For the past nine months, Michigan football spoke of how it planned to expand its passing game.
If Saturday’s season-opener against East Carolina was a chance to send that message, it came through loud and clear. Even with coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore absent from Michigan Stadium (serving program-imposed suspensions in relation to an on-going NCAA investigation into recruiting violations), the Wolverines appeared in midseason form.
J.J. McCarthy completed 26 of 30 passes for 280 yards and three scores, all to newly anointed No. 1 wide receiver Roman Wilson as part of his six-catch, 78-yard performance while Blake Corum ran in a score and the defense nearly pitched a shutout as No. 2 Michigan football hammered East Carolina, 30-3, to kick off the 2023 season.
“I was talking to some of the boys in the locker room yesterday and I was like ‘man, I got this weird feeling’ because I feel so good,” McCarthy said after the game. “Last year, I had to deal with a shoulder injury, with the quarterback battle and there was just a lot of resistance and a lot of stuff to push throw.
“This one, felt effortless. Felt uplifting eery single snap, it just felt like everything was going right.”
The defense, despite missing No. 1 cornerback Will Johnson and All-Big Ten safety Rod Moore due to injury, didn’t miss a beat. Instead, the Wolverines used their opener to continue to find their best rotation both in the trenches and the secondary as players constantly shuffled in and out.
The first defensive line that came in: Braiden McGregor, Kris Jenkins, Mason Graham and Jaylen Harrell. The result? Three-and-out.
On the next series, Derrick Moore, Kenneth Grant, Cam Goode and Josaiah Stewart all rotated in up front. The result? Interception.
Linebackers Junior Colson (five tackles, two for loss) and Mike Barrett (five tackles), started, but Ernest Hausmann played plenty and led the team with six tackles. Jaydon Hood got snaps in the middle, too.
“My whole front is phenomenal, they allow me to have the type of games I have,” Colson said. “They take those double teams every day, all day and don’t say anything about it. Those guys don’t get enough credit for the amount of work they put in.”
Special teams had its up-and-down moments. A low light came on the first punt off the game, when return man Jake Thaw didn’t field a punt at the 30, but let it roll and get downed inside the 5. However, the highlight came to cap the half, when kicker James Turner (transfer from Louisville, saline native) booted a 50-yard field goal (his previous long was 49) as time expired.
He attempted a 52-yarder early in the fourth quarter as well, which missed wide left.
“Certainly, we’ll be better when he’s back, because he’s our head coach and I think he’s the best head coach in college football,” Minter said of his first head coaching performance Jim Harbaugh’s absence. “Glad we were able to be the guardian of victory for the first week.”
McCarthy in cruise control
McCarthy didn’t attempt a pass on the first series of the day — when U-M was backed up in the shades of its own end zone — but from there, it was he (not the run game) which led the charge on offense. On his second series of the day, McCarthy completed a short swing pass to Donovan Edwards, then hit Wilson in the chest, but it was dropped.
He would connect on his next 15 attempts.
The streak started on third down when he went back to Wilson with an NFL-level throw on a 15-yard corner route to extend the drive. Three plays later, McCarthy again faced third-and-long when he stepped up in the pocket, rolled right, and found Wilson for the season-opening touchdown strike.
A possession later, McCarthy led U-M on a seven-play, 90-yard drive, capped by a 2-yard Corum run after he nearly scored from 39 yards out on the play prior.
But McCarthy’s best drive of the day, perhaps, was the fourth of the day.
On third-and-10 on his own 36, the junior faced a pressure from the right side. He calmly backed up toward the left side of the pocket until he created enough of a window to find Johnson on a 15-yard in-route to move the chains. Next, McCarthy found Colston Loveland on consecutive throws — the first for 24, the next for 15 — before he went back to Wilson on a 10-yard score.
“That man right there is one of the most special players in the country, I’ll say it right here right now,” McCarthy said, pointing two seats to his let at Wilson. “There’s not many DBs, corners or safeties who can guard that guy.
“What he did today is everything I saw this offseason; he’s getting separation, he’s making tough catches, he’s going up and getting it.”
McCarthy finished the drive a perfect 5-for-5 passing for 77 yards and didn’t have another incompletion until the final pass of the half; a miscommunication with freshman Karmello English on quick out.
The offense picked up in the second half where it left off in the first, with a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, again punctuated with a McCarthy-to-Wilson connection on third and long with a perfect pass to the back corner of the end zone.
Cornelius Johnson finished with five catches for 71 yards, Loveland had four catches for 57 yards and Edwards caught four passes for 33 yards.
Defense improves right where it wanted to
U-M’s offseason defensive focus centered around an improved pass rush, specifically how the edge and interior positions can communicate to generate push up the middle.
When Mike Sainristil came away with an interception on the second possession of the game, it was a product of pass rush up the middle, as Grant blew by the Pirates line and came flying at ECU signal caller Mason Garcia.
“They weren’t going to allow us to pin our ears back and rush with how fast they were getting rid of the ball,” Minter said. “The threat of the draw, the run with the quarterback that was in there — just want to continue to work our pass rush.
“We had some good rushes, I think it will show on tape, but I think those guys are a little frustrated not coming home with any sacks.”
The Pirates ran just 28 plays in the first half and only had two that gained more than 10 yards. In the third quarter, they ran a total of four plays and amassed just three yards. At that point, the Wolverines had allowed just five first downs and an average of 3.5 yards per play before they put in more depth.
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“I think for the most part through three quarters, we played the game on our terms,” Minter said.
Run game grounded
It shouldn’t be much of a long-term concern, but Michigan’s run game was bottled more than expected.
The Wolverines, who were a top-five rushing team in the nation last season, ran 31 times for 122 yards and one touchdown as a team. Corum (10 rushes for 73 yards and a touchdown) and Edwards (12 rushes for 37 yards) had less production on the ground combined than in any game last year.
“It felt great being back out there,” Corum said. “For me, that was my first time, honestly, getting hit since the Ohio State game. So it just felt great man, it was kid of like a warm up. This is what I’ve been working for, since this offseason training for, just felt great being back out there.”
With three seconds, ECU kicker Andrew Conrad booted a 33-yard field goal to avoid the shutout.