Michigan football, seemingly fully behind Harbaugh, gets an embarrassed Washington next week

by 24USATVSept. 6, 2021, 1 a.m. 16
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Free Press sports writer Michael Cohen shares what he learned in Michigan football's 47-14 win over Western Michigan and looks ahead to the Wolverines' game against Washington on Saturday:

MORE FROM COHEN:Michigan's blowout win gave J.J. McCarthy a chance to impress. And he delivered

The first five minutes of Washington’s 2021 season were brilliant: The Huskies received the opening kickoff from Montana, a team in the Football Championship Subdivision, and covered 78 yards in nine plays before punching the ball into the end zone on a 1-yard run by quarterback Dylan Morris. Then everything collapsed. The Huskies were thoroughly embarrassed during a 13-7 loss to the Grizzlies that thrust their season into peril. Morris hurled as many interceptions against Montana (three) as he did in four games during last year’s shortened season. The Huskies couldn’t throw the ball (a ghastly 4.9 yards per attempt), couldn’t run the ball (26 carries for 53 yards as a team) and couldn’t convert on third down (4 of 14). They need to right the ship — fast.

The player to watch on Washington is cornerback Trent McDuffie, a high-level NFL prospect regarded among the best defensive backs in the country. McDuffie is next in a long line of corners and safeties who played at Washington and got drafted in the early rounds. He will eventually join the likes of CB Byron Murphy (second round, 2019); S Taylor Rapp (second round, 2019); CB Kevin King (second round, 2017); S Budda Baker (second round, 2017); CB Sidney Jones (second round, 2017); CB Marcus Peters (first round, 2015) and CB Desmond Trufant (first round, 2013) as the next member of the so-called DBU — defensive back university. McDuffie allowed one catch for 14 yards against Montana and notched two pass breakups.

Vincent Gray wasn’t lying: Of the handful of players who spoke to the media ahead of Saturday’s game with Western Michigan, cornerback Vincent Gray was arguably the most vocal in expressing his appreciation for the change in defensive system. Gray told reporters he was ready for something new after last year’s implosion under former coordinator Don Brown, who tasked his corners with playing almost exclusively man coverage for much of his tenure in Ann Arbor. New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald mixed his coverages against the Broncos, though there were plenty of times when Gray and fellow starting corner Gemon Green played man-to-man as well. Gray was excellent regardless of what coverage Macdonald chose. WMU quarterback Kaleb Eleby threw four passes toward players covered by Gray and completed only one for zero yards, according to Pro Football Focus. He really does like the new system.

Andrew Vastardis generated push in the run game: A graduate student affectionately known as “Gramps” by his fellow offensive linemen, Vastardis turned in an excellent performance as a run blocker to create lanes for tailbacks Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. Haskins averaged 9 yards per carry on four attempts that attacked either the middle right or middle left, meaning either side of Vastardis. And Corum averaged 8.25 yards per carry on four attempts attacking the same gaps, according to PFF. Even third-string tailback Donovan Edwards averaged 6 yards per carry on three runs attacking the middle left gap. Vastardis finished with the highest run-blocking grade of all the U-M offensive linemen on Saturday.

BIG TEN MISERY INDEX:Why Michigan's worst loss ever is a little better

This team believes in Harbaugh: Even though Saturday’s game does nothing to assure the Wolverines of success in the more difficult parts of their schedule, the manner in which they clobbered Western Michigan in front of an announced crowd of 109,295 spectators at Michigan Stadium carried an element of catharsis. Had U-M gone through the same offseason of changes, contract discussions and verbalized renewal of belief only to play poorly or lose the opener, things might have turned ugly in a hurry inside Schembechler Hall. Instead, players have been open regarding Harbaugh’s renewed commitment to the program, with quarterback Cade McNamara going so far as calling his coach “inspirational” during the postgame news conference. The players truly believe Harbaugh can turn the program around.

How will Washington respond? While there were several major programs that lost to FCS schools in Week 1, that does little to undercut the humiliation Washington felt Saturday night. Second-year head coach Jimmy Lake, who was promoted from defensive coordinator after the 2019 campaign and once coached defensive backs for the Detroit Lions in 2008, has an enormous task ahead of him to regroup and refocus his team in what still amounts to the early stages of his tenure. Had the Huskies taken care of Montana and arrived in Ann Arbor with a 1-0 record, they likely would have been the betting favorites. Instead, Lake’s team is an underdog and will face a raucous environment at Michigan Stadium with its season on life support.

Redemption for Giles Jackson? The former U-M wide receiver and return man entered the transfer portal after 2020 and landed at Washington, which is closer to where he grew up in California. Jackson caught four passes for 15 yards against Montana and also carried the ball once for 7 yards. But he will likely be searching for redemption in more ways than one next weekend: Not only should Jackson be eager to perform well in front of the school that recruited the former four-star receiver, but he also needs to shake off the ending to Saturday’s loss. With 1:33 remaining in the fourth quarter, Morris looked for Jackson on a slant route on fourth-and-2 to keep the game alive. But the ball ricocheted off Jackson’s hands for an incompletion that sealed the Huskies’ fate.

Quarterback change for the Huskies? Stop me if this sounds familiar: Behind Washington’s starting quarterback is a former five-star recruit who fans in the Pacific Northwest are dying to see. The only difference between Michigan and Washington is that Cade McNamara played a terrific game against Western Michigan. Backing up Morris at Washington is true freshman Sam Huard from Bellevue, Washington, just outside Seattle. Huard was ranked two spots ahead of McCarthy on the final 247Sports Composite rankings for the class of 2021 and had scholarship offers from Southern California, Florida and Tennessee, among others, before deciding to stay close to home. Could Morris’ three-interception performance against Montana be enough to force Lake into a quarterback change? We’ll have to wait and see.

Contact Michael Cohen at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

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