Michigan will not be mistaken for anything other than a running team, but that doesn’t mean that the passing game hasn’t been impressive so far this season. Michigan is the 46th best passing team in the nation, which isn’t so much different than it was during the later Carr years.
Of the five teams ahead of Michigan on a per game rushing basis, only Oregon is rated higher in passing. Three others—Nebraska, Navy and Georgia Tech—are all ranked near the bottom of FBS.
The stats are actually even better than this suggests. Just like Nebraska and Georgia Tech, Michigan just doesn’t throw very often, yet the team is obviously capable of getting yards when it needs to. The 9.6-yards-per-attempt place Michigan eighth in the nation.
This does not suggest that Michigan would be better if Denard Robinson threw more. Michigan is running on approximately 60 percent of its plays; the team has a specific style and needs to operate under the aegis of the running game to open up the passing.
But when necessary, the passing game has been a huge boon to the offense. Against Notre Dame, Michigan passed nearly as much as it ran (40 versus 41 attempts), and key passes have been instrumental in two late game-winning touchdowns this season.
The passing game has proven to be extremely flexible. Michigan can choose to throw 22 times (against UConn) or 41 times, depending upon what the situation necessitates.
Unfortunately, the injury of Martavious Odoms removes a threat from the offense, but I think that the passing game is too resilient to suffer inexorably from his loss. The receiving talent is deep and not especially top-heavy, somewhat mimicking the running back situation.
Roy Roundtree is the closest to a premiere receiver that Michigan currently has. His fluidity and knack for getting open are ideal for the slot position. In the Big Ten, he is currently third in receptions and fifth in total yards.
Although it appears that Odom will be out for much of the season, he only had 15 catches through six games. His production can be replaced. It would be nice to see the upperclassman like Junior Hemingway step up and fill the void because he has more potential than his numbers would suggest.
Or perhaps Michigan could get more production out of Darryl Stonum. After a disappointing 2009, there was some hype for Stonum in the spring. He had three receptions and 121 yards against UMass but hasn't had a reception in the past two games. Iowa would be a fortuitous moment to reemerge.
Kelvin Grady has been infrequent but reliable when Robinson gets into trouble. He has been the recipient of some big plays at key moments, but I don’t quite see him stepping up too much. And it is ultimately Rich Rod’s decision whether some of the young guys like Je’Ron Stokes and Terrance Robinson will receive more playing time.
The offense doesn’t necessarily rely upon great receiving talent. Instead, it relies upon the unbridled terror of Robinson’s feet to make the defense indecisive and unprepared. This might not necessarily work against defensive backs with great coverage ability this season or defenses that can knock Robinson down. Against most teams, it’s a winning formula.
Of course, Iowa is 28th in the nation at pass defense, only surrendering 179 yards per game, but they have only played one good passing team so far this season. Against Arizona, which is fifth nationally, Iowa gave up 303 yards.
Last year against Iowa, Michigan only had 124 passing yards on a miserable 11 completions. Part of this was due to the fact that Forcier got destroyed in the game. This year Michigan should have a chance to pick up some yards in the air, but how much depends upon the experience and speed and, most importantly, the efficacy of the running game.
If Iowa is able to contain Robinson in the pocket and get to him on passing plays, then that is their best method of stopping the wide receivers. But if Robinson gets the ball to the receivers, then I think that they can make plays.
The passing game is still probably capable of being stymied by a few teams this year. In the following years the receiving position looks even more promising. There are no seniors at the position, and once the offense is able to incorporate Ricardo Miller, who has the physical size and big play ability to become the primary target, it should open up the passing game beyond what is currently expected.
Fellow Michigan recruit Jerald Robinson can also find the ball in traffic and catch it at its highest point or in stride, and he has good route-running capabilities.
The combination of a junior or senior Denard and a receiver like Miller or Robinson certainly instills a lot of optimism. Michigan is still lacking the great wide receiver prototype that it had continuously for most of the decade.
Neither receiver necessarily needs a perfect pass to catch the ball. However, for a team that still has to contend with the occasional drop, Miller has big hands but still battles with inconsistency.
If he improves his game, the threat of Ricardo Miller and Jerald Robinson should form the bulwark of Michigan’s passing game for years to come.