Michigan is used to this: having what should be a nice tune-up game before a critical September showdown with Notre Dame. Already, people are buzzing about Under the Lights II at the Big House next Saturday, the next-to-last Michigan-Notre Dame game before the rivalry takes an extended break, and a game that will bring to mind memories of the classic 2011 Wolverines win.
But first thing’s first for Michigan. Coming to Ann Arbor on Saturday is a Central Michigan that, despite breaking in a new QB, finished last season with momentum and knocked off Iowa last September. The Chippewas will be thinking upset again here.
Do they have what it takes or will Michigan win going away?
Michigan’s Key to Victory: Get the defensive line off on the right foot.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison stressed all offseason the importance of Michigan’s defensive line creating pressure. Central Michigan’s offensive line will provide a nice season-opening test — as will athletic QB Cody Kater. The Wolverines will want to rattle Kater, who is set to make his first college start on Saturday, will also keeping him pinned in the pocket.
The Chippewas do have a dangerous backfield weapon in RB Zurlon Tipton. He can make Michigan pay if he’s allowed to get into the secondary. But if the front four establishes a nice rhythm early, Central Michigan will have a hard time moving the football.
Central Michigan’s Key to Victory: Burn Michigan deep.
The Wolverines are thrilled to have top corner Blake Countess back for the start of this season, after losing him in Game 1 last year to a knee injury. In Countess and Raymon Taylor, Michigan has a nice 1-2 punch at the cornerback spot — good news for the Maize and Blue given that Central boasts a talented receiving corps, led by Titus Davis.
Where Michigan has real questions is at safety. Jarrod Wilson will be in the starting lineup in place of an injured Courtney Avery, further thinning a spot the Wolverines already need to revamp. If the Wolverines try to take away Tipton, as they probably will, the pressure will fall on Kater to stretch the field and open up some things underneath. Can he deliver?
Michigan’s Player to Watch: Jehu Chesson, WR.
The Wolverines’ depth on offense took a major hit during camp when Amara Darboh, set to be the No. 2 wide receiver opposite Jeremy Gallon, fell with a season-ending foot injury. Enter the 6-foot-3 Chesson, a redshirt freshman, who will be one of the players asked to fill the void left by Darboh’s absence. Michigan has other options at receiver — Gallon, Drew Dileo, Jeremy Jackson, Joe Reynolds. Chesson has the highest upside.
Central Michigan’s Player to Watch: Tipton.
A relatively unknown product outside the state, Tipton developed last season into one of the MAC’s top weapons. He rushed for 1,497 and 19 touchdowns, plus caught 24 passes. He topped 100 yards on the ground in each of Central’s final six games of 2012 (including a bowl win over Western Kentucky) and flew over the 200-yard marker once. Central Michigan was 5-1 in that stretch.
There were other factors at play during the Chips’ hot close, but Tipton can spark this offense on his own. Should he push up over the century mark, Michigan’s defense could be in trouble.
Prediction: Michigan is about a 31-point favorite for this contest. The talent gap between the two teams may make that number feasible, but I’d expect Central Michigan to hang around for a bit on Saturday — maybe even long enough to make the Michigan Stadium crowd nervous.
Look for Devin Gardner to wind up with some excellent numbers (call it 220 yards passing, three total TDs) and about five running backs to pitch in for the Wolverines. They’ll pull away late, even if the first half if a little closer than they’d like.
Michigan 38, Central Michigan 17