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5 Questions with Maize n Brew: Is Michigan’s passing attack better than the numbers show?

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Northwestern v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Michigan/Michigan State game is one of college football’s most intense rivalries, with state bragging rights and the Paul Bunyan Trophy on the line every year. In 2021, though, the stakes are even higher as both teams enter the contest in East Lansing with 7-0 records and top-eight rankings nationally in both the AP Poll and Coaches Poll. This is also a chance for both teams to make a statement on a national level against a top-tier opponent.

With all of that in mind, let’s get some more perspective on the Wolverines by learning what the team is all about from Trevor Woods, lead football writer and editor at Maize n Brew — SB Nation’s site for all things University of Michigan athletics, and a truly well-run website.

Does Michigan actually have the ability to pass the ball? What makes the defensive unit so tough? Is this actually the Wolverines’ year? Here is what Trevor had to say:

1. Just like Michigan State, Michigan is 7-0. Do you believe this is finally Michigan’s year to make a run or do you expect the Wolverines to falter down the stretch and why?

Trevor: If you look at Michigan’s schedule to this point, the Wolverines haven’t played a team that you can actually say is a good football team. The same can be said for Michigan State (Michigan and MSU both narrowly beat Nebraska). I really can’t say I expect them to make a run just yet, and I can’t say they’re going to falter either. The game on Saturday is incredibly huge for both programs and we’ll really know who’s who soon enough. I’m leaning toward they can make a run with Penn State looking vulnerable, but when it comes to Ohio State it’s I’ll have to see it to believe it territory.

2. Following all of the subpar performances over the past few seasons, it seemed that Wolverines fans were maybe starting to get ready to move on from the Jim Harbaugh era. However, with the undefeated start, what is now the general feeling from the Michigan fan base regarding Harbaugh and his staff?

Trevor: The fans are happy as can be right now, especially compared to last December after a 2-4 year where the pitchforks were out. Fans are excited about the game on Saturday, but their feelings for the team are forever in flux — with a loss to Michigan State or Ohio State, those pitchforks will come out once more. In short, the 7-0 start doesn’t really matter if Michigan doesn’t beat the best teams on its schedule.

3. Michigan has obviously put an emphasis on the run, ranking fifth in the country in rushing yards per game (253.3), but on the flip side, Michigan ranks just 104th in the FBS in terms of passing yards per game (189.6). Is Michigan a one-dimensional offense, and is its lack of success in the passing game a big concern, and something you’re not confident the Wolverines can effectively do, or are the numbers just simply low because the play-calling favors the rushing attack and Michigan can pass the ball when it needs to? How do the two quarterbacks — Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy — differ?

Trevor: Don’t read too too much into the rushing offense numbers in correlation to how good/bad Michigan’s pass offense is. Michigan has ran the ball so well there have been games where the Wolverines haven’t had to go away from it, so why pass when you are dominating on the ground? With that said, McNamara’s deep passing must improve, he hasn’t been off by as much as some people may perceive, and he’s willing to go deep which is half the battle, but there’s room for improvement in this area. However, McNamara did have a game against Rutgers where he threw for just seven yards in the second half and went three-and-out the first four possessions, and that lack of production led to a nail-biter 20-13 win for Michigan. McNamara has thrown deep with authority at times, but it’s all about consistency.

As far as how McNamara and McCarthy differ — McCarthy is much more explosive with his legs, and his arm has serious range and pop. However, McCarthy is just a five-star true freshman and McNamara likely has a better grasp of the offense, getting the team in the right play, checks, reads, etc. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Jim Harbaugh unleashed McCarthy more in this one, or let McNamara go deep to test a Michigan State secondary that has had a fair share of troubles.

4. Defensively, Michigan ranks in the top-25 in the nation in rushing yards allowed (24th), passing yards allowed (20th), points allowed (second) and total defense (11th). What has made the Wolverines so dominant on defense, and what is the best way for Michigan State to attack the unit?

Trevor: What’s made Michigan dominant on defense is defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald coming in from the Baltimore Ravens and revamping the schematics on D — they’re playing more zone, disguising coverages, blitzing from a wide array of gaps. The energy is higher on that side of the ball with a fair amount of talent, too. My advice to Michigan State would be to stick to the run, see if the offensive line can get a push going for Kenneth Walker III, and then try to set up some play-action pass attempts. Michigan’s biggest weakness in recent memory has been its secondary, but the defensive backs have played much better this year. Rocky Lombardi lit the Michigan secondary up a season ago, and it would not be surprising one bit to see MSU have a somewhat similar game plan.

5. A lot has been said in recent years that this game often means more to Michigan State and its fan base, and that Harbaugh, Michigan and Wolverines fans don’t take this rivalry quite as seriously (quite the opposite seems true on Twitter, but I digress). Whether that is true or not, do you believe that to be the case, or do you think Michigan is focused, locked in and really wanting to embrace the rivalry this time around?

Trevor: I think it means a lot to both programs. Look at the ticket sales, look at ESPN College GameDay coming, FOX Pregame Show is coming, even Barstool’s pregame show will be in East Lansing. Hotels are practically sold out or $500 for a low-tier hotel, it must mean something to people wearing maize and blue. It’s kind of hard for fans, and the team, not to take a game and rivalry seriously when that team beat you the year before and they’re currently undefeated. I think the Michigan team is locked in and focused, they have a lot more veteran leadership than they’ve had in a couple years, probably the best leadership since 2016 to be exact.

Bonus: How do you see the game playing out and final score prediction?

Trevor: I think Michigan will be able to bottle up Kenneth Walker III enough to limit the overall production of the MSU offense. I also believe Michigan will be able to pass well enough in this one to where stacking the box to stop Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins might prove to be a big mistake. I thought this game would be closer until I watched Michigan State on Michigan’s bye week, and the Spartans struggled mightily against Indiana — if it wasn’t for IU QB Jack Tuttle, MSU would have lost that game. What is concerning is Michigan State is coming off a bye week and the team is refreshed and has more time to prepare against Michigan. There are logical predictions to be made stating why either team will win or lose, but I’m going Michigan in this one by a score of 27-17.

There is a lot at stake on Saturday, folks. A big thank you to Trevor for providing his thoughts and analysis about the Wolverines. You can follow Trevor on Twitter, and for news and updates on that school down the road, follow Maize n Brew if you’d wish as well.

If you are interested in my responses to Trevor’s questions in podcast form, head over to Maize n Brew.