NCF Nation: Broncos-Wolverines 090509


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

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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."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Tate Forcier ran Michigan's offense just the way Rich Rodriguez wanted it.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The most exciting play of a banner day for Michigan's offense started with a fumbled snap and could have ended in disaster.

Last year, it most certainly would have.

Instead, freshman quarterback Denard Robinson picked up the ball, paused to assess his options, made several Western Michigan defenders look stupid and then showcased his track-star speed on a 43-yard touchdown. On pure instincts and improvisation, with a heavy dose of athleticism, Robinson gave the Wolverines a 13-0 lead.

Was Robinson supposed to hand off the ball?

"Maybe," head coach Rich Rodriguez said with a devilish grin.

Quarterbacks coach Rod Smith was a little more forthcoming.

"It was supposed to be a reverse," Smith said.

The only thing that reversed was the course of the Michigan offense, which set team records for futility and finished last in the Big Ten in 2008. Robinson and fellow freshman quarterback Tate Forcier showed what Rodriguez's offense is supposed to look like, leading Michigan to 31 first-half points in a 31-7 victory against Western Michigan.

After a season of trying to make Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan run a system incongruous to their abilities, Rodriguez let the freshmen he recruited go to work, and the results were impressive.

"They're recruited for this system," Smith said of Forcier and Robinson. "Not that the other guys can't do it. It's just that you've got to know what your strengths and weaknesses are. These guys are better suited than what we had as a unit last year."

Forcier did the lion's share of the work, completing 13 of 20 passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns. He committed no turnovers, made few major miscues, felt no nerves and set the tone on Michigan's first possession.

On first down from the Broncos' 28-yard line, Forcier evaded the rush, directed wide receiver Junior Hemingway to head for the end zone and lofted a perfect pass to the sophomore for the game's first touchdown.

"I saw the coverage and I saw Junior had 1-on-1," Forcier said. "I was getting pressure, so I just stepped up and let Junior make a play. Just let athletes be athletes."

Rodriguez sprinkled in Robinson to change the pace and likely will give "Shoelace" a bigger role with time. After watching a train wreck most of last year, Rodriguez sensed early that this offense would be different.

"I knew we were playing better because the first 12 plays were right on script," he said. "Once we stay on script ... it gets us in rhythm."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- After a week where it seemed like nothing went Michigan's way off the field, the Wolverines delivered a resounding statement between the lines.

Head coach Rich Rodriguez likely couldn't have scripted a better opener to take some of the pressure off his back. His two quarterback recruits, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, ran the offense extremely well and showed the play-making ability Rodriguez demands at the position. Forcier established himself as the clear No. 1 at this point, making very few mistakes in his first career start, while Robinson proved he's too fast and athletic to be left on the sidelines for long.

A supposedly splintered team looked anything but.

The offensive awakening will draw most of the attention, but Michigan's defense might have been the biggest story today. New coordinator Greg Robinson put a ton of pressure on Western Michigan senior quarterback Tim Hiller, who buckled most of the time. Michigan never let the Broncos' offense find any sort of rhythm.

Michigan's victory snaps a two-game slide in season openers and sets up a very intriguing matchup next week against No. 23 Notre Dame, which also looked very impressive today.

I'm heading down for interviews but will have more from the players and coaches, so check back often.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Just as I started typing how Michigan was 11 minutes away from its first season-opening shutout since 1972, Western Michigan's offense finally reached the end zone.

Quarterback Tim Hiller threw a beautiful ball to junior wide receiver Juan Nunez, who split two Michigan defenders and raced for a 73-yard touchdown. It's way too late for the Broncos, but Hiller showed off his strong arm in an otherwise forgettable performance.

Michigan has pulled most of its starters, though the crowd of 109,019 is almost all still here to witness the team's first victory in an opener since 2006, when it knocked off Vanderbilt 27-7. Denard Robinson is getting more work at quarterback down the stretch, carrying the ball on almost every play. D-Rob still needs to prove himself as a passer, but he's awfully fun to watch on the move.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Watching Michigan's defense continue to stifle Western Michigan, I can't help but think back to my conversation with senior defensive end Brandon Graham earlier this week.

Asked about being double-teamed this season, Graham said, "It would be frustrating if my teammates don't make plays. When I'm taking one guy off another guy, he should be making a play. As long as he's doing that, I'm happy."

Graham's teammates are making him very happy today, particularly Michigan's young defenders, which bodes well for the future. Linemen Mike Martin (sophomore), Ryan Van Bergen (sophomore) and Craig Roh (true freshman) all penetrated the backfield, and cornerback Boubacar Cissoko had an interception in the first half. Roh and Van Bergen teamed up to sack Tim Hiller in the third quarter.

Opposing teams will do whatever possible to take Graham out of the equation this fall, so his supporting cast must continue to step up.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan's offense hasn't just turned the page on 2008. It slammed the book shut.

Freshman quarterback Tate Forcier has been nothing short of brilliant, and Michigan's students just showed their support for embattled head coach Rich Rodriguez by chanting his name with 3:17 left in the first half.

