Despite a rocky start, the Michigan football team took care of business against Middle Tennessee State at home on Saturday night. The seventh-ranked Wolverines posted 453 yards of total offense in Josh Gattis’ first game running the show en route to a 40-21 victory. So what, exactly, did we learn in the much-anticipated season opener?
Zach Charbonnet is Michigan’s top running back
On Friday’s podcast, The Wolverine Lounge reported that true freshman Zach Charbonnet would open the season at the top of the pecking order in the Wolverines’ crowded backfield. On Saturday night, he didn’t disappoint. While Christian Turner led the backfield with 11 carries, Charbonnet racked up 41 more yards on three fewer rushes. The frosh accounted for 90 of Michigan’s 233 rushing yards, made good reads and kept the ball secure.
“(Charbonnet) performed at the highest level in training camp, and was No. 1 on the depth chart when we finally made the depth chart,” Harbaugh said. “I thought he played well in protection and seeing the holes and protecting the ball. He looked like an experienced back to me.”
Charbonnet’s impressive debut doesn’t mean Turner and senior Tru Wilson won’t be seeing the field in the future. Harbaugh lauded a pair of 10-yard Turner runs in the same breath as his praise of Charbonnet, and Wilson made a great block in the backfield to give Patterson the time to find Tarik Black on his 36-yard score. Charbonnet should see a progressive uptick in carries moving forward. By the time October rolls around, his carries per game could be in the 15-20 range on a weekly basis.
Ambry Thomas is good to go
After battling colitis for much of the last few weeks, junior cornerback Ambry Thomas suited up on Saturday night. Despite being medically cleared just a week and a half ago, he showed no signs of rust as he hauled in an interception, recovered a fumble and made a few big tackles.
“That fumble recovery and pick, it built my confident thoughts in the game,” Thomas said. “My confidence wasn’t there because in practice, I ain’t really did enough of practicing. … It just felt good to get my confidence up there.”
Added Jordan Glasgow: “I was worried about him going into the game week. I knew that he’s a great corner, obviously, as you can see from his play, but he had a lot less preparation than a lot of our opponents and us as a team. So to see him come out and make the plays that he did, it was just great to see.”
Behind Thomas, Vince Gray played a solid game as the third corner. His day was highlighted by a big hit behind the line of scrimmage to stop a swing pass on second-and-goal towards the end of the first half.
Michigan needs to take better care of the football
Four. That’s how many times Michigan fumbled the ball on Saturday night. Two of those fumbles — Shea Patterson’s blunder at the end of a 15-yard run on the game’s very first play and Lavert Hill’s booted punt return — eventually turned into Middle Tennessee State touchdowns. It kept the Blue Raiders in the ball game for the better part of the night and left a lot to be desired on the Wolverines’ side.
Though the other two lapses in ball security proved harmless, it’s still not encouraging to watch Dylan McCaffrey fumble the ball out of bounds or see Patterson lose the ball behind the line of scrimmage during an exchange with a running back.
Gattis wants to get Ronnie Bell involved
Sophomore slot receiver Ronnie Bell saw five targets in the first half but failed to haul in a single one. Though most were well defended, two of them hit his hands in the end zone. The team’s reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year finished the night with two catches for 18 yards on a team-high seven targets, which bodes well for him going forward.
Bell put himself in a position to be successful, and it’s only a matter of time until the execution falls into place. As he transitioned from basketball to football last season, he looked a bit raw as a freshman. In a system like Gattis’ Pro Spread offense, his speed and improved route-running should help him take a leap forward sooner rather than later.
Tarik Black and Nico Collins are ready for a big year
While on the topic of wide receiver, Tarik Black and Nico Collins both turned in big nights with Donovan Peoples-Jones sidelined. They racked up 80 and 49 yards, respectively, while scoring a touchdown apiece on just seven total receptions. After seeing his first two seasons cut short due to recurring foot injuries, Black flew under the radar during fall camp, while Collins was always mentioned as the favorite to start opposite Peoples-Jones.
The duo flashed the big play potential that Michigan hopes to maintain under Gattis, with each of their scores coming from more than 25 yards out. It’s also worth noting that all of their production came on just nine targets. Neither recorded a catch in the second half, in which the Wolverines attempted just seven passes.