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How Does Our New Sameness Look?

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As you get older, you're probably inclined to celebrate the opening of the college football season with a six pack, the newspaper's sports section, and your best well-worn alumni t-shirt. You probably ask the spouse to either watch the game with you or leave you alone. Ditto with the kids. To figure out which marketing- and money-driven agenda ESPN will be pushing all season and using to detroy whatever still remains of its journalistic integrity teams and players you should at least know about, you might tune into GameDay. When your team comes on, you'll probably sing the fight song and then settle in for 4 3 hours of football. At halftime you might make yourself a sandwich.

But that's what you do when you're older. When you're younger, you might welcome college football back into your life with a four-day bender that includes karaoke, scorpion bowls, late-night dining at open-all-night diners, kegs of beer, dancing, lots of yelling, flip cup, and, of course, Lloyd Carr bashing.

For the third consecutive year, the annual Labor Day Weekend Tailgate helped welcome Michigan football come back into my life in glorious fashion. As noted above, it was a drunken good time, albeit a little less ridiculous than previous years since the barbecuing was off and the number of guests was down thanks to Hurricane Ernesto.

When you associate with incredibly nice and incredibly smart people who, regardless, also happen to talk a lot of shit and drink away a lot of brain cells, living in a neighborhood with 2-for-1 margaritas can be dangerous...for the general public. Ditto with finding a place that will let 15 people use a private room for karaoke so that they can pull together rousing renditions of Peter Cetera, Heart, Simple Minds, and every other cheesy song that is listed in the book. Ditto, too, for giving so much beer to people who can make so much noise while watching football that people blocks away can hear them yelling. It was a wild, great time.

But most importantly, football was back this weekend. While the extracurriculars that come with the football kickoff always comprise affairs to remember, nothing is as exhillirating as seeing that beautiful deep blue and that radiant maize streaming out of the Michigan Stadium tunnel, flying around the field, and storming into the endzone for a cathartic touchdown that allows us all to cheer and hoot and holler. MICHIGAN FOOTBALL, BABY!

Of course, it would have been nice, after an offseason of anxiety and anger, to have seen Michigan come out and put a beatdown on Vanderbilt to the tune of something like 70-17. But that's not Michigan, and that's certainly not Lloyd Carr. Especially not when his offensive coordinator is some crony who probably hasn't been relevant in almost a decade. But we all are who we are.

And so Michigan football showed up for the first day of school this year a little taller, with a voice that cracks a little more, with a new lunchbox, but still looking mostly the same. Good ol' Wolverines.

To be fair, there were certainly a lot of things to like about Saturday's 27-7 win against Vandy. Those included:

Improved linebacker play. In the first quarter, Chris Graham broke up a pass. Prescott Burgess did the same later in the day. These were sights seldom seen in recent years during Jim Herrmann's overthought reign of bad communication and worse technique. Similarly, it appeared as though David Harris, Shawn Crable, Graham, and Burgess were getting to the ball carrier sooner and with an obvious purpose. Sure, it was only Vanderbilt, and I don't yet know what to make of the Commodores (for instance, a part of me think that they're worse than Central Michigan), but for one day, it was nice to not sit in front of my television just waiting for some tight end to light up UM or for some running back to get outside of the containment.

Improved running game. All offseason, there were the proverbial "insider reports" about the UM offense changing. It was said that Michigan would find new ways to run the ball and would re-engineer the passing game to better suit Chad Henne and his receivers. I'll get to the complete bullshit that was this second part in a moment, but first, once and future offensive coordinator Mike DeBord did, in fact, deliver on the first part of the pledge. For a few weeks, he and the players had slyly smiled and said that after the first game, the changes to the offense would become apparent. It looks like the change was the blocking scheme, as UM was employing a zone blocking approach that it supposedly learned from Denver Broncos zone-blocking svengali Alex Gibbs. The system seems to let Mike Hart and the running backs pick their holes as the offensive linemen get out and hold their blocks in order to create lanes. For the most part, it was a success, as UM racked up 246 yards on the ground. Michigan didn't do anything all that radical, but it ran out of 6 different formations--always important for one of the most predictable teams--and had success in short yardage, something at which it was underwhelming in recent years.

A real defensive line. Michigan beat up QB Chris Nickson and was able to stuff the run despite getting consistent pressure without having to blitz all game. If that continues against real teams, the Ron English era as defensive coordinator will be a success, as championship teams have great defensive lines.

There was also plenty to be nervous about as a Michigan fan, though. And honestly, the Michigan team that was on the field on Saturday looks more likely to be 8-4 (the record I predict) than 10-2. Because:

Chad Henne is mentally challenged. Are you fucking kidding me? It's been two full seasons, two full offseasons, road games at Notre Dame and Ohio State, bowl games--he's seen everything and he still doesn't go through his progressions. The offensive line didn't do him many favors this weekend because its pass blocking was bush league, but there were notable moments on Saturday when he scrambled despite feeling no real pressure. If he isn't going to give his wide receivers time to get open--especially down the field--then the passing game will continue to be severly limited. Not good.

The wide receivers don't receive good. Henne was 10-22 for 135. There were about 5 dropped passes, though, and 15-22 for 225 is a lot more impressive. Steve Breaston continues to be a significantly less effective version of Desmond Howard who basically can catch screen passes and nothing else; Mario Manningham does not seem to have the opportunities nor the inclination to be dominant (and with regard to the former: make him more of a priority, Mr. DeBord); and everyone else is enigmatic (though given few chances).

Pass blocking was optional. Sadly. Everyone from Jake Long to Ruben Riley seemed to miss blocks on Saturday, as Vandy used speed, stunts, and other strategy to consistently get pressure on Chad Henne. As though it weren't bad enough that his receivers were dropping balls and he was committed to trying to imitate Troy Smith, Henne got little help from the offensive line. I'd like to think that an offseason spent learning a new run-blocking scheme meant less practice time and less mental preparation for the passing game, but the OL must improve and give Henne more time if Michigan is going to move the ball, score enough points to beat the Notre Dames of the world, and prevent teams from putting 9 men in the box most of the time.

The passing game was absurd. Look, if you aren't going to test Vandy down the field, then whom will you test? And if you aren't going to throw the ball over the linebackers and in front of the safeties in the middle of the field, please tell everyone ahead of time so that we all know that you're using a different set of rules. I mean, seriously. The passing attack was really disappointing. TOO MANY SCREENS, too little creativity, nearly absent courage. There no longer is a David Terrell or Braylon Edwards who can run down the field and snatch one of Henne's inaccurate deep throws from the heavens. Instead, there are guys who need to catch the ball while on the move in space. And some times that means taking some chances and using the middle of the field. I must offer the caveat that on TV, it's hard to tell what's happening down field, and it's not like Henne had all day, but still, the passing game seemed really boring, unimaginative, and scared. I thought that we had moved beyond this, no?

So that was week 1 of Michigan football. The old excitement and the old anxiety were all there. Thanks, Lloyd!