The turning point in Saturday’s game between Michigan football and Colorado State wasn’t cornerback DJ Turner’s fumble return touchdown that gave the Wolverines an insurmountable 30-point lead early in the third quarter. Nor was it wideout Roman Wilson’s 61-yard touchdown catch to open UM’s scoring for the 2022 season.
The real turning point involved the competition between quarterback Cade McNamara vs. JJ McCarthy, which will be examined every day between now and the Sept. 24 Big Ten opener against Maryland — if not longer. And that turning point was a 20-yard touchdown run by McCarthy after McNamara had already been pulled.
With the game already won, McCarthy pulled the ball from Michigan’s underbelly running back midway through the quarter and bolted down the sideline for the kind of score showcasing the element he brings that McNamara can’t match. A crowd of more than 109,000 cheered as McCarthy juked defensive back Angel King in the open field and leaped into the end zone with ease.
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The final score — Michigan 51, Colorado State 7 — reflected unflinching hitting in what was a blowout at best and a laugher at worst. Running backs Blake Corum (13 carries, 76 yards, one touchdown) and Donovan Edwards (12 carries, 64 yards, one TD) led an offense that finished with more yards rushing (234) than passing (206) as the Rams offered little resistance beyond. the initial possession. McNamara completed nine of 18 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown in less than three quarters of action.
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New defensive coordinator Jesse Minter’s unit overwhelmed a CSU offense led by a quarterback making the first start of his career in Clay Millen (16-for-20 for 137 yards with one TD and one interception) and a left tackle who never played a snap. . The Wolverines generated seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss while creating two takeaways: an interception by safety Rod Moore and a fumble recovery by DJ Turner, who scampered 45 yards for a score.
Disappointing effort from McNamara
Based on the first three quarters in Michigan Stadium, where the Wolverines were never threatened by a hapless Colorado State squad debuting their new head coach, the fans clamoring for McCarthy to win the quarterback competition will double down.
For months, McNamara has spoken strongly and confidently about his place on Michigan’s roster. He told reporters the team was his after leading the Wolverines to their first Big Ten title in 17 years and their first-ever trip to the College Football Playoff. He raved about an offseason of development that sharpened his mechanics, bringing his accuracy to levels unseen the last two years. His rhetoric after being elected captain in a player-only vote was that of someone who assumed the honor secured his position.
Then came Saturday afternoon, the first game of Harbaugh’s multifaceted audition for his dueling quarterbacks, and much of what McNamara had admitted in recent months unraveled with an unearthly performance. He completed only half of his passes in just over two quarters of work.
The modest statistical output does little to quell many concerns carried over from last season, when McNamara endured issues with both his accuracy and red zone effectiveness. His command was shaky on the opening possession when the Wolverines went three-and-out following a pair of bad throws toward Cornelius Johnson (one of which was still catchable but dropped). McNamara also had an interception overturned on replay review when CSU linebacker Jack Howell was deemed to have caught the ball against the turf.
McNamara’s most explosive play of the afternoon was a 61-yard touchdown pass to Wilson — the wideout caught the ball near the line of scrimmage and gained the rest of the yards himself. Removing that from McNamara’s numbers would leave him 8-for-17 for 75 yards with zero touchdowns.
Michigan’s red zone numbers were once again worrisome, continuing a trend that hampered the Wolverines for significant portions of last season. The Wolverines started four-for-four in the red zone under McNamara’s direction, but three of those scores were field goals by kicker Jake Moody. Those aren’t the numbers Harbaugh and co-offensive coordinators Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss are looking for.
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Injury problems along the offensive line
Six days ago, during his season-opening news conference, Harbaugh raved about the health of the Wolverines. There were a few players with bumps and bruises, he said, but the only player in danger of missing Saturday was inside linebacker Nikhai Hill-Green, who is recovering from a soft tissue injury.
But something changed during the final few days of preparation, and starting left tackle Ryan Hayes was nowhere to be found when the Wolverines took the field for pregame warmups. Instead, utility lineman Karsen Barnhart — a key backup at every position but center — was part of the first-string offensive line along with left tackle Trevor Keegan.
The situation worsened late in the first quarter when Barnhart limped off the field following a short run by Corum. Barnhart, who recorded 262 snaps last season at left tackle (64), left guard (173) and right guard (25) was evaluated in the medical tent and reportedly cleared to return, according to the UM radio broadcast. But the coaching staff seemed content to err on the side of caution, switching Keegan to left tackle and using former four-star prospect Giovanni El-Hadi at left guard.
Depending on the severity of the injuries to Hayes and Barnhart, additional options at tackle include junior Jeffrey Persi (12 snaps in 2021) and true freshman Andrew Gentry.
New faces from the edge
Little definitive will be gleaned about Michigan’s new crop of edge rushers over the next few weeks facing a trio of nonconference opponents that could. to combine for fewer wins than the Wolverines in 2022. And on Saturday, when Minter’s group created more sacks and tackles for loss (18) than completions allowed (16), the victimized offensive line included a left tackle who never played a snap in college.
Still, there were flashes of potential from junior Braiden McGregor, the former four-star prospect from Port Huron whose first few seasons in Ann Arbor were derailed by injury, and a pair of explosive newcomers in true freshman Derrick Moore and a high-profile graduate transfer. Eyabi Anoma. The trio was instrumental in harassing Millen, who repeatedly avoided the pocket to wrestle.
Speed from McGregor, whose physical characteristics (6-6, 261 pounds) have drawn comparisons to Aidan Hutchinson, forced Millen to climb the pocket and drop a pass that was intercepted by safety Rod Moore in the first quarter. Michigan kicked a field goal four plays later to take a 10–0 lead.
Moore and Anoma combined to shut out a drive in the second quarter with pressures on consecutive snaps. The former, who was one of the highest-rated players in Harbaugh’s 2022 recruiting class, sidestepped left tackle Brian Crespo-Jaquez and flattened Millen to force an incompletion downfield. The latter, who was kicked out of Alabama and kicked the team at Houston earlier in his checkered career, romped through a double team rushing past the right tackle and bull-rushing the tailback for a sack that forced a punt.
Contact Michael Cohen at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.