6 positives, 5 negatives, and 4 questions after Michigan football’s win over UNLV

Wolverines take down UNLV, 35-7, in second game

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - SEPTEMBER 09: (L-R) Kris Jenkins #94 and J.J. McCarthy #9 of the Michigan Wolverines slap hands after a play during the second half of a college football game against the UNLV Rebels at Michigan Stadium on September 09, 2023 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Michigan Wolverines won the game 35-7 (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images). (Aaron J. Thornton, 2023 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Saturday was another businesslike win for Michigan football against UNLV, running out to a comfortable lead and then coasting to the finish line.

Other schools around the country have made bigger splashes, but the No. 2 Wolverines won’t have an opportunity to make a real statement until the schedule ramps up next month.

So for now, Michigan is content to exert its will on lesser opponents and avoid disaster. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from these early games.

Here are some takeaways from Saturday’s win over UNLV:

Positive: Pass rush

The most encouraging sign from Michigan’s second game was how much the pass rush improved. After failing to record a sack in the opener, the Wolverines had five in this game, and everyone was getting in on the action.

Derrick Moore blew past UNLV’s left tackle to pick up Michigan’s first sack of the season, and he was later joined by Kenneth Grant, Jaylen Harrell, Kris Jenkins, and Mason Graham.

East Carolina made a point to get the ball out of its quarterback’s hands quickly, and that’s part of the reason Michigan’s pass rush got off to a slow start. But it was still very encouraging to see so many defensive linemen get to the quarterback in Week 2.

Negative: Betting on Michigan

Sorry sports bettors, but counting on the Wolverines to cover massive spreads has not worked out well so far.

Michigan was a 36-point favorite against East Carolina in Week 1 and only walked away with a 30-3 win. This week, as a 38-point favorite, Michigan won 35-7.

Here’s the thing: Putting up massive point totals has never been Michigan’s M.O. under Jim Harbaugh. He and his coaching staff don’t care about style points. They want to win games and work on areas of improvement. If that means some underwhelming outcomes, it’s a tradeoff they’re more than happy to take.

Positive: J.J. McCarthy (again)

J.J. McCarthy was the No. 1 positive in last week’s article, and it would be disingenuous to exclude him from this week’s edition.

He completed 26 of 30 passes for 280 yards and three touchdowns in the opener, and then proceeded to look just as impressive the second time out.

Against UNLV, McCarthy completed 22 of 25 pass attempts for 278 yards and two scores. He averaged 11.1 yards per attempt and also rushed for 38 yards on three carries.

It’s only been against East Carolina and UNLV, but right now, McCarthy looks like one of the best quarterbacks in program history.

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - SEPTEMBER 09: J.J. McCarthy #9 of the Michigan Wolverines looks for yards during a first half run against the UNLV Rebels at Michigan Stadium on September 09, 2023 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) (2023 Getty Images)

His accuracy on the run and ability to maneuver around the backfield while keeping his eyes downfield have been total game changers for Michigan’s offense. He threw a dart to Tyler Morris on a big third-down play to keep the first drive alive, and then later connected with Roman Wilson on a beautiful play down the sideline.

On the next drive, McCarthy fired a seed through a tight window to tight end A.J. Barner on the run. A laser to Cornelius Johnson in between two defensive backs on the left sideline might have been the most impressive play of the game.

Negative: Backup quarterbacks

I’m not sure who Michigan’s No. 2 quarterback is, officially, but there still doesn’t seem to be a great option.

Davis Warren has showed some positive signs in the past, but he threw a bad interception on Saturday and hasn’t completed a pass in three tries this season.

Jack Tuttle gained 14 yards rushing during his only action, but he left the game injured after a late hit out of bounds. He had more career interceptions than touchdowns at Indiana and averaged just 5 yards per attempt.

Jayden Denegal made a really nice pass to Semaj Morgan for 35 yards on Saturday, but that was the first attempt of his college career, and I don’t see Michigan putting its national championship hopes in the hands of someone so inexperienced if McCarthy had to come out for a series or two.

