By Tony Gerdeman
At one fell swoop, the pain, the pressure and the persecution of 3-9 all fell by the wayside.
At least for a few days, anyway.
A popular pick for an upset this week, the Michigan Wolverines welcomed the Western Michigan Broncos into the Big House and proved rude hosts, pounding the visitors 31-7.
Michigan led the game 31-0 at the half and pretty much set their tricked-out ride on cruise control after that.
Now before we go any farther, I have to mention that Western Michigan’s performance may have been the worst that I have seen of any Michigan opponents since I took over Michigan Monday back on 2006. That’s not to say Michigan didn’t cause many of the issues, but the Broncos looked ridiculous independent of anything that Michigan was doing at times.
Quarterback Tim Hiller had three or four passes that inexplicably fell out of his hand while he was winding up. It was like watching a six-year old try to throw a football. Hiller was throwing more helicopters than Godzilla during an attack on Tokyo. He did try blaming his loose grip on the brand new slippery footballs he was using, and he looked better once he went to some well-worn balls. (Perhaps there is another Michigan scandal on the horizon, this time involving slippery footballs?)
Basically, Western Michigan’s offense did not resemble the high-scoring offense that was expected, and Michigan’s secondary was never really put to the test. That will change when Notre Dame comes to town on Saturday.
On the other side of the ball, I believe that Michigan’s offense was very responsible for their success, and it can’t just be blamed on Western’s defense. The Wolverines had 289 yards of total offense in the first half before letting up in the second half. Although I do wonder how much of it was Michigan letting up or Western catching up.
Regardless of what took place in the second half, for the first time since Rich Rodriguez has been at Michigan, the offense looked like it was supposed to look. You know that episode of the Simpsons where Homer tries building a permanent outdoor grill and it ends up looking nothing like the picture on the front of the box? That was Michigan’s offense last year. For much of Saturday against the Broncos, however, Michigan’s offense looked just like the instruction manual said it should.
And the offense made all of that noise and they didn’t even have starting running back Brandon Minor suited up to play.
The giddiness that is permeating Michigan fandom right now has to be rivaling that of the Jonas Brothers loyalists. Though I’m guessing there are fewer screams and tears amongst the Jonas Brothers fans.
When Michigan Was On Offense
True freshman Tate Forcier got the start at quarterback and looked…well…he looked…okay, I’ll just come out and say it, he looked really, really good. There, I said it. He finished the game 13-20 for 179 yards and three touchdowns. He also carried the ball 11 times for 37 yards. Forcier looked completely comfortable throughout the entire game. He was poised and knew where to go with the ball just about every time.
There were some miscommunications a couple of times when Forcier tried going downfield, but that’s not unusual for an opener. He proved himself to be an accurate passer, but he was rarely pressured by Western’s defense, so we don’t exactly know how he’ll handle a defense like Notre Dame’s. (And you should stop chuckling long enough to realize that if Notre Dame can shut out Nevada’s offense, then maybe they’re not so terrible over there anymore.)
Forcier was not the only true freshman quarterback who impressed in his debut. Denard Robinson also looked good doing what he’ll be asked to do, which is running the ball. On his first snap at quarterback (and a bobbled one to boot), he ended up running for a 43-yard touchdown play on what looked to be a broken play. It looked like the play was designed to go to the left, with a receiver running back against the grain available for a reverse pitch, but due to the bad snap, Robinson just decided to take it to the right side and found tremendous blocking the entire way.
Everybody wants to make a big deal out of Denard Robinson’s speed, and yes it was on display on his touchdown run, but without the blocking of receivers Martavious Odoms, Greg Mathews and LaTerryal Savoy, the play doesn’t even garner a first down. To be honest, Odoms and Mathews were mauling people out there. Odoms looked like he was in a mosh pit and Mathews looked like he was getting paid by the block. There was a level of intensity and desire out there that is bred by success, which was hard to come by last year.
