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'We can play better': Wobbly Wolverines topple Middle Tennessee State

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The speed-in-space debut at Michigan wasn’t one to be bronzed. It was, at times, uneven and had a confusing mix of quarterbacks in the second half with, again, uneven results. And defensively, it was clear there’s still plenty of work to overcome significant losses of key starters from a year ago.

This was the formal introduction of first-time offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who installed his offense in the spring and for the first time in his career called plays. Seventh-ranked Michigan got the win, 40-21, over Middle Tennessee State before 110,811 at Michigan Stadium on Saturday night, but coupled with some nice performances were several key mistakes that clouded the highlights. And that makes the response to the game, well, uneven.

BOX SCORE: Michigan 40, Middle Tennessee State 21

MTSU’s two touchdowns were set up by Michigan turnovers. Quarterback Shea Patterson fumbled on the first play of the game and the Blue Raiders took advantage, converting the takeaway for a touchdown. Lavert Hill fumbled a punt, which led to another short field and touchdown for MTSU (0-1). There was also a missed opportunity in the second half when Hill dropped a sure pick-six.

“Obviously didn’t get off to a great start,” said Patterson, who was 17-of-29 passing for 203 yards and three touchdowns. “I’ve got to take care of the football. A win’s a win, but I think everyone in that locker room knows we didn’t live up to our standards. I put that on me — I’ve got to take care of the football.”

Patterson repeated that refrain several times during his postgame comments.

Bottom line after one game, executing Gattis’ offense is clearly a work in progress — that was evident when Patterson and backup Dylan McCaffrey were on the field together and then flip-flopped at quarterback. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh had said last month he planned to play both, but at times it felt forced. McCaffrey was 2-of-2 passing for 17 yards and ran eight times for 42 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown run in the final minute of the third quarter.

Patterson was asked if he knew that McCaffrey would be playing.

“I trust in our coaches and I trust everything they do,” Patterson said. “We’re going to do what’s best for this team. I thought he did a heck of a job going in there and running and controlling the drives. I thought he did a really good job. Again, I’ve got to take care of the football.”

Harbaugh said he has seen the offense run fluidly in practice and they’ll work to put that on display in the upcoming games, starting with Army next weekend.

“A lot of good things, but still we know, we’ve seen in practice we can operate cleaner,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what we’ll strive for this next week. This is a new offense, and for a first time out, it was good. Could it be better? Yeah, sure, and that’s what we’ll be striving for.”

Harbaugh had said he wanted to play both quarterbacks, at times with both on the field and also separately. But Harbaugh praised Patterson's play and said the veteran quarterback was dealing with some physical issue — he wouldn’t share details — at halftime.

“I think there were some things, the pre-snap penalties, ball security’s got to get better. Same with Dylan, I thought a couple of Dylan’s runs when he fumbled it and it went out of bounds — we’re on it,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to improve in that area when it comes to quarterbacks handling the ball. This offense, they handle the ball a lot. We’re not taking a deep long bow, we know we can play better. That’s an area we’ve got to get better at, be more efficient at.

“I thought Shea played extremely well. He probably didn’t tell you he was working through a little something he was getting evaluated at halftime, so I was keeping a close eye on him. Had some quarterback runs designed there in the third quarter I preferred to see Dylan running because I didn’t want to make Shea’s issue worse. Made some big plays. Did a great job. The throws he made, the three touchdown passes, that’s big for any quarterback to throw three touchdown passes in a game. Where he was outstanding was managing the checks. They threw a lot of zero blitz at us which is hard to pick up. He got us into the right play four or five times and two resulted in touchdowns. He was outstanding in that regard.”

Freshman running back Zach Charbonnet got the start and led the team in rushing with eight carries for 90 yards. He also had two catches for nine yards.

“Just felt like Zach, throughout training camp, was performing at the highest level,” Harbaugh said. “He was No. 1 on the depth chart when we finally made the depth chart.”

Tarik Black led the receivers with four first-half catches for 80 yards.

Michigan’s final score came on a 1-yard run by running back Ben VanSumeren and Jake Moody made two field goals.

Middle Tennessee State finished with 301 yards of offense, including 234 passing, totals that got a late boost with 1:06 left in the game when Asher O’Hara connected with Jimmy Marshall for a 59-yard touchdown. Khaleke Hudson led Michigan (1-0) with eight tackles, Jordan Glasgow had two sacks and Ambry Thomas had an interception

The Wolverines played without several key players. Receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, who had a team-best 47 receptions last year for 612 yards and eight touchdowns, was on the field before the game while the receivers went through pregame warmups but he was not in uniform and had a walking boot on his right leg. Peoples-Jones missed spring practice with a groin injury, but from all accounts, he got up to speed in the new offense during preseason camp and was excelling. Harbaugh said it’s possible Peoples-Jones returns this week.

Michigan also had first-time starters at the two offensive tackle spots. Senior left tackle Jon Runyan, an All-Big Ten first team selection last season, went through pregame warmups with the linemen but did not play. It’s unclear what his injury is. With Runyan out, Ryan Hayes, the 6-foot-7, 299-pounder who didn’t play last year as a freshman, moved into the starting role.

Jalen Mayfield made his first start at right tackle. He and Andrew Stueber had been embroiled in a neck-and-neck competition since spring, but Stueber suffered a season-ending ACL injury during camp. Mayfield played in three games last season at left tackle.

“We had two new tackles come in and play a great,” Patterson said. “Had all day back there.”

Twitter: @chengelis