Michigan plays six quarterbacks in rout of NIU, turns attention to Rutgers
Ann Arbor – The checklist entering Michigan’s third game of the season wasn’t long but it was important as the Wolverines now begin preparations for Big Ten play.
Avoid a letdown. Check.
Establish balance on offense. Check.
Tighten screws on defense. Check.
Maintain solid play on special teams: Check
The Wolverines added one during their rout of Northern Illinois on Saturday at Michigan Stadium, as they used the second half to give backups substantive playing time in a 63-10 victory. Michigan played six quarterbacks in the win, its highest point total since scoring 78 at Rutgers in 2016.
"It's close to 106 players played in the game," Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Great to see guys that have been working hard practicing, training all offseason to be able to go out into a game. And just what that kind of confidence does for each player to see that they can do it, they can go out into a game, they can play, to have the experience that they're capable to get their job done."
Northern Illinois, which entered the game 1-1 after going winless during the shortened 2020 season, was overmatched. That was clear from the start.
After an electric maize-out in prime time last week, the Wolverines made apparent from the start there would be no letdown and they wouldn't take Northern Illinois lightly. Instead, Michigan scored touchdowns on nine straight possessions and gained 606 yards of offense against the Huskies. The Wolverines, ranked No. 25, are 3-0 and open Big Ten play next week at home against Rutgers.
And a week after Michigan's run-heavy performance, it was about finding offensive balance.
“That was a goal of ours going into the game," Harbaugh said. "We wanted to rush for 200 yards, we wanted to pass for 200 yards. Felt like that the timing’s there, the execution has been there in practice."
Entering this season, the Michigan offensive players said they wanted their identity to be physical and to establish the run, and that’s exactly what they’ve done. The Wolverines rushed for more than 300 yards for the third straight week and against the Huskies scored eight rushing touchdowns.
Blake Corum led the team with three rushing touchdowns and now has seven this season, Hassan Haskins and freshman Donovan Edwards each had two and quarterback Cade McNamara opened the scoring with a 1-yard run on the Wolverines' first posession. Corum averaged 9.6 yards a carry. The Wolverines had 373 yards rushing.
There was plenty of hand-wringing among Michigan fans after last week’s 31-10 victory over Washington considering McNamara was 7-of-15 for 44 yards. He entered the NIU game 16-of-26 for 180 yards overall with two touchdowns. He was 8-of-11 for 191 yards and one touchdown, an 87-yard pass to Cornelius Johnson, leading the Wolverines to an insurmountable 35-3 halftime lead against NIU.
"I didn’t think it was anything with the passing game," McNamara said, referring to the Washington game. "I heard some stuff, but it didn’t really affect us. Whatever team it is, that’s going to influence what we call and what we run. And whatever is called and what’s run, it’s our job to execute it no matter it’s a run or a pass.
"We saw a weakness in Washington’s defense in running the ball, and we took advantage of that weakness. This week we saw a weakness in being able to take some shots (on NIU), and we took advantage of that weakness this week."
Freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy took over the offense to start the second half. He was 4-of-6 for 42 yards and had one run for 16. Michigan substituted liberally.
For the Michigan defense, this wasn’t exactly a revenge game since Rocky Lombardi is now the Northern Illinois quarterback, but the last time the Wolverines faced him, he led Michigan State’s upset victory over Michigan last fall. Still, the Michigan defensive players were more than aware of Lombardi’s abilities. He was 17-of-32 for 323 yards and three touchdowns while leading MSU to that win.
Lombardi has a different supporting cast this year, however. He was held to 46 passing yards and one touchdown, scored late in the fourth quarter, and he rushed seven times for 72 yards. The Huskies gained 208 yards against Michigan, which has allowed four touchdowns this season, including three passing.
The Michigan defense is different, too, now in its third game led by defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. Michigan had five 3-and-outs and Gemon Green gave the team its first interception of the season.
"He’s teaching us to be hard and physical every day," Green said of Macdonald. "Don’t give no play up. Be physical. Be dominant."
Michigan has been consistent running the ball, but the Wolverines also have been consistent in their postgame approach. Each week, a player — this time it was Corum — made clear there still is much to accomplish.
"This is a good start, but once again, we haven’t really done much yet," Corum said. "It was definitely a great win against a good team from the MAC. Right now, with Big Ten play that’s coming up, we’re going to keep our head down, keep pushing, keep getting better, every week, every practice and go forward.
“I feel like we can always improve on something. We’re going to celebrate this win today but tomorrow, it’s over with. It’s a new week and it’s about Rutgers and going forward. There’s a long season ahead of us. That’s only three games, and we’ve got to put those behind us and we’ve got to learn from our mistakes that we made today and keep bettering the things we did good."
Harbaugh said the team has done a lot of good things through three games, things to build upon. But the players keep refocusing after the wins, making clear they haven't accomplished their goals. Not yet.
"The team does have big goals and now you start playing for the Big Ten championship and, ultimately, that's what they want to achieve," Harbaugh said. "And that starts next week."