WEST LAFAYETTE — Welcome to the place where interceptions fall into Michigan hands as if dropped from a cloud. Where the Michigan linemen can dictate games. Where good just might be good enough.
After wandering for four games in the non-conference desert, Michigan can finally see the promised land. Football fans, welcome to the 2012 Big Ten.
It’s a strange place here, one where Denard Robinson’s toughest decision is to try to score or duck out of bounds and avoid a hit. Here, the ineffectiveness of a certain tailback matters not, nor does a kicker that just doesn’t have the leg to hit from far out.
Here, Michigan dominates the line of scrimmage. It started with the offense’s first touch. Robinson rushed for a modest five yards, and all of a sudden, 78-yards and 8:48 of game time had gone by and there was Fitzgerald Toussaint, pounding the ball in for the score, 7-0.
The drive was 17 plays of linemen colliding and Robinson checking down and Toussaint grinding for a short gain. No play went for more than 10 yards, save a facemasking penalty on Purdue’s Kawann Short.
This isn’t Bo Schembechler’s Big Ten, and it wasn’t exactly the tailback for three yards and a cloud of dust. Toussaint averaged just 1.1 yards per carry on 17 touches. No, this is the new Big Ten, where ball control and a dash of flapping shoelaces are enough to win.
Yes, the Wolverines’ defense was smothering. When Jake Ryan wasn’t in the backfield, he was disrupting the potent Purdue screen game in the flats. He knows Big Ten games are different. “We all know it,” Ryan said.
“One loss can do it for us, and we don’t want that,” fifth-year senior linebacker Kenny Demens put it. “We want to go to the Rose Bowl.”
To avoid that loss, the rules are different this year. The Wolverines’ offense just needs to be smart. On Saturday, offensive coordinator Al Borges let Denard be Denard. Gone were the wild throws downfield. They were replaced by a heavier dose of run and rendered moot by a few throw aways. Gone, too, was the constant pressure that foes such as Notre Dame and Alabama had created.
See, in this conference, offenses don’t need to be as flashy. Here an offense that limits mistakes and a defense that attacks can wait for something good to happen.
On Saturday, it happened three times.
The first gift was a ball tipped off a Purdue receiver’s hands and into those of sophomore cornerback Raymon Taylor. Taylor sped 63 yards the other way for Michigan’s third score, a touchdown so easy that it was a something “I could’ve done,” joked Michigan coach Brady Hoke.
The second gift, again unforced but pounced upon by an aggressive Michigan defense, was on the ensuing kickoff. Purdue returner Akeem Hunt just dropped the ball, and sophomore cornerback Delonte Hollowell just scooped it up.
The drive stalled when redshirt junior kicker Brendan Gibbons missed a 44-yarder into the wind. Two weeks ago, in a hostile Notre Dame stadium, Gibbons’s miss would be crippling. But here, it was a blip. It didn’t matter. Michigan already led by three touchdowns.
In the fourth quarter, another interception fell from the sky like a leftover raindrop from last night’s showers. Again, it was a ball tipped off a receiver. This time, redshirt junior safety Thomas Gordon was there.
By then, the Wolverines led by three scores with nine minutes left, and Michigan had locked up a victory against one of the Big Ten’s better opponents. It’s a conference as wide-open and ordinary as ever.
On a day when Michigan State, the Wolverines’ likely challenger for the Legends’ Division title, eked out a victory over lowly Indiana, Michigan ran off the field fresh.
Freshman Dennis Norfleet ran off singing to himself. Senior defensive end Craig Roh jogged off and laughed with a teammate. Athletic Director Dave Brandon ran off with a grin, then pointed at someone and pumped his fist.
Afterward, howls filled the musty air outside the Michigan locker room. The victory yells and off-pitch singing echoed toward the podium where Brady Hoke was speaking.
“There’s a lot of noise back there,” the Michigan coach said.
The victory’s cries were jarring and new and beautiful. Sounds like Big Ten football.