Robinson finished just 2-4 passing for 18 yards, but that’s not what he is here to do. Don’t get me wrong, he’ll eventually do more of it and do it better, but he’s on the field to make things happen with his feet, not his arm.
Overall, the two freshmen quarterbacks carried the ball 22 times for 111 yards. That was not possible last year. It wasn’t even imaginable. There is a new reality in the running game for Michigan and it changes every other aspect of this offense.
The two most interesting things for me regarding the passing game was the fact that Martavious Odoms only had one catch and tight end Kevin Koger had three.
I’ve been saying since Rodriguez’s hiring that unless he changes his philosophy we can expect to see the extinction of the tight end at the University of Michigan. Well, it looks like the World Wildlife Fund got a hold of Rodriguez and talked to him about the horrors of children growing up without being able to see tight ends catching the ball at Michigan.
Koger’s three catches netted 32 yards and a touchdown, but his catch of the day was a 20-yard leaping one-handed stab in the fourth quarter. With hands and field-stretching ability like that, Rodriguez would be crazy not to find a large role for Koger in this offense.
Getting back to Martavious Odoms’ lack of catches, I think it speaks greatly to the fact that there are numerous options for the Michigan quarterbacks now. Also, I think it’s clear that they don’t have to rely on the wide receiver screens clear out by the sideline in order to get players in space anymore. There is more speed on the field for Michigan right now, so they don’t have to get wide “artificially”. They seem to be getting wide just fine as a product of the base offense.
The passing game can’t be talked about without mentioning Junior Hemingway’s career day that saw him tally five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns. His first touchdown came on a Tate Forcier scramble where Hemingway came back for the ball, then released towards the endzone and Forcier found him on the run for a 28-yard pass. The second touchdown was a simple streak down the sideline and Forcier hit him from 44 yards out.
An interesting addition to the passing game was former Wolverine point guard Kelvin Grady. He finished with two catches for 13 yards and had one carry for 11 yards. He certainly brought an energy and feist that just wasn’t there last year.
With Brandon Minor out, Carlos Brown got the most carries among the running backs. He finished with 10 carries for 54 yards and was never stopped behind the line of scrimmage. He ran fast and hard, as he always has. He looked close to breaking loose a couple of times, but I’m not sure the vision is there to see more than the first hole. He did fumble as well, but Michigan recovered.
Sophomore Michael Shaw and true freshman Vincent Smith also got some carries. Smith is small--he’s listed at just 5’6” 168, but he showed himself to be a lot stronger than he looks, and when he lowers his head, there is nobody on a football field that can get lower. But again, this was just Western Michigan.
Overall, the Wolverines rushed the ball 50 times for 242 yards, a 4.8 yard average. Obviously, the offensive line had a great deal to with that. They also gave up zero sacks and were frequently getting to the second level with their run blocks.
Left tackle Mark Ortmann, center David Molk and right guard David Moosman were all called for penalties, but they all more than made up for it with their overall performances. New right tackle Mark Huyge performed well, but Western just didn’t deliver a stiff enough test to get a real good feel of how this offensive line is going to handle legitimate pressure.
When Michigan Was On Defense
The Wolverines debuted an entirely new defense on Saturday, introducing defensive coordinator Greg Robinson’s 3-4 defense which utilizes a hybrid defensive end/linebacker as well as a hybrid linebacker/safety.
Just to give you a brief primer of what the defense looks like, there are essentially two defensive tackle spots shared by Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, who was a defensive end last year. Defensive end Brandon Graham stayed outside where he belongs, which allows him to seek and destroy like it always did. The hybrid defensive end/linebacker, which was thought to be Brandon Herron’s job, was actually manned by true freshman Craig Roh to start. And Roh didn’t disappoint. He was in the backfield on a few occasions and looks to be full of pillaging potential. Herron also played, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Roh never doesn’t start again.
The linebackers were manned by returning starters Obi Ezeh in the middle, Jonas Mouton on the weakside and former safety Stevie Brown on the strong side. Unfortunately, due to the move to linebacker, Brown is out of the running for a record third-consecutive award for the Nation’s Most Accommodating Defensive Back.
