Dan Feldman: Michigan not lacking hype, needs more substance

BY DAN FELDMAN
Daily Sports Writer
Published September 1, 2008

I know you were excited for Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez’s first game Saturday. I know because you helped fill Michigan Stadium 30 minutes before kickoff. Last year, that only happened for Ohio State.

(RODRIGO GAYA/Daily).
Redshirt freshman quarterback Steven Threet and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez react in the second half of Michigan's season-opening loss to Utah on Saturday.

And I don’t buy that it was because the Athletic Department urged fans to arrive early because of the construction. You wanted to see the new Michigan because of everything you heard this offseason.

Rodriguez is daring. A fake punt call in the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl in 2006 helped his West Virginia team beat highly favored Georgia.

The spread offense is unstoppable. Defenses could never figure out all the formations and options.

Director of strength and conditioning Mike Barwis is a wolf-raising madman who can turn fat into muscle by simply staring at it hard enough. The players are practically robots now.

No more conservative, predictable plays run by plodding players, right?

How did being daring go?

Instead of taking going into halftime down 15-10, Rodriguez tried to drive 60 yards in a minute and 34 seconds by throwing downfield with redshirt sophomore quarterback Nick Sheridan. By that point, everyone in the stadium figured out Sheridan couldn’t throw deep, but Rodriguez tried anyway.

Utah cornerback Sean Smith predictably intercepted a pass that floated downfield just waiting to be picked. The Utes used great field position to score and expand their lead to 22-10 at the break.

How about the complicated spread offense?

Michigan averaged just 3.22 yards per play Saturday. Since 1999 (as far back as NCAA has stats posted), just Rutgers in 2002 averaged fewer yards per play in a season. The shotgun and multiple wide receivers didn't exactly provide multiple long touchdowns.

On the other hand, Utah running back Matt Asiata lined up at quarterback several times, on consecutive plays no less, and ran the ball down Michigan’s throat. Entering the game, the Wolverines knew Asiata would line up behind center, and even that he would run a counter or a power run from that formation. But that didn’t mean they could stop him.

And Barwis?

After the game, redshirt freshman center David Molk said he could play another one right then. The Wolverines were probably better conditioned than in years past. But they aren’t invincible.

By controlling the ball for more than four minutes more and getting 10 more first downs than Michigan, Utah wore down the Wolverine defense in the first half.

Michigan was nearly helpless as the Utes scored on 5-of-6 first-half possessions. No defense can be on the field that long and be successful, even with Barwis training it in supercharged practices.

So, typical Michigan fan, you didn’t get what you wanted Saturday, but there’s no need to panic. Although most teams will get better as the season progresses, the Wolverines have more room for growth because they’re learning a new system. But that was no help against Utah on Saturday.

“We’re not good enough to play bad and win,” Rodriguez said Monday. “I don’t care who it is we play. We’re, right now, a program that’s gotta play well and execute well to win the game. It’s as simple as that. We can’t go out there and mess around.”

Daring play calling, a spread offense and Barwis aren’t magical fixes. There are no wizard hats or snake oil to use. The Wolverines have their work cut out for them this season, more so than any time since Bo Schembechler took over in 1969.

Just 70,183 fans saw Bo's first game at Michigan Stadium, a 42-14 win over Vanderbilt, but attendance grew in the next 21 years.

Most of the 108,421 in attendance Saturday arrived early to see the early stages of the transition. Just because it wasn't as pretty as in 1969, don't leave the Rodriguez bandwagon early.

— Feldman can be reached at danfeld@umich.edu.