Were it not for one sullen moment, one injury with season-altering potential, Michigan football’s triumphant return to a packed Michigan Stadium would qualify as an outrageous success: The offense chewed up yards by the dozen, the defense battered Western Michigan quarterback Kaleb Eleby and the special teams units were brilliant in the return game while also blocking a punt.
What people might remember in the long run, though, is the injury to star wide receiver Ronnie Bell, who had to be carried off the field in the second quarter and was eventually carted to the locker room. Bell had already snagged a 76-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Cade McNamara, made a beautiful one-handed catch down the sideline on a play that was wiped away for offensive pass interference and flipped the field with a 31-yard punt return during which the injury to his right lower leg occurred.
Exactly how serious Bell’s injury is unknown, so the daylong party in Ann Arbor will surely carry into the evening following a dominant 47-14 victory.
Balanced running attack
The list of coaches who have vowed to establish the running game before slipping into pass-happy predictability is a long one. New schematic ideas, rule changes that favor wide receivers and the unquenchable desire to gain yards in chunks can turn even the most genuine of promises into afterthoughts.
For at least one afternoon, however, Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis followed through on the ethos of fall camp. The Wolverines vowed to run, run and run some more this season to reshape the team’s identity, and the early returns against Western Michigan were certainly encouraging — especially without right guard Zak Zinter, who was in uniform but wore a cast on his right hand and did not play.
By halftime, starting tailback Hassan Haskins carried 12 times for 67 yards and a touchdown, and Blake Corum, the change-of-pace back, ran 11 times for 66 yards and reached the end zone on a 14-yard swing pass. That the Wolverines rushed the ball more than twice as often as they threw it in the first half was evidence of a job well done.
Michigan vaulted into dreamland on its first possession of the second half, when receiver A.J. Henning jetted from right to left behind the formation and took a reverse 74 yards for a score down the sideline. Henning’s touchdown pushed the Wolverines over 200 rushing yards as a team with 10:01 remaining in the third quarter.
That number reached 300 yards with 12:57 remaining in the fourth after another lengthy reverse, this time for receiver Roman Wilson, and a 30-yard touchdown run by Corum. U-M finished with 335 rushing yards.
Tough start but strong finish for new defense
As Western Michigan tailback La’Darius Jefferson muscled into the end zone to tie the game midway through the first quarter, waves of déjà vu flooded through Michigan Stadium. A year removed from six games of defensive drivel — performances horrid enough to warrant the firing of defensive coordinator Don Brown — the U-M faithful watched a 17-point underdog march 75 yards in 10 plays to punctuate an inauspicious start for new coordinator Mike Macdonald’s scheme.
The Broncos lulled the Wolverines to sleep with short passes and inside runs before an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on outside linebacker David Ojabo pushed the ball near midfield. That’s when Eleby launched a deep ball down the right sideline, the first of what Michigan cornerbacks expect will be many long pass attempts after how much they struggled in that department last season. WMU receiver Jaylen Hall plucked a ball over the top of cornerback Gemon Green for a 28-yard gain that set up Jefferson’s eventual score.
From there, Macdonald’s unit settled in nicely. The Michigan front seven generated more pressure as the game wore on, with Eleby absorbing several brutal hits, some of which were endured long after the game had been decided. Ojabo, inside linebacker Josh Ross (two), defensive tackle Mazi Smith (two) and outside linebacker Aidan Hutchinson all took shots on Eleby, with Hutchinson’s strip sack in the third quarter stifling the best WMU drive since the opening possession. Hutchinson then blocked the ensuing Broncos’ field goal attempt.
Michigan limited Eleby to 191 yards passing and reduced Western Michigan’s average yards per play from 6, where it stood at the end of the first quarter, to 4.6 late in the fourth quarter — roughly half of what the Wolverines averaged.
Glimpse of the future
An insurmountable lead midway through the third quarter allowed coach Jim Harbaugh the opportunity to rest McNamara following a relatively easy day. McNamara, who held off fellow quarterbacks J.J. McCarthy and Alan Bowman to win the job in fall camp, finished 9 of 11 for 136 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t absorb a single hit.
So Harbaugh sent in McCarthy, the true freshman and former five-star recruit whose potential Wolverines fans find insatiable. He equipped himself well in what amounted to a quarter and a half of action, rifling a pass to Henning that moved the chains and then alertly drawing a pass interference penalty by throwing deep when Michigan had a free play after the Broncos jumped offside.
Still, nothing topped McCarthy’s jaw-dropping 69-yard touchdown pass to receiver Daylen Baldwin. McCarthy escaped a sack by rolling to his right and then threw back across the field — typically a no-no for quarterbacks — to find Baldwin a step beyond his defender in single coverage. Baldwin raced down the sideline as McCarthy jumped with glee near midfield to punctuate a comprehensive victory.