MITCH ALBOM: Michigan opens Big Ten by alternately looking great and looking mediocre; where’s the truth lie?
When we last left the Michigan Wolverines, they were struggling under the moon in the powerhouse football state of, um, Connecticut, trying to beat a team they should have clobbered, having almost lost the week before to a team they should have squashed.
They emerged – again – victorious. Then they took a weekend off, along with their rising record and sinking national rankings, and fans had no idea what kind of squad would start the Big Ten season Saturday afternoon at the Big House.
Here’s the answer. A more cohesive looking group, with sometimes powerful running, sometimes fine offensive blocking, sometimes good defensive stops, and sometimes head-shaking lapses on both sides, with a quarterback that has so much raw talent, he looks bad when he doesn’t live up to it.
Oh. And they’re 5-0.
“I think we’re improving,” coach Brady Hoke said after the 42-13 victory over Minnesota that was closer than the final score. “I think we’re a long way from where we need to be.”
He’s right. If U-M keeps this up, it’ll be the least scary undefeated team in the nation. Fans won’t care as long as the loss column has a zero in it. But while other top college teams (read SEC) tar-and-feather lesser opponents, U-M continues to weave through traffic to victory, leaving fans both high-fiving and scratching their heads.
Example. The 19th-ranked Wolverines are led by the defense-loving Hoke. (He actually coaches the defensive tackles.) Yet in the first quarter Saturday, Michigan couldn’t stop Minnesota from running off 16 straight plays, 75 yards, 9 minutes and 44 seconds of clock and a touchdown. This with a redshirt quarterback who had thrown 20 college passes before Saturday.
Yet come the fourth quarter, when it had to, the defense pressured that quarterback, Mitch Leidner, forcing a punt, then later picking him off for a touchdown that iced the game. Which is the real U-M defense? Too soon to tell.
Or on offense, where U-M looked a little like the old days and a little like the confusing new ones. The Wolverines wanted to run, and senior Fitz Toussaint and freshman Derrick Green looked effective on numerous plays. But in the end, they only combined for 101 yards. And quarterback Devin Gardner, everyone’s favorite subject, wound up with 235 passing yards and a touchdown, yet continues to sometimes throw far, high, left or right – turning his receivers into acrobats and, more important, keeping them from big yards after the catch.
“He was on target enough,” Hoke concluded, pointing to one beautiful fourth-quarter strike to Devin Funchess for 46 yards. “Yeah, we’d love for him to do that all the time, (but) that’s why you have a 6-foot-6 wide receiver who can go up and get the ball.”
Ah. Funchess. Here is someone everyone can agree on. He was terrific Saturday. Although listed as a tight end, the sophomore was smartly used on the outside by Hoke and his staff, giving them mismatches with small defensive backs and resulting in a monster day, seven catches for 151 yards and a TD.
“I’m just a big target,” Funchess said. Never mind the “just.” He offers huge possibilities for this passing attack.
There’s time to mature
And so, despite trailing in rushing yards and time of possession, Michigan sends its first Big Ten opponent packing and keeps the Little Brown Jug in Ann Arbor. There was a nice moment seeing longtime equipment manager Jon Falk unpacking the jug to be held high by the celebrating players.
“I just hope he doesn’t take it home,” Hoke said in jest. Falk, who took the job as a kid in his 20s, is retiring this season at 64. He is a walking history book and the last link to Bo Schembechler, who hired him.
And he could tell you this: “Work in progress” is just another name for a young college football team, which is what these Wolverines are. It’s remarkable how much teams can change over the course of a season. Lloyd Carr’s 2007 squad lost to unheralded Appalachian State and Oregon, then ran off eight straight victories and beat Tim Tebow and Florida in a bowl. Schembechler’s famous 1969 team lost to Missouri and Michigan State, yet still pulled off one of the greatest Big Game upsets against undefeated Ohio State.
The point is, you mold and cast on the fly in college ball, and your defense can tighten and your offense can straighten out. “They’re learning all the time,” Hoke said. “There’s a lot of young players playing a lot of snaps.”
Added Gardner: “When you don’t turn the ball over, it’s a good day.” And you realize – yes, that’s right! – no turnovers Saturday, from a guy who had 10 in the first four games.
Win. Shrug. Wait. See. Michigan has an easy enough schedule to be 11-0 come the Ohio State game. Or, with first quarters like Saturday, the bottom could fall out next weekend at Penn State.
Hang on. Take a cue from Falk. There’s a reward for patience. If the Wolverines keep finding ways to win, it will be better than a jug.