IN U-M’S RAINY GLOOM, NO. 2 IS A RAY OF HOPE

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – They fumbled on their opening series, they fumbled on the next kickoff, they got snagged for pass interference on a long bomb and then, on the very next play, gave up the actual long bomb for a touchdown. They were tagged for 21 points in the opening 10 minutes and 9 seconds, and at one point, in between scores, Notre Dame brought a cluster of fans onto the field. I thought they had called “Next!”

“It was a nightmare,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez admitted when this 35-17 drubbing was over. And he’s understating it. With rainwater gushing down the stairwells, the Wolverines got flushed by a very average Notre Dame team, they fumbled seven times, losing four, their defense couldn’t stop the Irish even in a slippery turf, and after three weeks of the Rich Rod era, U-M has two losses, one unimpressive victory over a MAC team, the Big Ten season looming in two weeks, and a rivalry black eye that stings worse than the final score. (If Rodriguez wants a hint of what losing to Michigan State or Ohio State might be like, he should listen to the grumblings of Irish-haters today. This was NOT just another defeat.)

So what uplifting thought can we offer as you towel off, Maize-and-Bluers?

Only the kid who wears No. 2. Highlights from the Gulf to Great Lakes

If you watched this game, you saw him, and if you’d never seen him before you HAD to say, “Who is THAT?”

Sam McGuffie, the freshman running back, may prove that rarest of animals, a kid who lives up to the hype – and Internet hype at that. He came to Ann Arbor this summer already a legend on the computer screen, having hurdled – yes, hurdled – a defender in high school, as part of a Texas prep career that saw him run for more than 3 miles of yardage. His college announcement was broadcast live on Houston TV. His highlight film is set to music on YouTube.

But it wasn’t until Saturday that McGuffie became real for Wolverines fans, because high school is fine, and making plays against Miami of Ohio is very nice, but ripping through Notre Dame for 178 yards of total offense lifts the eyebrows.

It was hard to pick which McGuffie play left you more dazzled Saturday. Was it the screen pass he took and slashed across the field, pinballing off his own man, spinning and racing in for a 40-yard touchdown? Was it the 29-yard scamper down the sideline, or the time he barreled through the teeth of a blitz and came out the other end for a big gain?

For me, it was the play, later in the game, in which McGuffie burst through the line, galloped ahead, then got split like a wishbone, his left leg forward, his right leg snagged back by a defender.

That, in my case, would have ripped three hamstrings, two of mine and one of the guy next to me.

McGuffie got up and was back two plays later.

“Sam runs hard,” Rodriguez said.

Uh, yeah. A chance to make a statement

All told, McGuffie carried 25 times, which is more than the number of passes U-M’s starting quarterback attempted. When you get 25 chances in Rodriguez’s pass-happy, spread offense, it means something:

It means you’re The Guy.

Which may be the brightest news for U-M fans for a while. Because other than McGuffie’s highlights, this was a discouraging loss for Michigan, a blown chance to gain some pride as it rebuilds (even if this Notre Dame team actually struggled against lowly San Diego State the week before). Beating the Irish is always a feel good in Ann Arbor. Last year, you recall, it was the turning point of Lloyd Carr’s mudslide.

This time, it was just mud. Sloppy handling. Ineffective pass defense. You can blame the rain, but it rained all over Notre Dame, too, and the Irish never fumbled the ball over. The Wolverines made too many mistakes, got too many pass interference penalties, and while the first 21 points were almost too fast to register, the other 14 were what killed their hopes.

“We’re not good enough to play poorly and win,” Rodriguez said. But he added, emphatically, “Michigan football will be back. All the naysayers out there … whatever … Michigan football will be back. Hopefully sooner rather than later.”

In the meantime, keep your eye on No. 2. In a season where there may be little to look forward to, there is undeniably something to watch.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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