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Niyo: No offensive identity for UM, but no time to panic

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh walks back to the sidelines after talking to his players during a timeout in the fourth quarter.

Ann Arbor – They pulled right, and they pulled left. And they still went nowhere against a team that's nowhere near the caliber of the teams yet to come.

So whatever the positives you want to pull from Michigan's 28-7 victory over UNLV on Saturday, a game in which the outcome was never in doubt -- before or after kickoff, really -- there is still that button to push.

Nothing to panic about – not yet. But nothing to ignore, either.

And while coach Jim Harbaugh struck an encouraging tone after this one – "It felt like we improved today, as a team," he insisted – it's obvious there's still plenty of room for more.

Or at least that's the hope.

"Yes, there'll definitely be things to improve from, get better at, and coach," Harbaugh said.

Particularly on offense, where the Wolverines still are struggling to establish themselves. Even in the areas where they'd like to think they have by now, like that short-yardage situation early in the third quarter Saturday.

Chesson: UM receivers will correct timing issues with Rudock

Facing third-and-1 at the Rebels' 36-yard line, Michigan trotted out a jumbo package, with an unbalanced line featuring six offensive linemen and two blocking tight ends, depending on what you want to call senior Tom Strobel. Yet despite more than 2,600 pounds of blocking muscle, including fullback Joe Kerridge, the power play – with right guard Kyle Kalis pulling -- went for no gain. Strobel, who recently switched back from a stint at defensive end, was beaten badly inside by UNLV's Mike Hughes, who quickly buried De'Veon Smith.

That set up fourth-and-1, and the Wolverines stuck with the same personnel, leaning heavily to the right side this time. The result was the same, however, as Smith got swallowed up inside of the pulling guard – Ben Braden this time – and UNLV's defense danced off the field in celebration.

It was a small victory, admittedly, on a day where the Wolverines still managed to rush 39 times for 254 yards – 171 in the first two quarters as Michigan took a 21-0 halftime lead. But that's the only sort the visitors were going to get Saturday, and everyone in the crowd of 108,683 at Michigan Stadium knew it.

"You rush for 250 yards, that's a good day," Harbaugh said. "It's a good day running the football. But, yeah, we're still going to be striving to improve. We didn't pick up a short-yardage situation. That's very important to do, and we didn't get that done. There's things we got done, things we didn't."

But these are things Harbaugh wasn't much interested in talking about immediately after Saturday's game. He bristled at questions about Smith's subpar outing – 13 carries for 36 yards – and his role as the starter, what with Ty Isaac enjoying a breakout day highlighted by a 76-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter.

"We don't ever talk about any kind of running back controversy, just so you know," the coach said.

Nor was there much talk about quarterback Jake Rudock's iffy performance, as the graduate transfer finished 14-of-22 for 123 yards with one touchdown, a few glaring errant throws and another interception. That's five in three games now for Rudock, matching his season total from 2014.

"It wasn't an ideal day to throw: There was a swirling wind the whole day," Harbaugh said. "But I thought he did a good job, managed the game well, and for the most part the offense was moving darn near every time we got the ball."

Well, except for the four successive possessions in the second and third quarters that produced four first downs and four quick punts.

And while Isaac (and receiver Jehu Chesson) added some welcomed explosiveness in the ground game against UNLV, the downfield passing game is still largely MIA for the Wolverines. Michigan's longest pass play was a 21-yarder to Maurice Ways in the first half Saturday. Rudock's longest this season went for 28 yards.

"It'll show up," Chesson said, when asked about exactly that afterward. "It'll show up eventually."

When asked how critical it was to see it before Big Ten play begins in a couple weeks, Chesson shook his head.

"It's critical to get that fixed this week," he said. "It's critical to get it fixed last week. … But everybody's playing with effort. It's just another issue, I guess you could say, that we can take care of."

Defensively, there are far fewer issues, it appears. The front seven was stout again Saturday, and the Michigan secondary – sparked early by junior Channing Stribling's interception -- got its hands on as many passes as UNLV's receivers did, or so it seemed.

But this was a UNLV team that completed just six passes for 56 yards in a 37-3 loss at home to UCLA a week ago. And, frankly, this is sort of what we expected from Michigan's defense this fall.

"I think the identity that we're establishing is that we're gonna hit you in the mouth, regardless of who you are," senior Ryan Glasgow said.

True enough, even if Saturday wasn't exactly a fair fight.

But the identity on the other side? That's still up in the air.