Michigan football rolls over Washington, 31-10, behind Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins
The stadium pulsed and the crowd roared as kickoff approached for only the 10th night game in the history of Michigan Stadium. More than 108,000 maize-clad supporters had wedged themselves in for what they hoped would be another step in the right direction for coach Jim Harbaugh's make-or-break campaign, another indication that this season would be gloriously different than the last.
The final score — Michigan football 31, Washington 10 — suggested the mission was accomplished with a degree of comfortability, unusual as the particulars might have been. Buoyed by the destructive nature of their offensive line, the Wolverines turned one dimensional in a performance reminiscent of yesteryear: They amassed 352 rushing yards against only 44 passing yards; they kept the ball for at least 8 minutes and 57 seconds in three of the four quarters; they earned 17 of their 20 first downs via rushing plays; they converted a fake punt that led to a touchdown; and they held the visiting Huskies scoreless until the final six minutes of the third quarter.
"Really strong, strong win," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I can say that about the offense, the defense and the special teams."
But just as the joy of U-M's season opener was dimmed by No. 1 receiver Ronnie Bell's injury, Saturday's victory felt like an elongated con with Washington unaware of the gag. For four quarters the Wolverines did little more than hand the ball to their stellar running backs, Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, and in the end, they churned out a remarkably dominant victory.
Whether such a throwback performance is replicable will be dissected ad nauseum between now and Michigan's next game against a high-level opponent — perhaps Wisconsin on Oct. 2. The answer should go a long way toward determining just how good these Wolverines actually are.
To go or not to go?
There are times when football games are framed as cowboy-style duels between head coaches, one man against another man in which the bolder, craftier and more cunning individual emerges. And while many of those supposed showdowns are exaggerated or manufactured, there was a moment Saturday when Harbaugh and Washington's Jimmy Lake matched wits.
Early in the second quarter, the Huskies faced 4th and 1 from their own 36 in a game that felt like it was slipping away despite the narrow deficit on the scoreboard. Hapless as his offense might have been, Lake kept that unit on the field as Washington hurried to the line of scrimmage for quarterback Dylan Morris to move the chains with a sneak over the right side.
But Michigan's coaching staff had panicked as the Huskies approached the line and frantically signaled for a timeout that was eventually granted. When play resumed a few moments later, Lake had reconsidered his risky — but correct — decision. He sent the punt team onto the field instead.
Four plays later, the Wolverines faced an identical 4th and 1 from their own 30, and just like Lake eventually did, Harbaugh signaled for the punting unit. As the ball was snapped, reserve linebacker Michael Barrett shuffled over from his spot as the personal protector and caught the ball, plowing forward for 3 yards to keep the possession alive.
"Coach Jay (Harbaugh) put that in the game plan all week," Corum said. We knew going into the game we were going to run this fake punt, and it just happened to be perfect timing."
On the next play, Corum blasted through the left side of the formation behind the pulling tandem of center Andrew Vastardis and tight end Luke Schoonmaker for a 67-yard touchdown run.
It was a rare moment when two coaches, Lake and Harbaugh, came face to face on a pair of critical fourth downs that tested their respective bravery. And when the dust cleared — after the former balked and the latter doubled down — the Wolverines had extended their lead to 10.
"Might have called it off with the personnel they had out there," Harbaugh said with a smile. "But (our players told us) they weren’t going to call it off. They just had the mindset to get it. I’m glad they got it. They weren’t going to be denied. That was big, pivotal."
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Limited faith in McNamara
A small, yet unmistakable, chorus of boos rained down on Michigan late in the second quarter following a timid play call from offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. On 3rd and 10 from his own 33, Gattis forsook the possibility of a drop-back pass for quarterback Cade McNamara, whose second start was unfolding much different than his first, and decided instead to run an option play that gained 0 yards.
Gattis' display of pacifism typified Michigan's offensive approach in its first game against an opponent with enough size, strength and athleticism on defense to challenge the Wolverines, at least on paper. One week after the Wolverines toyed with WMU, Gattis repeatedly took the ball out of McNamara's hands to rely almost exclusively on the rushing attack. And it worked.
In a performance that might serve as a barometer for its Big Ten game plans, Michigan embraced a run-pass balance befitting one of the service academies. Time and again, Gattis tasked McNamara with doing nothing more than handing the ball to the nearest halfback, at which point Haskins (27 carries, 155 yards, one touchdown) or Corum (21 carries, 171 yards, three TDs) would bowl their way forward to move the chains. When the Wolverines opened the second half with an eight-play, 73-yard scoring drive to extend their lead to 17, Gattis called nary a pass. Eight consecutive handoffs were all McNamara (who finished 7-for-15 for 49 yards) needed to execute.
"They were having a hard time tackling those running backs," Harbaugh said. "Hassan and Blake, I mean, they’re tough to tackle. And you just want to keep going back to the well when that’s the case, you know? You’ve got to make your opponent stop what you’re doing. I thought Josh did a great job staying with that."
While the running game was certainly potent enough to carry the offense, the moments when McNamara did drop back to pass were rife with indecision and inaccuracy. His sterling 82% completion rate a week ago plummeted to 46.7% against Washington, while McNamara's poise in the pocket appeared fleeting as he missed several open receivers and threw numerous balls away.
In all likelihood, McNamara's performance will prompt more questions than it answered as the heart of Michigan's schedule awaits.