1. Number one is number one.
Devin Funchess looked nigh unguardable against the Appalachian State defense. The junior wide receiver was announced to be wearing the number one jersey before the game and wasted little time showing that he had earned that honor. Michigan — and more specifically, Devin Gardner — relied heavily on Jeremy Gallon a year ago, and it looks like Funchess will fit the bill as a bonafide number one option.
Funchess didn't go over the top much in this game, as Michigan wasn't looking to challenge ASU down the field, but instead he worked a series of underneath routes to perfection and made use of his physical advantages to make two really nice plays in the endzone. And it wasn't all just Devin Funchess being really big. While his last touchdown was an incredible grab against a tight double team, his first touchdown came because he sold the fake on the out to get separation when he ran back to the post, and the second touchdown was him making a nice adjustment on a dig route. That he can do those things and easily stiffarm or jump over defensive backs makes Funchess one of the better receiving targets in the Big Ten, if not the country. It also opens up the field for Michigan's other young receivers, who all looked promising in the opener.
2. While Funchess takes the obvious top billing, eyes were mostly glued to Michigan's offensive line throughout the day. The Wolverines got off to a rough start with just nine yards on the first five run plays, and six of those coming from the broken play that led to a Gardner scramble. It looked like more of the same from last year. Of course, a funny thing started to happen: Michigan's line began to open up some holes and give the running backs a little space to operate.
Once Joey Burzynski was put on the bench after the first quarter, Michigan's running game took another step forward, and at the end of the day the Wolverine ground game managed 356 yards on 35 carries for an average of 10 yards per carry thanks to a few big gainers from De'Veon Smith and Derrick Green.
There isn't a whole lot you can tell about Michigan's OL from this game. While App State is relatively strong up front on defense, Michigan will have its work cut out for it as the season progresses. The Big Ten is deep and talented along the DL, and days like these probably aren't the norm for a couple more years.
However, as to the comparisons to last year's opener, consider this. While both this year and last year's opener featured ten negative or no gain run plays (sacks included), five of those plays came either on Michigan's first drive when the OL was still trying to get its feet under it or on the last two when Shane Morris had taken over the offense and the App State defense knew runs were coming. When it really mattered, Michigan's line was at least helping the backs push forward for a couple yards. The big plays are great, but the thing standing between last year's offense and respectability was always the number of times it went backwards on the ground. The line looks more comfortable this year, and thus Michigan might turn some of those short losses into short gains, setting up easier conversions.
3. Some credit has to go to Michigan's running back combo. It is easy to see why both Green and Smith were praised and talked about for the starting job through camp. Derrick Green looked much quicker and more decisive in his cuts, while De'Veon Smith looks natural behind the inside zone blocking that dominates Michigan's playbook these days.
The biggest complaint for either back is the lack of breakaway speed to turn those 50-60 yard rumbles into 70-80 yard touchdowns. However, Michigan has enough big play ability in its receiving corp that the main focus of the running game is supplying a steady dose of 5-15 yard runs to keep the offense moving and ahead of the chains. That looks do-able so far.
4. One of the biggest questions coming into the game was how Michigan would hold up at safety. Presumed starter Delano Hill was sidelined with a broken jaw suffered last month which led the way for Jarrod Wilson to slide down to strong safety and Jeremy Clark to play free safety. If Hill is a better option that Clark out there, then Michigan is in pretty good shape. The rangy redshirt sophomore flashed the athleticism that pushed him from a greyshirt to a member of the 2012 class during his recruitment. He broke up a couple passes and was solid tackling in the open field. Next week will be a stiffer test with Notre Dame more likely to challenge Michigan deep, but for his introduction, Clark certainly impressed.
That was Michigan's announced attendance for this game, a full three-thousand and change below the 110,000 mark that I cannot remember Michigan being under since I started paying attention to attendance numbers over a decade ago. A combination of increasing ticket prices and a game that was scheduled as a clear middle finger to the fanbase probably has something to do it.
But by all means, let's worry about cell phone reception.
6. Defensively there aren't many complaints to be made. Michigan was fast and aggressive, bringing pressure from all over the field. While the Wolverines only managed two sacks, the number of plays in which Michigan was a step away is encouraging against a team looking to get the ball out quick. Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer got solid pressure, but more importantly, Michigan looked stout in the middle with Willie Henry looking like a big matchup problem for opposing interior linemen. Even Chris Wormley got into things with a few nice plays. Depth and talent were the words flying around all fall about this group, and it seems like we might get another one this year: production.
7. Michigan played four freshmen: Mason Cole, Jabrill Peppers, Bryan Mone, and Freddy Canteen. While none of those guys made any particularly impactful plays (partly due to Peppers being held out as a precautionary measure after getting his ankle dinged up early in the game), the one place this showed the most was on special teams, where Michigan looked much improved thanks in part because it was able to fill those teams with stronger, more experienced players who have been in the program longer. As for the freshmen that did play:
Peppers looked good in limited time. He didn't get a chance to return more than one punt (and on that one he quickly learned that his high school dancing probably isn't going to cut it these days), but he looked confident fielding them. Defensively he had a nice tackle and was a plus in press coverage from the nickle.
Cole got beat once for a sack thanks to a nice inside move by ASU junior Ronald Blair (an all conference and frosh all-American at the FBS level his first two years on campus). Outside of that, the freshman looked solid and wasn't a big issue at any one point.
Mone and Canteen were seldom used. With the defensive line looking as deep as it is and Michigan using a lot of three man nickel fronts, it will be tough for Mone to see meaningful time. Meanwhile, Dennis Norfleet looked pretty good in the slot, catching three balls for 30 yards and even helping to spring Derrick Green on his first long run of the day. That could very well minimize Canteen's role in the offense going forward. This isn't a bad thing.
8. Early returns on Doug Nussmeier's effect on this offense are very positive. His presence on the sideline has already been widely discussed, and so far that looks to have had an effect on Devin Gardner and his ability to adapt during the game. Past that, the run game seemed to grow throughout the day — something that rarely happened under Al Borges as his latest trickery would be figured out and adjusted for as the game wore on.
Seeing Michigan next week against Notre Dame will offer a lot more insight. Michigan didn't throw the ball over the top and it didn't have to pull out many of its constraint plays because everything in the base offense was working well enough. The next big question Nussmeier needs to answer is how can his offense punch back after its been punched by the defense.
9. Michigan's only other concern defensively seems to be, "where was Jake Ryan?"
The former strongside linebacker was moved to the middle of the defense to allow him more opportunity to make plays from sideline to sideline, and cut down on the ability of opposing offenses to scheme away from him. Instead, it seems like the move has made him a much more quiet player. His most noticable play was in the thrid quarter when he failed to drop deep enough to close the passing window that led to a 34 yard completion and ASU's first touchdown.
Ryan has the physical tools to succeed where he is, but it seems like the mental side of the middle linebacker position is still developing. At least Michigan seems very set there with Desmond Morgan, Joe Bolden, and even James Ross III reprising his role on the weakside for a series.. This is not to mention all the depth behind those guys at the top of the depth chart.
10. Alright, so can we all agree to never talk about Appalachian State again?