By Liz Vukelich, Daily Sports Editor
Published August 31, 2013
The first play of the Devin Gardner era started with a collective sigh from Michigan Stadium.
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The fans, and Gardner himself, probably hoped the new starting quarterback’s first possession against Central Michigan would go a little better than an incomplete pass, quickly followed by an interception.
That wouldn’t be Gardner’s last interception of the afternoon. But Gardner’s partnership with fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint and the rest of the running backs gave the Wolverines a very comfortable cushion over the Chippewas that culminated in a 59-9 win.
“We ran the ball well, which was our biggest emphasis over camp,” Gardner said. “Fitz ran well, all the running backs ran well and it was great for me to be able to see that.”
In the week leading up to the season opener, the coaching staff declared that Toussaint was starting to look like “the old Fitz,” having fully recovered from his leg injury last season.
During fall camp, Toussaint made a trip to the 15-yard line where his 2012 campaign ended, as a sort of closure. He declared that “he felt fine mentally,” and that was that.
It was a comforting assessment — from both him and the coaches — considering the days of former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson running the ball 20 times a game were over and the running game belonged to the running backs again.
That held true, with Toussaint’s 14 carries for 57 yards and two touchdowns. But he wasn’t Michigan’s only reason for an effective ground game, as five other running backs contributed for a group total of 147 yards and four touchdowns.
And Michigan coach Brady Hoke — who said he saw more negative things in the game than good ones — said the shared workload on the ground was one of the best things he saw.
“Running the football was something that we want to do, obviously,” Hoke said. “Getting a lot of touches to a lot of different guys was a good thing”
It seems funny that the Wolverines’ strength came from the running backs, especially considering that earlier in the week, neither Hoke nor offensive coordinator Al Borges guaranteed that anyone other than Toussaint would see playing time.
Two true freshmen did see playing time. Derrick Green showed flashes of why he was the No. 1 tailback recruit in the country out of high school with his 58 rushing yards and a touchdown to boot.
Still, it wasn’t all about the running backs. The Wolverines’ scoring frenzy on the ground actually started with an unanticipated defensive play on Central Michigan’s first possession — a two-fold effort, kick-started by freshman defensive back Dymonte Thomas’ blocked punt and finished up by senior wide receiver Joe Reynolds’ 29-yard return for a touchdown to act as a major momentum boosters.
“We thought we had an opportunity, and the guys executed,” Hoke said. “When it works, (the players) get excited.”
Gardner had his moments, too. He recovered from the botched first drive to score on Michigan’s second possession with a 22-yard rush.
Gardner played just as well with the receivers. Fifth-year senior Jeremy Gallon was the lone wide receiver to catch a touchdown, but the receiving corps caught for 221 total yards. Reynolds — who was put on scholarship earlier this week — caught a 45-yard bomb on Central Michigan’s 2-yard line early in the third quarter to set up an easy touchdown for the Wolverines.
Though the passing game didn’t mirror the ground game in points, the two remained relatively even. According to Hoke, that’s the balance he’d like to keep throughout the rest of the season — you can’t have one without the other.
“When you have balance, you can run the ball,” Hoke said. “It just opens so much of the play action game. That’s one thing that Devin does such a great job with, ball handling and play action.”