The first game of the College Football season is important for any school. But particularly for the Michigan Wolverines, as they went into South Bend trying to knock off their storied rival the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. A lot of attention was placed on Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, as he was trying to break the streak of winless games against ranked opponents.
While the outcome was not what Michigan fans hoped for, there are some positive takeaways that the team can use to improve upon for next week’s contest against Western Michigan. Let’s look at the grades for each component of the Wolverines Week 1 performance.
Wolverines Offense Grade: C+
All eyes were on the Michigan offense, looking for a fresh start this season. Last season, the Wolverines averaged 348.9 yards per game, ranked a measly 91st in the FBS. Quarterback Shea Patterson, a transfer from Ole Miss, demonstrated promise heading into the season, trying to build off of last year’s performance of 2259 yards, 17 touchdowns to nine interceptions and a 63.8 completion percentage.
But Patterson was a disappointment in his Wolverines debut. He went 20/37 for 227 yards with no touchdowns. It was clear he was bothered by the constant pressure from the Fighting Irish defense. One interception, three sacks, and six quarterback hurries reflect a Patterson that was having a hard time dealing with the constant onslaught of Notre Dame defenders.
“There’s a lot of potential,” Patterson said afterward. “We’ve just got to learn from it. It’s a long season.”
The offense that was ranked 105th in production last year showed similar problems beyond the quarterback. For the entire game, Michigan rushed for only 58 yards on 33 carries. Senior Karan Higdon led the team in rushing, with a mere 72 yards averaging 3.4 yards per carry. There were seven tackles that resulted in a loss and through the first three quarters, they averaged approximately four yards per play. But Harbaugh stressed after the game that there is a lot to build on from this performance.
“Where are we at? We’re at the beginning,” Harbaugh said Saturday after a 24-17 season-opening loss at Notre Dame. “It’s the beginning for us. We’re not treating it like the end.”
The most concerning aspect of the offense was the line. Facing a Notre Dame team that was 31st in the FBS last year in total defense, the Wolverines offensive line could not protect their quarterback. From Jon Runyan Jr struggling against the edge rushers of Notre Dame to Juwann Bushell-Beatty, Cesar Ruiz and Ben Bredeson having their problems at right tackle, center, and guard respectively, it forced Shea Patterson to throw quick short passes to escape the pressure, preventing the necessary time in the pocket to find a vertical threat.
“They got us on the one inside blitz we didn’t pick up,” Harbaugh said. “There was good pressure their front was bringing the entire night. Some we blocked. But we could be much better.”
Wolverines Defense Grade: B
It took the Wolverines defensive unit a while to get going. Once they did, it was stout and physical, similar to last year’s top 3 defense. In the second half against the Irish, Michigan held them to only three points and less than 100 yards of total offense. But it was the start of the game where the Wolverines defense struggled, allowing Notre Dame to score on three of their first four drives.
Notre Dame was able to execute on third down conversions and able to utilize speed option plays to expose the inexperienced members of the Wolverines secondary. None was more apparent than when Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush fired a deep play action touchdown pass towards receiver Chris Finke, who was covered by Michigan’s sophomore safety replacement Brad Hawkins.
Wimbush finished the game going 12/22 for 170 yards and one touchdown. He also rushed for 59 yards in 19 carries, highlighting the handful he was for the Michigan defense.
“Brandon Wimbush made some big plays throughout the game, running the ball, getting out of the pocket,” Harbaugh said. “Credit to him, he played a heck of a ballgame. Thought we limited that in the second half.”
Senior defensive end Chase Winovich believes that his unit can get better heading into next week.
“To be honest, I’m not really sure where they beat us,” Winovich said. “I’m just kinda confused how we lost that game because it didn’t feel like they had dominated us in many aspects. Ultimately, they made plays when they needed to, and that’s a credit to them.”
“I felt like in the second half, I think we found our groove a little bit more. I just didn’t feel like they dominated us. They made the 50-50 plays. Schematically, they just did what they had to do.”
Wolverines Special Teams: A-
Special Teams was where Michigan shined. One of two of their only touchdowns came off a kick return by Ambry Thomas for 99 yards. Thomas would finish his night with 120 yards off the kick return. His kick off return for a touchdown was the first time a Michigan player completed this feat since 2015.
“Honestly, it was our whole special team unit. They all did their job,” Thomas said. “With the first return, we set it up and that one hit pretty good. We thought, ‘OK, we’re about to come back.’
“I knew once I got going — really going — nobody was going to catch me. Our philosophy is, see a little, see a lot, and that’s what I did. I saw a little bit and once I got open, I seen a lot and just ran.”
Harbaugh also had high praises for Thomas.
“He was able to break some arm tackles and showed some real bursts when he got in the open field,” Harbaugh said. “He was able to finish that off and gave us a great spark.”
Michigan comes home to the Big House for the first time this season to host Western Michigan. With Patterson’s health in question, expect Dylan McCaffrey to be ready to go and provide quarterback support like he did against Notre Dame.
There were a lot of takeaways to bring back to Ann Arbor. The defense showed signs of brilliance and top form. The offense needs much improvement in order to put points on the board. But Coach Harbaugh is confident his squad will bounce back in front of their home fans to get back on track with a win this week.
“The guys really prepared well for this ball game, not the outcome we anticipated or wanted,” Harbaugh said. “We have to dig deep. Make no excuses.”
“Credit to Notre Dame and move on to next week.”