It’s hard not to cringe while listing the litany of mistakes the Wolverines committed during Saturday’s season opener.

Jonathan Duggan

Michigan’s receivers dropped six passes. Michigan’s defense bit badly and gave up a touchdown on a gimmick play. Michigan had a kick blocked. Michigan lost a fumble. Michigan roughed the punter. Michigan jumped early. And jumped again. Michigan held. And held again. Michigan lined up illegally.

It wasn’t the cleanest opener for the Wolverines by any means. But if you cut through the thicket of blunders and missteps (true, you’d need a sizeable machete to do so), there were plenty of encouraging signs. Especially in the area where Michigan most needed to make a statement (defense), it looked sharp and hungry. And that could portend big things for the upcoming season.

With new coordinator Ron English running the show, the buzzword around Michigan’s defense leading up to this season was “intensity.” At spring practice, I witnessed firsthand how vocal English was; I saw how willing he was to get up in his players’ faces. English’s aggressive style seemed well-suited to reforming a soft defense that made blowing leads an art form in 2005. Still there was no way to be sure whether the players would respond and mirror their coach’s hard-charging persona.

So far, it appears they have.

True to its leader’s philosophy, the defense arrived at the Big House ready to punish people. By the time the game ended, nearly every Vanderbilt regular had taken it on the chin, courtesy of a Michigan defender.

The entire defense played well, but the front four stole the show. Vanderbilt’s offensive line was supposed to be the strength of the Commodore offense, but the Vandy line looked more like Swiss cheese by the time Michigan’s D-Line was through with it. The beating was so bad that Vanderbilt center Hamilton Holliday had to change his jersey number from 53 to 61 midway through the game because there was so much blood on his white road uniform.

While tackles Alan Branch, Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson ate up blockers in the middle, ends Rondell Biggs and LaMarr Woodley exploded the stat sheet. The duo spent most of its day in the Vanderbilt backfield, combining for four sacks and seven tackles for losses. With Michigan’s big boys owning the line of scrimmage, the Commodore running game – if you could call it that – never got off the ground. Running back Cassen Jackson-Garrison ran eight times for a laughable two yards, losing yardage on half of his runs.

Shutting down a weak rushing attack is one thing, but as Michigan has proven in the past, even the most talented defense can struggle with running quarterbacks. Indeed, I’m sure many Michigan fans have developed ulcers watching signal callers like Troy Smith and Vince Young pirouette around maize and blue defenders for huge gains.

Obviously, Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson is neither of those guys, but he definitely brings plenty of athleticism to the table. The defense let Nickson run for a few decent gains – it’s virtually impossible to completely shut down a running signal-caller – but Michigan contained him by playing fundamentally sound football. All game long, the Wolverines funneled Nickson’s scrambles inside, preventing him from getting up the sidelines and turning solid gains into huge ones. Michigan’s discipline paid off – Nickson finished with 22 yards on 16 carries and never ran for more than 15 yards on a single play.

“I thought we did an excellent job on the edges, not letting their quarterback out on the perimeter,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “Because that’s where a guy can hurt you. For the most part, we did a great job with quarterback run plays.”

In every sense of the word, Michigan’s defense finished on Saturday. During 2005, tackling was hit-or-miss for the Wolverines. But against Vanderbilt, under English’s tutelage, Michigan’s defenders could be counted on to hit, wrap and bring ballcarriers down. Virtually every time a Wolverine sunk his claws into a Commodore jersey, the player was on Michigan Stadium’s FieldTurf moments later.

In another notable improvement from last season, Michigan’s defense finished off the game with authority. The Wolverines’ off-season emphasis on conditioning appeared to pay off, as Michigan’s D stayed strong throughout, picking up three sacks and forcing a fumble in the final frame. While Carr indicated that he would have liked to get more backups playing time – something Michigan’s sketchy offensive performance prevented – having the starters in for four quarters proved to be a nice test of the Wolverines’ defensive stamina. And they passed with flying colors.

Of course, the Wolverines’ dominating defensive performance against a third-tier opponent doesn’t prove anything. But it’s certainly encouraging that, unlike last year, when Northern Illinois put up 411 yards, Michigan’s season opener raised no defensive red flags.

That’s why I felt relatively encouraged walking out of the Big House on Saturday. Even though Michigan made more than its fair share of mistakes, none of them (besides, perhaps, the holding penalties) appeared to be anything that could turn into chronic problems. There are still plenty of question marks – most notably in the passing game – but if Michigan’s defense continues to improve under English, the Wolverines will certainly compete against Notre Dame, Ohio State and the rest of their star-studded schedule.

– Singer can be reached at mattsing@umich.edu.

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