Alex Orji is a player whose skill set really excites Harbaugh and the fan base, but we haven’t seen him at all so far this season. That could be because he’s being used in other ways, but right now, we don’t really know.

Positive: Blake Corum looks like Blake Corum

Corum, unlike Donovan Edwards, has never really been a home run threat. His value comes in how reliably he can pick up 5-8 yards per carry and keep Michigan on schedule offensively.

That’s exactly what fans saw Saturday, as Corum carried the ball 15 times for 80 yards and three touchdowns.

After his first two carries of the game went for one yard apiece, Corum got on a roll. Ten of his remaining 13 carries either went for 5+ yards or finished in the end zone.

Corum also caught two passes for 23 yards. He has five catches through two games.

Negative: Slow start for Donovan Edwards

Nobody is panicking about Edwards, but there’s no denying he’s off to a slow start this season.

After rushing for 37 yards on 12 carries in the opener, Edwards gained just nine yards on six carries this weekend. He’s always been more of a boom-or-bust runner at Michigan, so all it’ll take is one or two big plays to get him back on track.

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - SEPTEMBER 09: Donovan Edwards #7 of the Michigan Wolverines runs with the ball for extra yardage against BJ Harris #27 of the UNLV Rebels during the second half of a college football game at Michigan Stadium on September 09, 2023 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Michigan Wolverines won the game 35-7 (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images). (2023 Getty Images)

For now, though, Edwards is more of a receiving threat than a rushing threat. He’s caught nine passes for 59 yards already, including five more catches against UNLV.

Michigan tried to find creative ways to get him going on the ground, including a deep pitch to get him in space. They didn’t have much success.

Positive: Defensive tackles

The defensive tackles deserve their own recognition separate from the pass rush, because Michigan might have the best interior defensive line trio in college football.

Nobody on the defense has looked more impressive than Grant through two games. He didn’t record any stats in the opener, but he was a menace, blowing up run plays and getting into the backfield.

On Saturday, Grant broke through with 1.5 sacks and four tackles. He even batted down a third-down pass for good measure.

Jenkins was the one who joined Grant for the other half of his second sack, and he also led the Wolverines with five tackles and three solo tackles.

Graham had five tackles, two solo tackles, got in on a sack, and also had an additional tackle for loss. He was one of the team’s most impactful true freshmen last season, and now, alongside Grant and Jenkins, Graham looks even more impressive.

East Carolina averaged 4 yards per rush against Michigan, and UNLV only averaged 2. Those defensive tackles are the main reason for that success.

Negative: Secondary injuries

Michigan’s coaching staff doesn’t seem overly concerned about the injuries in the secondary, but it would still be nice to see the top unit get some time on the field together before the tougher games roll around.

After missing Week 1, star cornerback Will Johnson returned to the field for a few plays against UNLV, but he still spent most of the day on the sideline.

Top safety Rod Moore missed his second game in a row, and although he might have played against a tougher opponent, these are the games he’d like to use to shake off any rust.

Safety Makari Paige played in the opener, but he was ruled out due to injury before Saturday’s game. He has a chance to return next week, but it just adds another defensive back to keep an eye on.

Positive: Tyler Morris

One of my top questions about Michigan’s offense going into Saturday was who would grab hold of the No. 3 receiver spot. Harbaugh hinted this offseason that Morris might be that guy, and that seemed to be the case against UNLV.

READ: Michigan might have better trio of wide receivers than expected

Morris caught important third-down passes from McCarthy on each of the first two drives, and he finished the game with three grabs for 40 yards.

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - SEPTEMBER 09: Tyler Morris #8 of the Michigan Wolverines runs with the ball past Fred Thompkins #10 of the UNLV Rebels during the second half of a college football game at Michigan Stadium on September 09, 2023 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Michigan Wolverines won the game 35-7 (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images). (2023 Getty Images)

A high-end four-star prospect and borderline top 100 player coming out of high school, Morris was expected to contribute early and often in his Michigan career. But an injury during his senior year of high school set him back a bit.

