What a difference a year makes.
Last season, Michigan stumbled to a 3-9 record, suffering through the worst season in its storied history. They lost for the first time ever to a MAC team. They lost their home opener for the second year in a row. They looked clueless for most of the year on both offense and defense.
Yesterday, RichRod's Wolverines, battered all week by accusations of breaking NCAA rules, circled the wagons and played with intensity, at least in the first half.
They looked like the Michigan we all came to know and love under Bo, Gary Moeller, and Lloyd Carr. They easily beat Western Michigan, 31-7.
Only a MAC Team?
Sure, it's only Western Michigan. But given Michigan's recent history vs. Toledo, Appalachian State, etc., Saturday's outcome was the kind of victory this team—and its fans—so desperately needed.
They were dominant on both sides of the ball, running up a 31-0 lead by halftime and coasting through the second half.
To put the contest in perspective, WMU was 9-4 last year and is considered a contender for the MAC crown this year. So the game was no gimme. And WMU has a habit of picking off BCS-conference teams, beating Illinois in 2008, Iowa in 2007 and Virginia in 2006.
Furthermore, WMU's fifth-year senior QB, Tim Hiller, is one of the top QBs in the MAC. Hiller could be playing on Sunday next year, so he was well-positioned to pick apart Michigan's suspect secondary—a secondary that was victimized all season long in 2008. And several sports commentators on ESPN and elsewhere predicted that WMU would pull off the upset.
There's also the little matter of the now-infamous Detroit Free Press article claiming that RichRod forced players to spend excessive time in mandatory football activities. The University and the NCAA are now looking into the matter, and the investigation has become another cloud over the once-proud program.
Numerous juniors and seniors on this team were recruited by Lloyd Carr and disappointed when he retired. Many players like Ryan Mallett and Justin Boren transferred to other universities or left early for the pros after RichRod brought his spread offense to town.
Some think there is still a small faction of upperclassmen on the team who miss Carr's ways and resent RichRod's style and the changes he's brought to the Michigan program. Many approached the game wondering if there was dissension in the locker room, or if the team would close ranks behind their beleaguered coach.
Saturday they got their answer—31-7.
Michigan Dominant on Both Offense and Defense
Last season was an endless tale of 3-and-outs for Michigan on offense. Saturday Michigan moved the ball consistently under the expert direction of freshman QB Tate Forcier.
The running game, despite missing starter Brandon Minor with an injury, was strong. The good news is that Minor is expected back next week against Notre Dame.
RBs Carlos Brown and Michael Shaw both looked good. The team as a whole averaged nearly five yards a carry. The main difference between 2008 and this year could be the offensive line, which is more experienced and adept at running RichRod's option schemes.
The Defense Didn't Rest
And the defense attacked the passer, covered his receivers and made tackles in the open field. Michigan's defenders picked off two enemy passes. Last year's D was a disaster, giving up more points than any Michigan team in history.
New defensive coordinator Greg Robinson runs a more proactive defense that attacks and swarms to the ball. And they made tackles. Last year's team missed tackles all over the place.
Even better, this year's team held onto kicks, punts, and handoffs—instead of fumbling the ball like it was covered in oil the way the 2008 Wolverines did.
A Tale of Three QBs
Both freshmen QBs, Forcier and Denard Robinson, looked good, but Forcier was far better at managing the game and mixing running and passing plays. Forcier was 13 for 20, passing for 179 yards and three TDs.
Robinson's 43-yard TD run was spectacular, but his overall play was geared toward run first, even when his receivers were open for bigger gains. This enables defenses to key on him on every play. He completed only two of four passes for 18 yards.
Robinson was the team's leading rusher, gaining 80 yards on 11 carries. But take away the 43-yard TD, and he only gained 37 yards on 10 carries.
Robinson's instincts and speed are definite assets to the team. He should be a more complete QB in another year or two. But Forcier is clearly the choice for starting QB.
Nick Sheridan, the only UM QB with game experience, saw limited action. Unfortunately, he looked like his old self from 2008. He was 0-for-2. With the team in WMU territory, he tossed an errant throw that was intercepted at the goal line.
Good News and Bad News
Following Saturday's game, some Michigan fans have jumped back on the bandwagon and are now confidently predicting an 8-4 or 9-3 season for the Wolves. 9-3? Hold on, guys. Let's get real.
Next week they will be facing a very good Notre Dame team. They face tough games on the road vs. MSU, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Not to mention Penn State and Ohio State at home. I still think they will be doing very well if they go 7-5 and go to a bowl this year.
So here's the good news and the bad news. Michigan has one excellent starting QB who doesn't play like a freshman at all. As far as first games go, I thought Forcier looked better and more in command than Chad Henne did when Henne started as a freshman.
Barring injury, Forcier could take this team a long way. They should certainly give Notre Dame a run for their money next week. But if Forcier goes down, I think they are much more one-dimensional going with Robinson. And, with all due respect for the former walk-on, Sheridan shouldn't even be an option at this point.