Donovan Warren and Boubacar Cissoko are back at the corner spots, but the Wolverines are breaking in two new safeties. Sophomore Mike Williams got the start at free safety and junior Troy Woolfolk got the start at strong safety.
It’s somewhat hard to judge where the secondary stands, because Western just didn’t pose many issues. Of course, I say that and yet the Broncos still threw for 182 yards in the second half, though a very large chunk of that came on Western Michigan’s lone touchdown, a 73-yard pass from Tim Hiller to Juan Nunez. But even on the play, Nunez was being covered by back-up redshirt freshman cornerback J.T. Floyd, though Troy Woolfolk was also chasing the play.
In fact, Floyd gave up Western Michigan’s two longest pass plays of the day. Donovan Warren and Boubacar Cissoko were both impressive in coverage, though Warren was flagged for two pass interference calls (as well as a personal foul). There were receivers open, however, and a better quarterback will have more success.
A team with a big lead will always give up a lot of passing yards in the second half. It’s how things work and it was to be expected. However, I’m not sure how much this game helped the secondary because the Michigan safeties were virtually untested. That will change on Saturday, and we will get a chance to see a more realistic picture of this secondary.
The front seven played very well by any standard, however. Western Michigan was held to -2 yards rushing in the first half and finished the game with just 38 yards rushing.
The fact that they stopped the run so well shouldn’t be too surprising considering how often the Wolverines had eight or nine defenders in the box. There were also times when there were ten defenders within four yards of the line of scrimmage at the snap. Obviously, Greg Robinson is confident in his team’s speed to drop back and cover when need be.
There were really no glaring weakness on the front seven, but as I keep saying, Western provided no test. Brandon Graham only finished with one assist, but if you only look at the stat sheet, you’ll miss the fact that he was pressuring the quarterback all day long and if he was just a split second quicker, he would have had four or five sacks on the day.
Overall, I was very impressed with the defense. It seemed like one of the few times since 2006 where the entire defense knew where they were going and ended getting there fast. There were a few instances of pre-snap issues for the defense, but rarely did that show up after the snap.
The Special Teams
Again, another very solid outing for a Wolverine unit. As usual, Zoltan Mesko punted the ball well, but there was no rugby punting to speak of. I’m still wondering how that is going to work out now that punters are “live” when they leave the pocket.
Senior Jason Olesnavage is the current place-kicker and handled all of his placements well, making all four extra point attempts as well as a 44-yard field goal.
The coverage units were fine, allowing 22 yards per kickoff return and just three yards per punt return.
Greg Mathews handled the punt return duties and did very well. He caught everything that was kicked to him--which is the reason Mathews is back there and not Martavious Odoms, and he also didn’t do too bad actually returning the kicks. He may never take one to the house, but at least he’ll get you to the driveway.
What Does It All Mean
It means that Michigan is back!
(At least against the MAC.)
What it also means is that in a week where Rich Rodriguez and his players were under attack, they were able to put all of that behind them and dominate an opponent in perhaps Rodriguez’s most important game to date. This team was focused and it was clear that everybody on the field was playing with the same goal in mind, which hasn’t always been the case of late.
Will all of this carry over to next week? Undoubtedly. But as they say, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. The Wolverines didn’t get punched in the face against Western Michigan. They didn’t even get a Slug Bug.
It’s not always going to stay this easy for the Wolverines, and how they handle the reality of struggling will ultimately determine whether or not they are back. Or even on the right track.
Right now though, it appears that they’re at least in the train yard.
The Road To The Big One
Sept. 5 Michigan 31 - Western Michigan 7 (1-0)
Sept. 12 Notre Dame
Sept. 19 Eastern Michigan
Sept. 26 Indiana
Oct. 3 at Michigan State
Oct. 10 at Iowa
Oct. 17 Delaware State
Oct. 24 Penn State
Oct. 31 at Illinois
Nov. 7 Purdue
Nov. 14 at Wisconsin
Nov. 21 Ohio State