Foricer's favorite target has been sophomore wideout Junior Hemingway, who missed most of last season with mononucleosis and took a medical redshirt. Hemingway has four receptions for 91 yards and two touchdowns, including a 44-yarder from Forcier. It marks the first time a Michigan receiver has caught multiple touchdowns in a game since Adrian Arrington caught two in the 2008 Capital One Bowl.

Hemingway can clearly get behind the defense and provides the deep threat Michigan lacked last season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- First-year Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson hasn't masked his intentions in this game.

He's turning up the heat on Western Michigan quarterback Tim Hiller, and so far it's working to perfection. Michigan is bringing pressure on nearly every play. The Wolverines' defensive front is controlling the line of scrimmage, and the linebackers are finding their way into the backfield.

Robinson's strategy could be construed as risky considering Michigan's inexperience in the secondary, but the defensive backs have tackled extremely well on the rare occasion when Hiller completes a pass. Cornerback Boubacar Cissoko has stood out so far for the Wolverines.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Junior Nick Sheridan likely will see the field at some point in this game, but Michigan appears to have found the right quarterback combination in Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson.

Forcier has taken the bulk of the work and tossed two touchdown passes, while Robinson is clearly the change-of-pace guy at this point. Robinson probably isn't ready to consistently lead drives, but he can be sprinkled in from time to time and change the game with his speed and shiftiness. He'll take on a bigger role in the offense as he becomes more accustomed to games.

Aside from carrying the ball too far from his body, Forcier has shown beyond-his-years poise so far. He's great on fakes -- I've lost track of the ball carrier several times already -- and usually spots the open man, as he did on a 7-yard touchdown toss to Greg Oden lookalike Kevin Koger. Both Forcier and Robinson give head coach Rich Rodriguez the chance to move the pocket, which is critical in the spread attack.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Denard Robinson's popularity around here was obvious during warm-ups as numerous fans shouted "Shoelace!" at the unlaced Michigan freshman quarterback.

Robinson, who never ties his shoes, just won a few more votes on his first carry in a college game, wrong-footing the Western Michigan defense and showcasing his elite speed on a 43-yard touchdown scamper. It could mark the first time in Michigan history that a quarterback has scored on his first snap from scrimmage.

Robinson's moves give the Michigan offense a new element, and if he continues to make progress, he could be the No. 1 quarterback soon. He still has some work to do as a passer, but it'll be hard to keep him off the field.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- With all due respect to Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan, they can't replicate what Tate Forcier just did on Michigan's first drive of the 2009 season.

The quarterback position means everything in Rich Rodriguez's offense, and mobility at that position is a requirement. Forcier showed quick feet and quicker decision-making skills on a 28-yard touchdown strike to Junior Hemingway. The true freshman picked up the rush, found some open space where he could run for a while and then spotted Hemingway streaking behind the defense.

It was excellent recognition from the freshman, who went 3-for-3 on the drive and had a nifty scramble for a first down on third-and-2.

The change of pace in the offense is obvious early on.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- After a week of turmoil, Michigan can finally focus on what really matters, the action between the lines.

Greetings from Michigan Stadium, where the construction is much further along than the last time I visited. Head coach Rich Rodriguez can only hope the same holds true for his program later today.

After losing the openers in 2007 and 2009, the Wolverines try to snap the streak, this time against Western Michigan, an on-the-rise program expected to contend for the Mid-American Conference title. We’ve got absolutely perfect weather right now, 75 degrees with a light breeze out of the East.

Two hours before kickoff, let’s take a look at three keys for each team.

MICHIGAN

1. Pressure quarterback Tim Hiller -- Hiller typically gets rid of the ball extremely fast, and Western Michigan will do everything it can to take Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham out of the equation. Michigan needs its “quick” end Brandon Herron to be exactly that and find ways to get in Hiller’s face.

2. Respond -- Is Michigan a splintered football team? Today provides the perfect opportunity for the Wolverines to prove they are not. Adversity always arises in football, especially with young players, and Michigan will use plenty of them in this game. How the Wolverines respond from the first sign of trouble will go a long way toward determining the outcome.

3. Controlling the line of scrimmage -- The Wolverines’ offensive line should have an edge today, as Western Michigan loses several stars on defense, including Louis Delmas. Establishing a run game with or without Brandon Minor will really help true freshman quarterback Tate Forcier, who gets the start.

WESTERN MICHIGAN

1. Strike early -- Michigan is the team under pressure today, and Western can make things even tougher with an early touchdown. The Wolverines have some question marks in the secondary, particularly at safety, so look for Hiller and his talented wide receivers to make a big play right away.

2. Stop the run -- Freshman quarterbacks typically make mistakes, and the Broncos need to put Forcier in difficult down-and-distance situations. Michigan’s strength is unquestionably its run game, and Western Michigan looks a bit iffy in the front seven.

3. Head West -- Senior Brandon West is a game-changer, both as a runner and a return man, so the Broncos need to get him going early. If Michigan has to respect the Broncos run game and bring extra players in the box, Hiller will get more 1-on-1 coverage opportunities in the secondary to exploit.

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