Saturday, September 03, 2011

Hoke-amania survives Tropical Storm ‘Zoo

More than 100,000 people will remember where they were, and under what section of Michigan Stadium they hid, when Coach Brady Hoke won his first game at Wolverine head coach. In an encounter that will go down for its brevity and its disastrous weather, Michigan opened the Hoke era with a 34-10 defeat of Western Michigan on Saturday (with the contest called with 1:27 left in the third quarter).
Led by two astonishing touchdowns by senior linebacker Brandon Herron on defensive plays (a 94-yard interception return, the longest since 1948, and a 29-yard fumble return after a crushing Jordan Kovacs blast to WMU quarterback Alex Carder), Michigan was able to survive a testy Broncos squad and establish its dominance before the skies opened and delivered a downpour of Biblical proportions.
To say it was a game of two halves would be a shameful understatement. In the first half, it was all about ball control on both sides until Western’s Carder forced a bad throw, due to the bull rush of defensive end Jake Ryan, which was grabbed by Herron at his 6. He lugged the ball, and a refrigerator for the final 20 yards, to burst WMU’s bubble.
The first half was also played in Texas-like weather conditions – hot (field temps ranging from 121-133 degrees) and unbearably muggy. Those of us in the Lone Star State know such conditions are standard for September for Saturday football, but that can’t be said for Michigan and the Midwest. Players were drenched with sweat for the first 30 minutes.
But following halftime, the rains came and the first of two 30-minutes delays were announced by the officiating crew. When play resumed, Herron produced his second touchdown and WMU seemed more interested in finding shelter from the Maize and Blue storm.
While the pass coverage still is a work in progress, the appearance of a lost commodity over the past three seasons – sustained pressure – was a welcome sight in the Big House. It is also interesting to note than Herron is one of the last remnants of the Lloyd Carr era.
Offensively, Michigan did not turn the ball over, was efficient in its offense in the first half, producing an 8 ½ minute opening drive and averaged 7.3 yards per carry on the ground (189 yards total). Quarterback Denard Robinson completed 9 of 13 attempts for 98 yards, and for the most part seemed comfortable in this adjusting offense. He rushed for 46 yards on only 8 carries and his slip-slidin’ away talent was only needed 2-3 for first-down conversions.
The other “star” of the game had to have been redshirt sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint, out of Youngstown, Ohio, who appears to combine strength (he bulled his way for two touchdowns inside the 2), speed, and the ability NOT to run sideline-to-sideline; a Wolverine back who ran up the middle for a change. Senior Michael Shaw completed the abbreviated scoring with a 44-yard scamper and if this 1-2 punch will perform in this fashion, things are definitely going to be looking up in Ann Arbor this season.
Two negatives did emerge from the game – yet another injury to defensive back Troy Woolfolk, this time to his other ankle. It’d be a shame if this talented, dedicated young man was forced to seek a sixth season for medical hardship, but he just cannot seem to stay healthy for an entire season.
And I can assure you emphasis WILL be placed on special teams this coming week, ahead of the Notre Dame “Under the Lights” game. UM surrendered an average of more than 31 yards per kickoff return and an extra-point kick was blocked on Michigan’s third touchdown. The question of who will kick field goals hasn’t been broached yet.
But a win is still a win; the attitude appeared to be different on the Michigan sidelines. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison looked as if he was in total control and after Western’s initial, clock-eating drive, the proper adjustments were made and that was that. No Wolverine fans could say the same for the prior three seasons.
It must have been something to see – not only the ushering of the Hoke regime, but the weather forcing a game to be prematurely canceled. In my 40-plus years of following Michigan football, this HAD to be the worst conditions since … the famed 1950 Snow Bowl at Ohio State. And Michigan won that game, too. Nothing I can remember comes close.

Also, surfing the dial during the lightning delays, I saw the Big Ten Network broadcasting the Nebraska-Chattanooga game. I freely admit to feeling a little strange seeing the Huskers as a Big Ten affiliate. That will take a bit of getting used to, as they say in Texas.
But, considering the problems Notre Dame had with South Florida (how sweet was it seeing a coach named Holtz (Skip) dismantle the Irish to the point where boos reigned down from the sky at halftime), next week, and the weeks after that, are looking better and better.

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