What we learned about Michigan football in opening win over Colorado State

Wolverines dominate in all facets for 51-7 victory

Donovan Edwards #7 of the Michigan Wolverines avoids a tackle by a Colorado State Rams defender during the first half of a college football game at Michigan Stadium on September 03, 2022 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Aaron J. Thornton, 2022 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich.Michigan football was as dominant as expected in its opening win over Colorado State, but what can we really learn from a blowout of this proportion?

Last season, fans used the non-conference schedule to fret over the passing game. Even though the Wolverines were blasting their opponents by an average of 36 points per game, all anyone wanted to talk about was the lack of a dynamic offense.

This year, the primary topic is the quarterback competition.

Everyone knows by now that Jim Harbaugh is giving both of his quarterbacks one start, and that will continue to be discussed ad nauseam no matter what happens the next few weeks.

We’ll get that topic out of the way first, but there was also plenty more to unpack from Michigan’s 51-7 victory.

McCarthy leads QB battle

Nothing could have fanned the flames of this quarterback competition more than Cade McNamara struggling to start the season, and that’s exactly what happened.

The incumbent starter completed just nine of 18 pass attempts for 136 yards and a touchdown. He missed Cornelius Johnson, Michigan’s No. 1 receiver, three different times and never really got into a rhythm.

Cade McNamara #12 of the Michigan Wolverines prepares at the line of scrimmage against the Colorado State Rams at Michigan Stadium on September 03, 2022 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2022 Getty Images)

His struggles were magnified by the fact that J.J. McCarthy came in and showcased his upside both through the air and on the ground.

McCarthy entered the game midway through the third quarter and scampered 20 yards for a touchdown on his first play. On the ensuing drive, he ran twice for a combined 30 yards and completed all three of his pass attempts.

His sample size was much smaller, but the fact that McCarthy outshined McNamara in McNamara’s designated start spoke volumes.

Harbaugh has deliberately given McCarthy every opportunity to win the job, and it feels like this weekend’s game against Hawaii could solidify a changing of the guard.

There’s hope for these edge rushers

In my opinion, the most important development of Week 1 had nothing to do with quarterbacks. It was all about the pressure generated by Michigan’s edge rushers.

Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo aren’t players who can just be replaced. Outside of quarterback, pass rushers are the single most important pieces in building a championship-caliber college football team, and Michigan is very unproven at that position.

But Saturday was a great start, as the defense racked up seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Colorado State is a bad team, but it would have been a major red flag if the defensive line couldn’t get pressure.

The Wolverines might not have any overwhelming forces at the position like they did last year, but there seems to be some depth with Mike Morris, Jaylen Harrell, Braiden McGregor, Derrick Moore, and Eyabi Anoma.

If Michigan hopes to replicate last year’s success, it has to pressure opposing quarterbacks. It looks like there might be some players on the roster who can do just that.

Michigan needs to narrow down crowded receiver room

Fifteen different players -- six receivers, six tight ends, and three running backs -- caught a pass for Michigan against Colorado State, but nobody had more than two receptions. It’s encouraging that the Wolverines have so many options in the passing game, but it would also be nice to see one or two go-to options emerge.

Maybe Ronnie Bell will recapture that role once he’s gotten back in the flow of the offense. He missed the final 13 games last season after injuring himself Week 1 against Western Michigan.

It’s also possible that McCarthy’s presence under center will change the target share, as he might have great chemistry with certain players.

When Big Ten season rolls around, and the Wolverines are playing the likes of Penn State, Michigan State, and Ohio State, the offense will need to tighten up the rotation and find out which receivers can truly be relied upon. It’s likely going to fall on veterans Johnson, Bell, Erick All, and Roman Wilson, but there are also younger players trying to push for more snaps.

There are two No. 1 running backs

A Week 1 blowout against a Group of Five team doesn’t always tell the full story, but at least for the opener, Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards shared touches almost equally.

Corum carried the ball 13 times for 76 yards and a touchdown while catching a pass for nine yards. Edwards finished with 64 yards and a score on 12 carries and one four-yard catch.

No matter how the carries are split up, Michigan coaches feel like they have two starting-caliber running backs. As for making up Hassan Haskins’ carries from a year ago, both Corum and Edwards got chances in short-yardage situations.

Harbaugh alluded to true freshman C.J. Stokes as the possible No. 3 back, and that played out Saturday. He carried the ball six times for 35 yards, while sophomore Tavierre Dunlap earned just one touch.

It’s a familiar offensive scheme

Everyone looked at the weapons and coaching changes this offseason and expected a revamped Michigan offense -- and that might still come to fruition.

But for one week, at least, the offense looked, well, like a Jim Harbaugh offense.

Michigan rushed the ball 40 times, and the starting quarterback threw just 18 passes. Harbaugh let McCarthy and Alan Bowman throw the ball a bit when they got on the field, but for the most part, the Wolverines stuck to the ground game.

There were very few attempts downfield, as Michigan preferred to dump down to tight ends or find receivers on short routes. The only truly explosive passing play was the 61-yard touchdown by Wilson, and that came on a pass caught behind the line of scrimmage.

The entire dynamic could change this week with McCarthy under center, but in Week 1, it looked like Michigan still wants to be a run-first, mistake-free offense.

Mazi Smith looks the part

All offseason, Michigan’s coaches talked about Smith’s incredible feats in the weight room. Well, that hard work paid off in the opener, as Smith wreaked havoc in the backfield with 1.5 tackles for loss.

Michigan defensive lineman Mazi Smith plays during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (The Associated Press 2022)

As the only returning starter on Michigan’s defensive line, Smith is one of the most important players on the roster. He isn’t going to post Hutchinson- or Ojabo-like sack totals from the interior, but if he can have a Maurice Hurst type of impact, the defense could be nearly as good as a year ago.

Smith was extremely disruptive against Colorado State -- a big reason eight of his teammates were able to join him in the sack column. Don’t underestimate how important his performance is to this team going forward.

Defense forcing turnovers

Michigan defensive backs were asked all summer about how the defense can improve from 2021 to 2022, and almost every time, they gave the same answer: forcing turnovers.

The Wolverines know they might not rack up as many sacks this season, but they want to replace some of those with turnovers -- and, specifically, interceptions.

Rod Moore #19 of the Michigan Wolverines reacts with Junior Colson, Gemon Green #22, R.J. Moten #6 and Kris Jenkins #94 after Moore made an interception against the Colorado State Rams at Michigan Stadium on September 03, 2022 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2022 Getty Images)

Rod Moore snagged the first pick of the season for Michigan, intercepting Clay Millen and returning the ball all the way to the 13-yard line. Michigan settled for a field goal, but it was still a huge play, and it happened before the game turned into a blowout.

The first Rams drive of the second half resulted in more Michigan points, as D.J. Turner scooped up a Millen fumble and dashed 45 yards for a touchdown.

Michigan’s defense ultimately outscored Colorado State 10-7, so new coordinator Jesse Minter has to be satisfied with his debut.

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.