A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. - Laozi
We've been here before. The circumstances that brought us here each time have been different, but the place seems the same. For the second time in two years Michigan is 1-0 on a very, very young football season. For a moment the critics are silent and the bandwagon is full, and after a long off-season all is seemingly right with the world.
Then again, there is something very different about this place. The players in this story have changed. The look in their eyes is different. The man guiding them is more confident. Maybe that is part of it. But maybe the motivation is somewhat different as well.
Prior to kick-off Saturday afternoon, a young man named Brock Mealer did something many thought would be impossible. He raised himself out of his wheelchair and, placing one foot in front of the other, walked to mid-field. Reaching The Banner, Brock stopped and raised his right hand to touch The Banner with a triumphant smile on his face.
As Brock placed his hand back on his cane, you could see the weight of the world rise off his shoulders. At the same time you could see in his eyes that this was only a single step in his quest to walk normally. Brock's journey wasn't over. It was just beginning.
College football programs do not return from the depths or win national championships in the first week of the season. Things don't change over night. They take time. They take a first step. Then many steps after that.
But that first step is the most important, and on Saturday Michigan clearly took it. The Wolverines were dominant on offense, being forced to punt only once in the game. While the player running the ball was unfamiliar to Michigan diehards, the method of dominance was not. Michigan's ground game harkened back to the days of Tom Harmon as the Wolverines rushed the ball 61 times for 287 yards. Michigan's offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage the entire game, opening giant holes for Denard Robinson, Michael Shaw, and Vincent smith to dart through for giant gains. And then there were Michigan's receivers, grinding UConn's safeties and corners into the ground on rushing plays, then getting open to help the Wolverines amass nearly two hundred passing yards on just three incompletions (only one of those a drop).
Then there was the defense. After two straight disappointing seasons and the loss of their three top players, no one (including the Michigan faithful) had much hope that they would be able to contain a veteran offensive unit like UConn's. And it wasn't just in the air, Michigan's defense hadn't stopped a potent ground game in two years. On Saturday all those concerns were assuaged, if just for a game. Michigan's front 7 put consistent pressure on UConn's Zach Frazer and on UConn's offensive line. Craig Roh was a constant terror off the edge, smacking Frazer around with every pass attempt and generally making UConn's tackles look inept. Then there was the defensive line's interior where Greg Banks, Mike Martin, and Ryan Van Bergen stymied UConn's running game, holding the Huskies to just 138 total rushing yards (less than half of Michigan's total).
But the defensive story of the game was the player of Michigan's linebackers and defensive secondary. A season removed from chaos, the linebacking corps (now with depth and competition) plugged holes, laid monstrous hits, and generally played disciplined football. Despite reportedly ceding his starting sport to former walk-on Mark Moundros, Obi Ezeh delivered solid play from his middle linebacking position. Jonas Mouton delivered huge hits and disciplined play, giving us a display of his enormous potential.
On the back end, it appeared as though all the hand wringing about the secondary may have been premature. Senior James Rogers had a marvelous day in coverage, breaking up passes, leveling receivers and playing solid defense. On the opposite side, J.T. Floyd was seemingly everywhere on defense. Notching 6 tackles and the biggest play of the game, a forced fumble while blasting D.J. Shoemate on the goal line. Floyd and Rogers looked and played fast. While it is only a game, it was a good one, and should go a long way toward giving the coaches and fans some of the confidence both men clearly possessed on Saturday.
In the safety and Spur positions, the young Michigan backfield looked more than adequate. Certainly there were some gaffes, but nothing that turned the tide of the game. Playing in a conservative zone, Jordan Kovacs, Cameron Gordon, and Carvin Johnson appeared ready and able to make plays. Gordon delivered several big hits on UConn's receivers and backs, Kovacs was his usual run stuffing self, and Carvin Johnson acquitted himself well as a freshman on College Football's biggest stage. They weren't perfect, but then again, they didn't have to be. And when they were called upon to make plays they did. What more can you ask from them?
Once you get past the evaluations and the analysis, the stars of the game were clearly Denard Robinson and head coach Rich Rodriguez. With Denard setting records on the ground (most rushing yards by a quarterback) and in the air (highest completion percentage in Michigan history [minimum 20 passes] 19-22, 187 yards) and Rodriguez seemingly pushing all the right buttons, Michigan looked like itself again. It was dominant on offense. It was stout on defense. It looked like Michigan.
On Saturday the Michigan of old and the Michigan of today seemed to have a meeting on the field and came to some sort of happy truce. But it's a tentative one. So much can happen between now and the rest of the season that could blow that truce out of the water. Still, it's a first step. One of many that will need to be taken for Michigan to truly return to its rightful place in the football world.
Those steps may take time. For Brock Mealer, it took him nearly two years to reach the point where he could walk to midfield. Those steps he took on Saturday were deemed by many to be steps he'd never take. Brock didn't listen to them. He set a goal and he persevered until he accomplished it. Now that he's reached that goal, undoubtedly he will set new ones. More ambitious ones. Goals that likely include walking without canes or braces.
Achieving those goals won't be easy, just as it will not be easy for Michigan to achieve many of the goals they have set for themselves. But the journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step. Brock took that first step. And following his lead, so did Michigan.
There are many more ahead for both.