebraska let South Alabama, a 3-9 team last year, stick within 14 points.

All of those teams are ranked in the top 25 and expected to be contenders in their conferences. They were less than dominant against lesser opponents in Week 1, but like Michigan, they found ways to win.

Consider how much worse it could have been:

  • Arizona lost its opening weekend game to Hawaii.
  • Purdue blew a 17-point second half lead to lose on a 56-yard field goal against Nevada.
  • Florida State spoiled a 31-13 advantage over Boise State by getting outscored 23-0 in the final 33 minutes.
  • Ole Miss was an underdog against an American Athletic Conference foe and lost, scoring just 10 points.
  • South Carolina dropped its opener to a North Carolina team that won two games last season and is breaking in a new coaching staff.
  • Missouri jumped out to a 14-0 lead before getting waxed for three quarters as a 16.5-point favorite and losing to Wyoming.
  • Tennessee got embarrassed at home by Georgia State, a 2-10 team a year ago that went into Knoxville as a 24.5-point underdog.

Power Five teams across the country struggled as big favorites this weekend. Think about how Purdue, South Carolina and Tennessee are feeling this week, and Michigan's comfortable 19-point victory looks a lot better.

Takeaways

The anticipation of Michigan's opener, especially considering the revamped offense and the high preseason expectations, has a lot to do with how the performance is being perceived.

As a top 10 team and conference title contender, Michigan is expected to look much more polished than it did this weekend. But that didn't have to be the case right away.

Jim Harbaugh has plenty of coaching to do over the next two weeks before a critical road trip to Wisconsin, but the pieces are in place for Michigan to compete in every game.

Expect to see a more polished offense against Army. With many people predicting an upset, the Black Knights should have Michigan's full attention.


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