The first quarter was about as comfortable as a lazy-boy made out of razor wire. As usual, Michigan spent the opening stanza of its yearly rumble with Minnesota trying to give aneurisms to as many of their die-hard fans as possible. Minnesota racked up rushing yardage and when not turning the ball over Michigan missed every tackle they could. It was a game that never should've been in doubt, but was. At least until the second quarter.
It wasn't that Michigan didn't dominate the game after the Gopher offense put up their only points, it was the Michigan offense's inability to come out of the gate like anything other than a tranquilized mule. Starts and stops. Fumbles and miscues. Punts, punts and punts. It was truly awful.
But that infamous sense of dread never kicked in as it does when something really bad is about to happen. This was more an annoying faucet that wouldn't stop dripping. You thought you'd fixed it on seven different occasions, but the damn thing still finds a way to keep running. And at 3 in the morning when the constant drip sound thirty feet away won't stop, all you can do is curse it because it'll be morning soon.
So I muttered under and over my breath for the first 20 minutes of the game. Finally, after two stalled drives, Michigan punched one into the endzone via Brandon Minor. Morning came, and the rout finally, mercifully, ensued.
The offense turned in another Jekyll and Hyde performance. Alternating head scratching mistakes with moments of WWF style beat down. A good chunk of this schizophrenia can be traced to the absence of Chad Henne and Mike Hart. If memory serves, Saturday marked the first time neither man played a down since they became starters. The void in leadership and experience was obvious as Mallett struggled through his first quarter reads and Minor or Brown missed their blocking assignments. Even so, the new kids delivered some memorable performances after Michigan trailed 10-0.
It was amazing the difference in Mallett from one half to the next. Hell. One quarter to the next. Of Mallett's 146 first half yards, 32 of them came in the first quarter, on two completions in five attempts. After Mallett spotted Minnesota another seven points, he was magnificent. He distributed the ball well, made his progressions, and lofted a gorgeous 40 yard bomb to Manningham in the corner of the endzone. Once he was able to relax, he was excellent.
The running back tandem of Brown and Minor were again exemplary filling in for the injured Mike Hart. Both young men had their issues in pass protection. Brown put another one on the carpet. Minor looked hesitant hitting the hole from time to time. But as the game wore on both seemed to shake off their fears and apprehension and delivered for their teammates. Minor rushed for a career high 156 yards and a touchdown, including a 46 yard scamper, while Brown rushed for 132 and two touchdowns highlighted by an 85 yard score.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the game was the continued resurgence of Mario Manningham. Manningham posted a career best 162 yard day on 5 catches (for the record that's 32.5 yards a catch) and one touchdown. After 9 games, it is safe to say Manningham is back to where he was last year as the most dominant receiver in the Big Ten. What is most impressive about his current tear is that he is posting these numbers despite two different quarterbacks throwing him the ball and every defense in the conference trying to cripple him at the line of scrimmage. His return to form leading into the most difficult stretch of the season is a welcome sigh of relief for a fan base that is still holding its collective breath over Hart and Henne.
Defensively, the statistics show Michigan put up one of its best performances of the year. Minnesota managed only 132 rushing yards when they'd been averaging close to 200 and passed for only 99 yards when Weber was averaging 250. The best aspects of Michigan's defense, its line and backfield played extremely well defending the run and the pass against Minnesota's dreaded "spread" offense. As an added bonus, for the first time all season the linebackers were passable. Chris Graham lead the team in tackles while Obi Ezeh was the first quarter's best defensive player and Sean Crable racked up two more sacks.
Even so, there were still issues against the run. Minnesota does have a good offensive line and that line opened several large holes for 15-20 yard runs by Varmint Cong tailbacks. When Michigan is playing well, the linebackers fill those holes. On Saturday, those longish Gopher runs were more the result of poor positioning by the linebackers than anything Minnesota did. Again, I don't like the thought of our safeties and DB's being the last line of defense against Beanie Wells, PJ Hill, or Jevohn Ringer, no matter how good they've been this year.
But a good performance is still a good performance even if a player missed a note or two. Overall it was good showing by the Michigan defense, holding the 25th ranked offense in the country to 3 points. Considering where things began this year, I'll take it.
While the first quarter wasn't particularly comfortable, the last three were. It was nice to sit back and enjoy those last 45 minutes of playing time before Michigan faces its toughest tests left on the schedule.