Michigan vs. Middle Tennessee
►Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
►TV/radio: BTN/WWJ 950
►Records: Season opener for both teams.
►Line: Michigan by 34.5
Chip Walters handles the play-by-play for MTSU football. He breaks down the Blue Raiders for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan-Middle Tennessee State game at Michigan Stadium. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chip_Walters.
►Question: Will MTSU be intimidated playing at Michigan Stadium?
►Walters: “In the last 20 years, they’ve played in every SEC venue except Auburn. Last year they played in three SEC stadiums. Over the years, we’ve gone to all kinds of places. Won at Syracuse, won at Missouri, so we’ve had some success. This year, we’re the only Conference USA team to play three Power Fives. There’s several that will play two and most everyone plays at least one. Our guys are kind of used to it. The X factor is over the last four years, you had Brent Stockstill, who was the ultimate professional back there (at quarterback), he was the extra coach on the field. I know that’s very cliché, but in his case it was really true. He kept everybody calm.”
►Question: Brent Stockstill was a tough quarterback and now that’s he gone, how do you see that position shaking out?
►Walters: “You’ve got two guys who have experience in backup roles, that being Asher O’Hara (redshirt sophomore) and Chase Cunningham (redshirt sophomore), and then you have Randall Johnson (junior), who is really intriguing because of his size (6-5, 233) and strength, but he didn’t get here until June. So, nothing against him, but he’s just behind as far as knowing the offense and having to think all the time with every move he makes, where O’Hara and Cunningham have been in it for two years, so it’s time for one of them to step up. It’s been a horse race between those two since spring ball. The only thing coach has said to tip his hand, that Asher seems to be more ready. Does that mean he’s going to do it? That would be my guess, but that’s all it would be – a guess.
Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Matt Charboneau preview the opening games of the college football season: Michigan vs. Middle Tennessee and Michigan State vs. Tulsa. The Detroit News
“O’Hara is a fun little operator to watch because he can run it, doesn’t mind running it, and matter of fact ran it for about 80 yards against FIU last year and threw for 150 or 200 when Brent got hurt and he had to play three quarters. He has the most meaningful experience between himself and Chase Cunningham. Now Chase played in four games last year and had zero pass attempts. He was strictly in mop-up duty. He was a guy they felt really good about when they signed him. Both of those kids came in at a time when it was hard to recruit quarterbacks because you have a guy like Brent who you know is going to be there, in his case, six years if you talk about his grayshirt year and redshirt year, knowing it’s going to be hard to unseat him. There weren’t a lot of quarterbacks knocking on the door. I would expect both to play in the game, maybe all three.”
►Question: There is talent on the MTSU offense. What do you make of that group?
►Walters: “My whole line of thinking about our offense is, No. 1, everybody looks and says, ‘Brent Stockstill has graduated and he’s gone, how on earth are we going to survive now?’ Well, when you look past the quarterback position, which I know is a very important position, you’re pretty deep at running back, you’re pretty deep at receiver, you’ve got guys who have played on the offensive line. You lost some starters, but you’ve got guys who were in the rotation. This may not apply to the Michigan game, but in general, when I look at this group, if you can get quarterback play that doesn’t hurt you, you’ve got a lot of weapons and playmakers who can do some things. Don’t go to sleep on ‘em just yet.”
►Question: Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer coached at Michigan for a year under Rich Rodriguez and he worked for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and has seven starters back. How good is this defense?
►Walters: “I don’t think there’s any question it will be his best defense since he has arrived, in three years. It will probably be the best defense we’ve had in the last seven, eight, nine years, somewhere in there. The thing is, they’re not going to wow you with size. When Michigan fans look at this team when they come on the field, they’re going to say, ‘Well, those guys aren’t all that big,’ but they’re used to seeing Michigan’s folks. This team is built to play in Conference USA. It’s not built to play the Big Ten. In Conference USA, you have really entertaining football. It’s fast, it’s the spread, and everybody has some playmakers. It’s been built on speed, and that’s what this team is built on. That’s where Scott does his very best to put guys in position to make plays and use their speed to do it because they know in most non-conference games in particular, they’re going to be outsized.”
►Question: How will the MTSU offense fare against Michigan’s defense?
►Walters: “Our coaches look at Michigan’s defense and it’s like, ‘Man! They’ve got the speed, but they’ve also got size.’ The expectation is, if you were sitting in (Jim) Harbaugh’s shoes, you’d say, ‘Well, I feel I probably got the advantage athletically at almost every position.’ Are they going to bring a lot of pressure or are they just going to play man and think, ‘OK, my guy is better than your guy,’ and go from there? You know you’re going to have a young quarterback in there so you at least want to do things to confuse whoever that is, at least have him walking on egg shells even if you’re not coming trying to blast him. You want to disguise things and see what you can do. Middle Tennessee’s strength is its defense right now simply because of experience. I think Michigan’s size (on defense) is the real determining factor.”
Players to watch
►Reed Blankenship, S: Blankenship is a 6-1, 196-pound safety who is on all the notable watch lists and was a preseason C-USA selection. He earned first-team C-USA honors last year after starting 12 of 13 games. He led the Blue Raiders defense with a career-best 107 tackles and had eight tackles for loss, four interceptions -- ranked 16th nationally -- and seven pass breakups. In one game last year, Blankenship had 17 tackles, including nine solo, three TFLs, and an interception returned 100 yards for a touchdown, a play that was No. 2 on ESPN’s Plays of the Day.
►Chaton Mobley, RB: The 6-1, 233-pound redshirt sophomore was named to the C-USA All-Freshman team last year. He started seven of 13 games and led the team in rushing with 613 yards and four touchdowns. Mobley averaged 5.0 yards a carry. He also had 19 receptions and scored a touchdown.
►Ty Lee, WR: Lee ranks third all-time in receptions at MTSU and is fifth in receiving yards and third in touchdown receptions. The 5-9, 186-pounder is the NCAA’s active leader in career receptions with 213. He enters this season having caught at least one pass in 40 straight games, three shy of equaling the school record of 43. Lee, a senior, was named to the Biletnikoff Award Watch List and was honorable mention All-C-USA last season, during which he made 11 starts and led the team with 71 receptions for 883 yards and seven touchdowns.
Facts and figures
►First time: This is the first time Michigan will face Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders are the 151st all-time opponent for the Wolverines.
►Kicking it off: Michigan is considered to have one of the toughest schedules in the country. Six teams are ranked in the preseason Top 25 poll, and all of the Wolverines’ opponents combined for a 92-62 record last season, 12th-highest opponent winning percentage among Division I programs.
►Home sweet home: Michigan is 24-4 at Michigan Stadium under coach Jim Harbaugh. Remarkably, this is only the second home season opener under Harbaugh. The Wolverines opened Harbaugh’s first season at Utah, then won the first home opener against Hawaii, 63-3, in 2016, then opened against Florida in Texas in 2017 and at Notre Dame last year.