Michigan football desperately needs signature non-conference win over Washington

Wolverines host Huskies for night game at Big House

Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara plays against Western Michigan on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Al Goldis, The Associated Press 2021)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Seven years into the Jim Harbaugh era, it’s pretty easy to see what the narrative will be whether Michigan football wins or loses the Washington game on Saturday night.

With a win, Michigan will likely jump into the top 25 of the AP rankings. Fans won’t be satisfied, but they’ll be pacified, at least for now. The shortened 2020 season will start to look more like an outlier, and the Wolverines will have a legitimate chance to start the season on a nice winning streak.

But if Michigan loses? Oh boy.

This fan base doesn’t handle losses well, and the college football universe is always locked and loaded for an opportunity to bash Harbaugh. We’ve seen many times how that combination can create a toxic post-loss atmosphere.

The Washington game is one of the matchups on Michigan’s schedule that could go either way, and those tossups will determine whether the final record is closer to 6-6 or 9-3.

What we saw in the Western Michigan game was encouraging. Cade McNamara -- though not explosive -- was his usual, reliable self running the offense. Blake Corum played exceptionally well as a co-starting running back, and a handful of receivers contributed.

Michigan receiver A.J. Henning (3) and receiver Roman Wilson (14) celebrate Henning's touchdown reception with fans during the third quarter or an NCAA football game against Western Michigan on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (The Associated Press 2021)

Obviously, the first week wasn’t nearly as kind to Washington. The Huskies dropped their opener against Montana, scoring only seven points and turning the ball over three times. On defense, Washington was strong, holding Montana to 232 total yards. But the offense simply couldn’t keep up.

READ: How Washington’s loss to Montana changes feel of this week’s night game

Michigan’s defense has not been productive in the turnover department. Last season, it finished 120th in the country with three turnovers forced in six games. Michigan has ranked 40th (2019), 90th (2018), 81st (2017), 67th (2016) and 118th (2015) in total turnovers forced during the Harbaugh era.

Washington lost its opener because Dylan Moore threw three interceptions, but if Michigan can’t take advantage of his mistakes, the Huskies will have a much easier time putting points on the board.

Speaking of the Washington offense, former Michigan receiver Giles Jackson returns to Ann Arbor wearing the purple and gold. Jackson had 19 rushing yards, 15 receiving yards and 38 kick return yards in his Huskies debut. He’ll certainly be motivated to perform back at the Big House.

McNamara, meanwhile, needs someone to step up and fill the void left by Ronnie Bell’s injury. If he hadn’t transferred, that player might have been Jackson. Instead, some combination of Michigan’s young wide receivers will see an increased role. Cornelius Johnson, Daylen Baldwin, Roman Wilson and A.J. Henning feel like the obvious candidates.

RELATED: Despite Ronnie Bell’s injury, it’s ridiculous to suggest he shouldn’t have been returning punts

We still don’t really know what to expect from Michigan. Can the offense score against a defense that looked dominant in the opener? Are Mike MacDonald’s defensive improvements enough to keep the Huskies offense out of rhythm?

A win would go a long way toward erasing bad memories from last season. If Michigan loses -- well, you know how that story unfolds.

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.