ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Thank goodness that’s over. Michigan’s noncompetitive nonconference ended mercifully Saturday against no-contest UConn. The Big Ten schedule is next, and the 3-0 Wolverines might muster one concern: Don’t fall for the con.
They beat Connecticut 59-0 at Michigan Stadium, again showing they can dominate a lesser foe without flexing, or barely sweating. With previous victories against Colorado State and Hawaii, they’ve outscored the opposition 166-17, including 103-0 in the first halves. Impressive? Sure. Impactful and sustainable? Not sure.
By the gaudy numbers, they look excellent. By quality of the competition, they look untested. Heading into the conference opener against Maryland, they can’t be deluded by their own dominance.
We saw loads of touchdowns and yards, but what did we really learn after a ridiculously unchallenging slate? We learned the identity of the starting quarterback, J.J McCarthy, who was accurate again, 15-for-18 passing for 214 yards. He’ll have to keep excelling because backup Cade McNamara suffered another blow, injuring a leg late in the first half. Jim Harbaugh estimated he’d be out a few weeks.
We learned Blake Corum isn’t just a big-play back, but can plow for the short yards, scoring five touchdowns on runs of 20, 1, 1, 1, and 11 yards. Donovan Edwards missed the game with an injury but could be back soon. Going forward, the Wolverines will need him.
Corum, who rushed for 71 yards, was asked if they truly can tell how good they are.
“Nah, you don’t know,” Corum said. “I don't know how good we are. I feel like we look good. We haven't faced no adversity, so I really don't know how good we're going to be. I feel like we're gonna be great, but I can't tell you.”
Proceed with caution
I think we learned, or relearned, Michigan’s special teams are a strength — 61-yard punt return TD by A.J. Henning and a blocked punt. We learned the Wolverines have more than two quarterbacks, and as the score mounted, Harbaugh channeled his inner Oprah: “You get a snap! You get a snap!” Seven quarterbacks played, including the apparent new backup Davis Warren, as well as Alex Orji, Andy Maddox, Alan Bowman and Brandon Mann. If you knew all those names, I assume you’re a family member.
Michigan is the fourth-ranked team in the country, which doesn’t mean it’s the fourth-best team. But with so many powers falling and the Big Ten looking jumbled, the Wolverines belong where they are. The point totals are so dizzying, you know they can’t possibly translate against real competition.
“We'll find out, right?” Harbaugh said. “We definitely come out of this one with some things to work on. But just the improvement, we’ve seen it in so many different areas of our team from Game 1 to Game 3. We got guys that are hungry to play, starters, backups. … I mean, you'd probably agree it's a good-looking team.”
In a vacuum, no one would disagree. The Wolverines are averaging 55.3 points and 497 yards per game, while allowing 5.7 points and 194 yards. Objectively, Colorado State, Hawaii and Connecticut are three of the worst teams in FBS college football. But the Wolverines deserve credit for not slopping around and losing focus. They had only four penalties and no turnovers Saturday. They scored on all eight trips into the red zone.
McCarthy has done everything expected of him in the first full action of his career — 30-for-34 passing for 473 yards and no interceptions in three games. When the touchdowns come so readily, it’s tempting to be lulled into a sense of security. Harbaugh smiled and shook his head, reiterating he sees no signs of entitlement or complacency.
McCarthy expresses far more humility than cockiness, and talks like a kid just giddy to play. Asked about the offense’s efficiency, he blamed himself for a three-and-out on the second possession and said it “haunts” him.
With his array of receiving options and a staunch offensive line, McCarthy happily spreads the ball, and the praise.
“The progress is just going to be exponential playing around these guys,” McCarthy said. “Their greatness rubs off on you. And it makes things easy out there. Like my mind is not racing anymore. Everything's just slowing down, and I feel at ease. … No matter who we're playing, or when we're playing, we're always gonna try to be the best version of ourselves. Every single game, it's going out and playing like you're in first grade again, or fifth grade, just playing football and having a great time.”
As the young quarterback rises, expectations will rise. That’s where the Wolverines need to be careful. They played a sound, basic game and held the Huskies to 110 total yards, but didn’t record a sack. The running game was strong but not explosive, averaging 4.5 yards per carry.
Easy part is over
Next up in the Big House is Maryland and quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who was completing 78.5% of his passes heading into the Terps’ Saturday night game against SMU. Maryland’s offense has steadily improved under coach Mike Locksley and was ranked eighth in the country. After that, Michigan gets its first road test against Iowa, which has a nasty defense and an ugly offense.
Observers sometimes focus on escalating scores — 51, 56, 59 by UM — and not how they were compiled. Michigan is rightly getting mocked for its weak schedule, but also drawing more and more attention.
On the Fox halftime show Saturday, former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was asked to name a surprise team in the country. He picked the Wolverines, noting they lost seven defensive starters off their Big Ten championship team, as well as both coordinators.
His response sort of sounded like the “rat poison” that Nick Saban famously derides, nuggets of praise that can weaken you.
“We all expected a little bit of a drop-off (in UM),” Meyer said. “But you watch that film, and I hate to say this, they’re fast-fast on offense. Their skill is outstanding, well coached. I thought throughout the season they’d get better … I watched that film and I said uh-oh, they got it going again.”
Uh-oh so far. And yes, some things are obvious regardless of the competition. McCarthy’s arm strength, mobility and poise are clear, although he won’t get away with dangerous shots into double coverage against Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State. The Wolverines play only one of those three on the road, so the path is there to defend their title.
Michigan won’t drop half a hundred on many Big Ten foes, no matter how down the conference appears. And no, they might not be the fourth-best team in country, no matter what the rankings say. All you can draw out of their nonconference massacres is they have talent, hunger, speed and depth. Perhaps most important, they have a quarterback with growing confidence and a coach who likes everything he sees.
“(McCarthy) keeps getting better and better from my vantage point,” Harbaugh said. “Going through progressions, going through reads, really throwing the ball accurately. Talk about guys that have the ‘It’ factor. He kind of wows me at walk-through, the way he bounces around and the enthusiasm he has for playing, just like a kid in a candy store.”
In a competitive sense, the candy store is closing and the Big Ten sweat shop beckons. You can only play the teams on your schedule, and the Wolverines did precisely what they were supposed to do. They confirmed their contender status, but as we saw, that was the easy part.