Saturday, September 3, 2011
Winning Wolverines still work in progress
By Adam Rittenberg
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When Brady Hoke informed his Michigan players that they had won Saturday's game against Western Michigan, the locker room remained silent.
Football coaches usually don't tell their teams when they win. Scoreboards do. Players are trained to grind for 60 minutes, not 43.
But as lightning continued to strike around Michigan Stadium on Saturday, both teams agreed to end the game with 1:27 left in the third quarter. Final score: Michigan 34, Western Michigan 10.
"When coach Hoke told us we had won the game, everybody got quiet," quarterback Denard Robinson said. "It was like, 'Seriously?' Everybody wanted to play."
The weather-shortened win was an appropriate start for a Michigan team that remains very much a work in progress. There were certainly signs of progress Saturday: a potent rushing attack that wasn't simply The Denard Show; an opportunistic defense that forced three turnovers, returning two for touchdowns; a team that grabbed momentum after an initial lightning delay and racked up 14 points, a burst that made the decision to call the game a little easier.
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said that during the discussions about how to proceed, someone "wearing a different color than maize and blue" suggested the game should be terminated and treated as if it never happened, with no victory awarded.
"We'd be here till 3 o'clock in the morning if we needed to before we were going to settle that up," Brandon said. "I'm proud of our team and I think we had the game under control. Our team deserved the victory. I give a lot of credit to Western because they came to that conclusion, just as we did."
Michigan looked completely in control when the second and final delay began, but the Wolverines had some shaky moments. Western Michigan marched downfield on the game's opening drive as quarterback Alex Carder carved up the Michigan secondary like so many others had the past three seasons.
Brandon Herron returns the first of his two defensive touchdowns against Western Michigan.
The Broncos outgained Michigan 199-146 in the first half and reached Wolverines' territory on five of their eight possessions. Michigan struggled with standout receiver Jordan White (12 receptions, 119 yards) and, much like it did last year, allowed too many third-down conversions (6-of-11).
"We're a long way from being any kind of defense that we want to represent Michigan with," Hoke said.
Asked moments later how he felt about the Wolverines defense, Hoke was blunt: "Not very good."
There were some very good moments for the Wolverines' defense. Linebacker Brandon Herron became the first defender in team history to record two touchdown returns in a game (and the first Michigan player to do so since Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon in 1940).
Herron's second score, a 28-yard fumble return, came after safety Jordan Kovacs leveled Carder on a perfectly timed blitz. Coordinator Greg Mattison turned up the heat after halftime, and Kovacs recorded two sacks.
"It's a completely different scheme," Kovacs said. "We've got some more blitz packages that give me the opportunity to come down in the box and try to make a play."
The offense started off looking much like its 2010 form. Robinson took off on a designed run on the first play of scrimmage, and spread elements surfaced throughout a 76-yard scoring drive. But the new scheme, outfitted with power elements, began to take root.
The fact Robinson provided only 46 of Michigan's 190 rush yards is significant. Midway through the third quarter, running back Fitzgerald Toussaint raced through a truck-sized hole for 43 yards. On the next play, Michael Shaw found a seam and raced 44 yards to the end zone.
"On the long run by Fitz, he lowered himself to go through a guy, and if you watch, you see [wide receiver] Junior Hemingway launching himself to try to get a block over the top," Hoke said. "That was exciting to me. That was good football to me."
Hoke has preached toughness from the moment he arrived here. Michigan didn't look very tough early, as Western Michigan held the edge at the line of scrimmage.
But things shifted as the game wore on. Michigan offset big Broncos gains by forcing turnovers. The Wolverines lost top cornerback Troy Woolfolk to an ankle injury -- Hoke said the senior could have returned -- but kept Western Michigan out of the end zone after the first quarter.
The offense scored in the third quarter because it dominated the line of scrimmage.
"There's a mind-set," Hoke said. "They understand how we're going to play. You could see it a little bit, in the third quarter, up front on both sides of the ball that it was going to be more physical.
"You could feel that."
The Wolverines are far from complete, much like Saturday's game. They're still terrible on special teams. They're still susceptible to big plays on defense.
But this was a starting point, a 43-minute starting point.
"It was kind of wild," Hoke said. "Wet and wild."
And after the initial shock of learning they had won, Michigan players reacted as they normally would.
"We do what we do after every victory," Kovacs said. "Sing 'The Victors.'"