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Cornelius Johnson launched forward Saturday off the line of scrimmage.
With head down and arms pumping, Michigan football's wide receiver lengthened his stride until he was 16 yards downfield. On a different play and a different route, Johnson might have stopped right there, chopping his feet and turning toward the sideline on a deep curl.
But on this play and this route — first and 10 from his own 13-yard line with a 25-point lead on the scoreboard — Johnson pulled the bait and switch. He fooled Northern Illinois cornerback Eric Rogers into thinking he was running a deep curl and then, after giving a half turn back toward quarterback Cade McNamara, Johnson planted his right foot in the ground to restart his momentum and torch the defender with a double move.
Roughly 3 yards separated Johnson from the trailing Rogers as a high-arching pass by McNamara fell softly into the receiver’s hands at midfield. The gap only widened from there. As Johnson crossed the goal line after an 87-yard touchdown grab, he and McNamara entered the record books with the third-longest pass play in school history.
“We saw a weakness in their defense going into this week and we put an extra emphasis on that,” McNamara said. “Really all week we were pretty dialed in as far as deep balls. I think us running it more in practice, I think it just led to more success.”
That connection between McNamara and Johnson was the most aesthetically pleasing score on an afternoon when Michigan scored a lot. It highlighted a more balanced offensive performance that, for the first time this season, offered glimpses of how U-M’s perimeter players can offset the loss of No. 1 wideout Ronnie Bell, who is out for the season.
The offensive outburst finished as a 63-10 romp that should give head coach Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Josh Gattis more confidence as the passing attack offers ballast to a run-first offense.
An effort to coax more production out of the receivers and tight ends began on Michigan’s first play from scrimmage, when nearly everyone in the stadium expected the Wolverines to hand the ball to running back Hassan Haskins. McNamara zipped a pass to wide receiver Daylen Baldwin along the left sideline, and Baldwin promptly juked Rogers for a catch and run of 14 yards.
“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 the timing is there, the execution has been there in practice with Cade and with Cornelius Johnson. Daylen Baldwin had a bit of an ankle injury early. He was able to play in the Western Michigan game. And he’s gotten better and better each week.”
The early pass to Baldwin, who exuded confidence in an interview with reporters during the week, foreshadowed an afternoon with contributions from a handful of Michigan perimeter players. Baldwin, Johnson, Roman Wilson, A.J. Henning and tight end Erick All each chipped in a reception of at least 14 yards as McNamara turned in another efficient effort (8 of 11, 191 yards, 1 TD) with five scoring drives in as many chances.
Johnson is probably the receiver best equipped to win one-on-one matchups outside the numbers. Baldwin turned a short gain into a first down by forcing a missed tackle. Henning and Wilson gained 76 yards total on a combination of reverses, jet sweeps and traditional passes.
McNamara even mixed in All with a 23-yard seam route that exposed the middle of the field for the first time all season.
“They’ve been doing it, been seeing that kind of execution in practice,” Harbaugh said. “And good to see it in a game. A great catch by Erick All. Talking about how much I respect Erick All and his game. See him go up and be that presence in the middle, down the middle of the defense. That kind of catch where you go up for it and you know you’re going to get hit, that’s a tough-as-nails type of player that can do that. It was a big thrill.”
The fans at Michigan Stadium agreed.
Contact Michael Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football gets WRs, TEs going vs. Northern Illinois