Michigan football’s dominant opening win all positive, with one glaring exception

Ronnie Bell out for season with knee injury

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, center, prepares to take to the Michigan Stadium field with his team before an NCAA college football game against Western Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Ding) (Tony Ding, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ANN ARBOR, Mich.Michigan football did exactly what it needed to do over the weekend: dominate Western Michigan and start the 2021 season off on a positive note.

The Wolverines were solid on defense, better than expected on offense and overall looked about as good as anyone could have hoped.

There was just one moment that kept it from being a nearly perfect opening weekend: the injury to Ronnie Bell.

Ronnie Bell’s injury

Head coach Jim Harbaugh confirmed Monday that Bell will miss the rest of the 2021 season because of a knee injury. Bell wasn’t able to walk off the field under his own power, and he rode the cart into the tunnel a few minutes later.

Losing Bell is a massive blow to Michigan’s offense. He was already asserting himself as the No. 1 receiver for a third season in a row, catching a 76-yard touchdown pass, making a ridiculous one-handed grab (which was absurdly called back for offensive pass interference) and returning a punt 31 yards.

It was at the end of the punt return when Bell stayed down on the field, and even as Michigan dominated through the rest of the afternoon, the thought of his injury dampened the celebration.

Bell caught 74 passes for 1,159 yards combined in 2019 and 2020. He showcased his big-play potential against Western Michigan, but his true value to Michigan extends beyond those big plays. He’s the go-to target on critical third-downs and has the best rapport with starting quarterback Cade McNamara.

Ronnie Bell #8 of the Michigan Wolverines runs with the ball for a first down during the fourth quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions on October 19, 2019 at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania. Penn State defeats Michigan 28-21. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

As a senior who’s been contributing for the Wolverines since his freshman season, Bell is irreplaceable. His loss is a major blow on and off the field.

Offensive explosion

It’s hard to argue with Michigan’s offensive performance: 47 points, 551 yards, 7.8 yards per rush and no turnovers. The Wolverines had more touchdowns (six) than incomplete passes (four).

Even more impressive: They did it all while pulling their starters one drive into the second half.

Blake Corum was the obvious standout for Michigan, racking up 114 rushing yards, 22 receiving yards and two total touchdowns. His speed stole the show, but he also showed great elusiveness and the vision to find running lanes.

Hassan Haskins had a very typical Hassan Haskins performance. Nobody was talking about him at the end of the game, yet he still ended up with 70 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.

Sophomores A.J. Henning (73 yards) and Roman Wilson (43 yards) each took jet sweep handoffs to the house, and Henning also caught a pass for 11 yards.

Jackson State transfer Daylen Baldwin caught a 69-yard touchdown pass from freshman phenom J.J. McCarthy, who improvised in a scrambling situation and boldly heaved a pass clear across the width of the field.

Western Michigan has a terrible defense, so it’s too early to make lasting judgements about the Michigan offense. But the way the Wolverines sliced through the Broncos is exactly what fans needed to see.

Defensive progress

Michigan’s defense performed much better than I expected against a talented quarterback. In fact, Western Michigan very well could have been shut out if not for two flags that extended drives.

On the first defensive series of the game, Michigan had the Broncos stuffed for a third down and 10 at their own 25-yard line when David Ojabo was called for unsportsmanlike conduct while celebrating the play.

A 29-yard completion and a 13-yard completion were mixed in with the next several plays and set up Western Michigan’s first touchdown.

The only other score for WMU came in the fourth quarter, with Michigan up 40 points and Broncos starting quarterback Kaleb Eleby (for some reason) still in the game against the third-string defense. It still took a questionable running into the punter penalty to give Western Michigan new life after what should have been a three-and-out.

Seven plays later, the Broncos scored, but it didn’t really matter at that point.

Mike MacDonald’s debut was a success in Ann Arbor, as he managed to hold Eleby and company to 14 points and 317 yards.

Michigan scored so easily and often that Western Michigan actually won the time of possession battle at 31 minutes and 51 seconds. That didn’t phase the Wolverines, though, as they settled down after the opening drive and forced four straight punts to end the first half, including two three-and-outs.

Michigan’s defensive dominance extended into the second half, as Western’s first four drives ended in three punts and a blocked 40-yard field goal.

Daxton Hill was the star of the show, leading the team with six tackles and flying all over the field. He spent most of his time in coverage, with Brad Hawkins and R.J. Moten starting in more traditional safety roles.

Aidan Hutchinson was solid in his return to the field, racking up four tackles and Michigan’s only sack. He blocked the aforementioned field goal attempt, too.

A quarterback like Eleby would have torn up the Michigan secondary last year, so it was encouraging to see the defense rise to the occasion, even against a MAC opponent. Washington will present a much bigger challenge, but at the very least, it seems clear the defense won’t be a punching bag like a year ago.

Areas for improvement

It feels like we’ve asked this for three straight seasons, but will Jim Harbaugh and Josh Gattis take advantage of the team’s speed and get creative in the offensive game plan? The rebuttal is usually that Michigan didn’t want to show its whole playbook against a weaker opponent, but when has that actually turned out to be the truth?

Maybe Gattis will pull out some new looks against Washington, but even though it was certainly enough to overwhelm Western Michigan, the offensive game plan was a bit bland. This is a wait-and-see kind of issue -- Michigan can only respond by opening up the offense in future games.

Secondly -- and this was the one major red flag (aside from Bell’s injury) for me -- can Michigan’s defensive front get pressure?

Hutchinson recorded the only sack of the game, and while the Wolverines had six quarterback hurries, it wasn’t the type of dominant performance fans hoped to see against a MAC offensive line.

A lack of pressure has been the downfall of Michigan’s defense the last two seasons, and while Hutchinson is a proven pass rusher, nobody else on the roster has developed in that regard. Whether it’s Ojabo, Taylor Upshaw, Donovan Jeter or a combination of linebackers, Michigan has to do a much better job getting into the backfield.

About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.