Michigan without Jim Harbaugh: The good and bad of a drama-free win, and what’s next

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Sherrone Moore, apparently a Peacock subscriber, hosted what had to be Saturday’s weirdest Michigan football watch party.

According to quarterback J.J. McCarthy, head coach Jim Harbaugh planned to watch Saturday’s season opener against East Carolina with Moore, Michigan’s offensive coordinator, while both coaches served suspensions. You’ll have to imagine the reaction in the room when Michigan’s offensive players took the field for their second drive, lined up single file and raised four fingers in the air before jogging into formation.

“That was definitely a tribute to Coach Harbaugh,” McCarthy said.

As he spoke, McCarthy wore a backward T-shirt printed with Harbaugh’s name and the word “free” written on a piece of tape. In every way they could, the Wolverines were trying to tell the world how much they missed their head coach, who is serving a three-game school-imposed suspension for his role in alleged recruiting infractions.

“It really sucked, going out there, first game, and him not being there,” McCarthy said. “He put as much blood, sweat and tears into this as we have.”

A convincing victory was the best kind of tribute, and the No. 2 Wolverines did their part in a 30-3 drubbing of East Carolina. It was a stress-free head coaching debut for defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, whose unit kept ECU scoreless until a last-second field goal broke up the shutout.

“I equate it to a first-time driver getting to drive the safest, most durable, reliable car possible,” Minter said. “My opportunity was to take over a really well-oiled machine that Coach Harbaugh has built here over his time.”

When the team met Friday night, Harbaugh’s parting message for Minter was, “Be you.” That’s when it sunk in that Minter and the rest of Michigan’s assistant coaches were being entrusted with something valuable. Their task was to bring it home without a scratch, and for the first time out, that’s what they did.

A lot would have had to go wrong for Michigan to lose this game, but even a sloppy win could have raised doubts about Michigan’s focus in the face of Harbaugh’s suspension. That’s why it was important to start the season with a crisp performance of the sort Michigan provided Saturday. Though there was a lot to like, Michigan also came out of Saturday with work to do in a few areas.


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The good

• With ECU committing extra defenders to stop the run, McCarthy was poised in the pocket and surgical with his accuracy. He completed 26 of 30 passes and found Roman Wilson three times in the end zone, a performance that showed his growth as a quarterback and the growth of Michigan’s offense to take advantage when teams play single coverage.

“I was actually talking to some of the boys in the locker room yesterday, and I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got this weird feeling because I feel so good,’” McCarthy said. “Last year I was dealing with the shoulder injury, dealing with the quarterback battle. There was a lot of resistance, a lot of stuff to push through. This one just felt effortless.”

• Before the season, Harbaugh approached Wilson about switching from No. 14 to No. 1, the number worn by Braylon Edwards, Anthony Carter and other Michigan greats. That showed what Michigan’s coaches think Wilson can do this season, and Wilson backed it up with three touchdown catches, one shy of his season total from last year.

“It is a historic number, and it’s a lot of pressure,” Wilson said. “That’s what I want. I want a lot of pressure on me. This number represents big things, and that’s my goal this season.”

• Even with three new starters in the secondary, Michigan limited ECU quarterbacks to 17-of-29 passing for 132 yards. The emphasis was on avoiding big plays, Minter said, and the Wolverines executed that by holding ECU without a gain of 20 yards or longer.

“I thought our D-line could control the run game fairly well,” Minter said. “We were able to play a lot of split safety and keep our guys back and stop the run, especially early in the game.”

Keon Sabb started at safety in place of Rod Moore, and Keshaun Harris joined UMass transfer Josh Wallace in the starting lineup at cornerback in place of Will Johnson. The Wolverines got an early interception from Mike Sainristil and nearly added another on a juggling catch by Wallace.

“(Wallace) and Keshaun Harris both were just steady, consistent, pretty sticky coverage overall,” Minter said. “I thought Mikey set the tone early with a great interception, something we want to try to get more of. Mikey led the group, and the rest of the guys fell in line.”

• Will Johnson, who had offseason knee surgery, went through pregame warmups and was close to playing Saturday, which bodes well for his availability next week and beyond. That’s a big deal for Michigan, especially with Amorion Walker not yet recovered from the injury that sidelined him in preseason camp.

“Will was close today,” Minter said. “We made the decision to really make sure he gets right.”



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The bad

• The Wolverines averaged an un-Michigan-like 3.9 yards per rush, though they attributed much of that to East Carolina’s defensive game plan.

“Coming into the game, if you watched some of their videos and press conferences and stuff, they wanted to stop the run and they would die trying,” said Blake Corum, who ran for 73 yards on 10 carries. “If teams want to do that, please. We’ll keep throwing. Teams will have to back up sooner or later.”

Corum had a 37-yard run but appeared to be getting his legs back under him after knee surgery last December.

“It felt great being back out there, being able to cut and make some long runs,” Corum said. “That was my first time getting hit since, what, the Ohio State game? It just felt great, man. It was kind of like a warm-up.”

• Michigan tried some different things with Donovan Edwards, including lining him up in the slot and pitching the ball to him on jet sweeps. If you were expecting him to go nuts like he did against Ohio State, this wasn’t the day for that.

Edwards finished with 37 rushing yards on 12 carries. He got stuffed on third-and-goal late in the fourth quarter, a play that loomed large when McCarthy fumbled the snap on fourth down. On a day without many miscues from Michigan’s first-string offense, that sequence was the exception.

• The Wolverines didn’t have a sack, in part because East Carolina was trying to get the ball out as quickly as possible. They got pressure a few times, but after emphasizing their pass rush in the offseason, Michigan’s defensive linemen won’t be satisfied with getting shut out in the sack department.

“I thought we had some really good rushes,” Minter said. “I think it’ll show on tape. But I know those guys are a little frustrated, not coming home with any sacks.”

• Based on the first game, life after Jake Moody could be an adventure. Kicker James Turner, a transfer from Louisville, drilled a 50-yard field goal at the end of the first half, but he also missed an extra point and misfired from 52 yards in the second half. Overall, Michigan’s special teams weren’t as sharp as usual, and the Wolverines left a few yards on the field in the return game.

What’s next?

Sherrone Moore will be back calling plays next week as Jay Harbaugh and Mike Hart share head coaching duties against UNLV. The Wolverines will find plenty to clean up when they look back at the film, but overall, this was the kind of season opener they needed in Minter’s head coaching debut: clean, businesslike and almost entirely drama-free.

“We really wanted to try to operate in the manner in which Coach Harbaugh would operate if he was there,” Minter said. “I tried to do my best to do that.”

(Photo of Roman Wilson: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

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