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Saturday, September 5, 2009
Michigan moves past drama, makes statement

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Everything worked out for coach Rich Rodriguez and Michigan in the opener Saturday.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan had to wait nine months to prove it was a better team.

The Wolverines had to wait a week to prove they were simply a team.

After allegations of NCAA rule violations suggested unrest lingered inside the Michigan program, the Wolverines vowed to show they were still a united force. Head coach Rich Rodriguez saw the jelling process begin in January after players returned from winter break. But those bonds were tested when the news broke last Saturday night, and when the team convened Monday for practice.

"Just watching practice, that's when you can tell everybody's on the same page," linebacker Obi Ezeh said. "Just the intensity and the focus, those are the times when you check and see where you're at, and I think we were good to go Monday through Thursday."

Rodriguez often said last season that he saw a lot of good things from Monday through Thursday. But he needed progress on Saturday, in a critical opener for a program under fire, and he received it.

Michigan came out focused and executed on both sides of the ball, surging to a 31-0 lead against Western Michigan en route to an easy win, its first in a season opener since 2006. Rodriguez, who has a track record of Year 2 turnarounds, saw his offense click for 31 first-half points, while a defense filled with question marks blanked Western Michigan for three quarters.

"There was a sense of relief for the players," Rodriguez said. "They're all tired of all the drama. They're not here for all that drama. I'm here to try to lead young men to get their degree and win championships. I'm not here for all that drama.

"We're not here for drama. We're here for the other stuff. It was good to play a game and dismiss the drama."

Rodriguez seemed somewhat defiant when he faced the media, repeatedly saying the win wasn't about him but the team. He praised the fans for their support but didn't say much about the obvious messages directed toward him, like a sign that read "In Rod We Trust," held high in the closing seconds.

Yet in a quieter moment in the Crisler Arena tunnel, Rodriguez acknowledged a sense of relief after the worst week of his coaching career.

"He's a real human being, so I'm sure it felt good," quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said.

The wait for kickoff wasn't easy for Rodriguez.

"Let's just play a game, let's see where we're at," he said. "It was really fun to show, at least for a half, some of the progress we made. ... But we've still got a long way to go.

"I've got a lot of film watching to do [Sunday]. With the coaches. On our own."

Rodriguez cracked a smile after those last words, a reference to the allegations that he and his coaches keep players at the football complex for 10-12 hours on Sundays after games. He wore a different look Monday, when he had to compose himself several times while addressing the allegations against his program.

In a joyous locker room after the game, Michigan players urged Rodriguez to take off his shirt to celebrate.

"It's a tradition I didn't know about, the coach takes his shirt off," he said. "I lifted it up. I didn't take it all the way off."

Would Rodriguez ever go all the way?

"Oh, sure, yeah," he said. "I'll take it off every game if we win."

Michigan isn't completely drama free. The school's investigation into the allegations is under way, and the NCAA likely will be involved in the process. Rodriguez's business association with a twice-banned former Clemson booster also will be explored.

But the Wolverines delivered an important monologue Saturday. They proved they're unified and turned the focus back to where it matters most.

"We worked hard over the summer, and this is the outcome," Ezeh said. "You don't need to hear it from us. You don't need to ask any more questions.

"Just watch the game."