When you don't know what to expect out of a team, the story lines are easy. You just ask a bunch of rhetorical questions. When there are more questions than answers that's all you can do. Three days later I've got more answers than I know what to do with. There are so many people deserving of praise. Who do you write about first? Forcier? Hemingway? Rodriguez? Robinson? Denard? The whole bleeping defense? When a team manufactures a win, there isn't a "hero" per se. It's a group of heroes that need to be recognized, because they all contributed. These kids shook off or simply ignored every outside distraction and steamrolled Western Michigan on Saturday 31-7. It wasn't just a game where a better team walked onto the field and won because they were supposed to. If there's such a thing as a statement game on day one, this was it. They were all in.
Whether you've been looking ahead to this game for a month or a week, Western Michigan was a scary opener. Seven returning starters including an NFL-rated Quarterback in Tim Hiller, a senior 1000 yard rusher in Brandon West, and four returning starting Offensive Linemen. It was a 28 PPG offense matching up against a Wolverine defense that gave up 33.5 a game last season (in conference). On the other side of the ball, while you weren't scared of Western's defense, you were scared of Michigan's offense. It was explosive last year. Explosive in the wrong sense. All of 2008 Michigan players seemed be clutching the grenade a little too long or playing hop-scotch in a minefield. Now, with a true freshman under center, irrespective of his spring and fall practices, it was enough to make even the diehards queasy. Mix that in with your starting tailback being out, a slew of untested receivers, and the season from hell in 2008... well... you've got yourself a recipe for a long afternoon.
And this wasn't just a season opener. No way. This was a must win for this coach and this program. After a 3-9 season, all the nonsense from the Free Press, and the national media skewing what the Free Press' report actually claimed to report, Michigan needed this win. Rich Rodriguez needed, nay, deserved this win, just as he has deserved so much better from some of the people who have been assigned to cover him. More importantly, the players knew how important this game was. After months of practice and devotion to the program, their commitment was being called illegal. Their coach and their program were being called into question. They knew the only way to silence the critics was to perform. To go all in.
Oh baby... did they ever.
Michigan was the Michigan we want to remember. They were absolutely dominant on Saturday. The offense clicked. The defense was nasty. Open receivers were hit in stride. The Defensive Line controlled the line of scrimmage and took away yards on third downs. It was a opener that we can look back on fondly with a smile, rather than grimacing and shaking our heads.
Michigan fans finally saw what Bill Martin hired Rich Rodriguez to do. They finally saw what his teams are capable of. Most importantly, they saw just how hard Rodriguez players are willing to play for their coach. Make no mistake, had Michigan lost this game or had it been uncomfortably close, the media would've immediately began harping on how the locker room was divided and how Rodriguez was close to losing his team.
During the pre-game on ESPN we were left with speculation that the locker room was divided. Desmond openly pondered what was going on. Corso and Herbstreit commented that it sounded like trouble. Then, oddly, Craig James came on the air to say none of that speculation was correct. This team was united... and pissed off that people were speculating about this sort of thing. The Game Day crew immediately downplayed James' comments and started talking about the divide between underclassmen and upperclassmen, and how the young guys just want to play and the seniors were more of a barometer.
You're right fellas. They are. All those seniors played with intensity, heart, and determination. The seniors on the offensive line played their best games. Mark Ortmann, save a false start, played as well as he ever has. Greg Mathews was excellent on the return game. Stevie Brown and Obi Ezeh were outstanding, totally eclipsing their performances from last year in a single game. Brandon Graham bull rushed and terrorized Tim Hiller the entire game, even if the stat sheet only says one tackle. Brandon Minor didn't play, but could have, and he was one of the first people to hug Rodriguez after the game was over. Want proof? It's the photo at the top. Those are your seniors, ESPN. Ask them how they feel about Coach Rodriguez. Their play speaks for them. But just in case you actually want to ask a question before speculating, they're available for comment. But then again, I don't think you'll like what they have to say. It doesn't fit your story.
Frankly, our story is better. It's one of redemption, one game at a time. A story about 115 kids who believe in a coach who really does care about them. It talks about two freshmen quarterbacks taking a stadium of 110,000 plus by storm. One with his guile and arm. Another with his feet. There's a subplot about Junior Hemingway coming back from injury to dominate the passing game. Chapters about a defense left for dead in 2008 that, for a game anyway, was as dominant as we've seen since 2006. Let's talk about that story, rather than the one that's supported by a house of cards.
What you saw on Saturday was a group of young men who wanted to prove something. After a week of telling anyone within earshot that they were committed to Michigan Football and Coach Rodriguez, they were tired of no one listening to them. So they decided to let their play do the talking. Guided by two freshman under center and a grizzled old defensive coordinator who everyone thought left his chops in Austin, Michigan made a resounding statement on Saturday.
We're all in.