It looks like he’s getting back up to speed. His catches on the first two drives went for 15 and 16 yards over the middle of the field. McCarthy seems to have trust in the sophomore.

Negative: Quest for shutout

Defenses love shutting out their opponents. I remember how big of a deal it was when Michigan shut out BYU, Maryland, and Northwestern in consecutive weeks in 2015.

It’s hard to shut out a Big Ten team, so if Michigan wants to have a shutout on the resume this season, it’s probably going to have to come in the first three weeks.

Well, the Wolverines came close each of the first two games, but couldn’t quite get the job done. East Carolina kicked the saddest last-second field goal you’ll ever see to get on the board in Week 1, and UNLV found the end zone with under three minutes to play in Week 2.

The first-string defense has yet to give up a point, but earning a shutout is often a roster-wide effort. There’s one more chance against Bowling Green before conference play begins.

Positive: Max Bredeson

You probably won’t hear much about Bredeson throughout the season, but you’ll see No. 44 on the field a whole lot.

Bredeson is a walk-on redshirt sophomore who made five catches last season and will probably end up with around the same number in 2023.

But the coaching staff trusts him, and he’s a major asset in Michigan’s rushing attack.

Look at McCarthy’s first run of the season, for example. Bredeson got the key block that allowed his quarterback to turn the corner and get upfield for 17 yards.

It’s not just the offensive line and talented running backs that make Michigan a dominant rushing team. The creative way Harbaugh uses tight ends like Bredeson is an under-appreciated factor.

Question: Is Michigan’s offensive line good, but not dominant?

Michigan had the best offensive line in the country each of the past two seasons, and most fans understood that probably wasn’t going to be the case after losing Olu Oluwatimi and Ryan Hayes to the NFL.

So far, through two games against inferior opponents, Michigan is averaging just 4.7 yards per rush, as opposed to 5.6 and 5.2 yards each of the past two full seasons.

McCarthy’s ability to avoid pressure has kept him from taking a sack through two games, but it’s worth asking if Michigan is just very good along the line, instead of dominant.

Question: How much will McCarthy actually run the football?

Nobody wants McCarthy taking hits in these early games -- especially considering how well he’s playing and how weak the depth chart looks behind him.

But he does have the ability to run the football, as he showed on that 17-yard keeper to the 2-yard line on Saturday.

Is Michigan just keeping this in its back pocket until bigger games, or is it a season-long plan to protect McCarthy as much as possible?

Question: Can Roman Wilson finish top 5 in receiving touchdowns?

McCarthy has thrown five touchdown passes so far this season, and Wilson has caught every single one of them.

Through two games, half of Wilson’s catches have gone for touchdowns, and he’s already set a new career high for scores in a season.

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - SEPTEMBER 09: Roman Wilson #1 of the Michigan Wolverines reacts after scoring a touchdown during the first half of a college football game against the UNLV Rebels at Michigan Stadium on September 09, 2023 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images) (2023 Getty Images)

He obviously won’t keep up this pace, but if Wilson can catch six more touchdown passes before the year is over, he’ll move into a tie for seventh in terms of most single-season touchdown grabs in Michigan history.

What if he averages one more touchdown per game the rest of the regular season? Wilson would have 15 scores, tying him with Braylon Edwards (2004) for second all time.

Desmond Howard holds the single-season school record with 19 touchdown catches in 1991.

Question: Will offensive balance continue?

So far, Michigan has made good on its promise to be a more balanced offense. Through two games, the Wolverines have thrown 59 passes and attempted 64 runs.

The passing game has been much more effective to this point, partly because McCarthy has been on another level and partly because East Carolina and UNLV know the program’s rushing prowess.

Will that run-pass ratio continue, even when Harbaugh returns to the sideline?

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.