ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football is coming off a dominant win over a Power Five program and fans are still angry. Oh yeah, football season is most definitely back.
But this time, is the frustration justified?
The Wolverines put together an impressive performance Saturday, jumping out to an early lead against Washington and never looking back. The final score was 31-10, and yes, Michigan was every bit as dominant as that sounds. The reason fans are worried: Michigan finished with just 44 passing yards.
It looks like a typo. How could a major college football team score 31 points in the year 2021 with only 44 passing yards? Washington wasn’t playing a service academy -- this was the University of Michigan. What gives?
The way I see it, there are two possible explanations: Michigan either can’t throw the ball or Michigan simply didn’t have to throw the ball. The former, obviously, would be cause for panic.
The clock hadn’t even hit zeroes inside Michigan Stadium when the rumblings started. “There’s no creativity to this offense.” “We want J.J. McCarthy!” “You can’t beat Ohio State without throwing the ball!”
If Cade McNamara, Michigan’s starting quarterback, has suddenly forgotten how to throw a football, then yes, these concerns are valid. Counter point: The four-star, two-time Gatorade Player of the Year from Nevada who had offers from Alabama, Notre Dame, Georgia and others probably deserves a little more leeway. It hasn’t even been 10 months since he threw for 260 yards and four touchdowns against Rutgers.
Saturday was definitely a weird game. McNamara attempted just 15 passes, completing seven of them for 44 yards. If you take out a 33-yard completion to Cornelius Johnson, Michigan’s other 70 offensive snaps resulted in 343 rushing yards and 11 passing yards.
Nobody thinks McNamara is a game-breaker. His job is to take care of the ball and run the offense. So far, he’s thrown 97 career passes without an interception and won all three games in which he was the primary quarterback -- I’d say he’s doing his job just fine.
But can he step up and be more than a game manager when the occasion calls for it? That’s a question we can’t answer until the time arrives. When Michigan visits Wisconsin and Penn State later this season, and especially when Ohio State comes to town, McNamara will need to open up the running game with his arm because those teams will certainly try to take away Michigan’s ground attack.
McNamara passed with flying colors the first time he was tested in a competitive game. Unfortunately it came against Rutgers, so that doesn’t mean much.
Now let’s consider the other possible explanation: What if Michigan is perfectly comfortable with its passing attack, but just didn’t see any need to use it?
Michigan’s two primary running backs -- Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins -- averaged 6.8 yards across 48 carries. It was pretty clear early in the game that the Wolverines could run the ball at will, so Jim Harbaugh probably figured, “Why do anything else?”
Not only was it enough to put 31 points on the board, but it also demoralized the Washington defense and shortened the game. Michigan basically saw an avenue to guaranteed victory and took it, even though it wasn’t glamorous. Isn’t that exactly what the coaching staff should do?
There’s no doubt McNamara and his young receivers need game reps to improve, especially now that Ronnie Bell is out of the picture. Was the Washington game an opportunity to get some of those reps in? Absolutely. Was it the best opportunity to do so? Probably not.
For all of Washington’s obvious faults, the defense is solid, and the secondary is excellent. It felt like Harbaugh and Josh Gattis identified Washington’s strengths and completely neutralized them by attacking the defense from other angles. Why give the Huskie defensive backs opportunities to change the game when Michigan can just pound the defensive front into oblivion and walk off the field with a convincing win?
Michigan fans have been trained to expect the worst, so it’s natural to look at Saturday’s box score and wonder how a team that can’t pass the ball is going to compete in the Big Ten. But let’s wait another week and make sure that’s actually the case before turning a very encouraging win into more cause for panic.
If Michigan only attempts 15 passes against Northern Illinois next week, by all means, sound the alarm. Until then, enjoy the fact that the Wolverines have a strong running game, an improved defense and a spot back in the top 25.