Chris Perry has heard all the doubters.
He’s not durable enough. He fumbles too much. He can’t break big runs, and he’s certainly no Anthony Thomas.
But with the help of a determined and experienced offensive line Saturday at the Big House, Perry took a giant first step toward having a senior season to remember. He led the Wolverines to a 45-7 thumping of Central Michigan, and in the process, silenced his critics, if only for a moment.
Perry abused the Chippewas for 232 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, giving him an average of 10.5 yards a pop. His dazzling performance set the all-time Michigan record for rushing yards in an opening game, and it was the first time since Thomas’ performance in the Wolverines’ 35-31 win over Illinois in 2000 that a Michigan runner hit the 200-yard mark in a single game.
“I think we had a great time running the ball because our offensive line and receivers kept the holes open for us all day long,” Perry said. “I had no other option but to run the ball through the holes they made.”
The difference between Perry 2003 and Perry before? Even when there wasn’t a sign that read “The hole is right here, Chris,” Perry created room to run with improved vision and patience. He broke eight runs of 10 yards or more, including gains of 63, 33 and 26 yards.
“He’s our back,” offensive tackle Tony Pape said. “He’s a major part of this offense. (Because of his success), teams are going to try and respect the run and that opens up the pass for John (Navarre).”
After a 92-yard touchdown drive brought the Chippewas to within 17-7 and sucked the life out of the Big House to begin the third quarter, it was Perry and the offensive line – which did not allow a sack or a lost yard all game – that ended any hope of a Central comeback.
The fifth-ranked Wolverines embarked on a seven-play, 70-yard drive, highlighted by Perry hurdling two Central Michigan defenders for an 11-yard gain. Perry finished the drive with a 26-yard touchdown run, as he darted through a huge hole up the middle and kicked it outside to beat several Chippewas to the left pylon for a 24-7 lead.
“(After Central scored), we kind of put the ball down and went nose-to-nose and ran the ball down the field,” Pape said. “We went out there with the kind of mentality that we were just going to grind it out.”
Michigan ran off 28 unanswered points in the second half, leaving its red zone difficulties from the first half behind. Navarre, who connected on 19-of-33 passes for 245 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, hit the rarely-used Braylon Edwards on a corner route for a 48-yard touchdown pass to put Michigan ahead 31-7.
Edwards played mostly in third-down situations Saturday. Carr explained after the game that he and Edwards, who switched to the No. 1 jersey in the spring, “we’re not on the same page.”
However, Carr and Edwards were on the same page long enough for Edwards to lead the team in receiving with 78 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions.
The Wolverines began the afternoon 0-for-2 in their red zone touchdown opportunities. After Perry’s 63-yard scamper to begin the game, incomplete passes to Tyrece Butler and Edwards in the end zone forced an Adam Finley field goal attempt. Finley missed the 25-yarder, bringing back memories of last season’s opening-game kicking fiasco against Washington.
On Michigan’s second trip inside the 20, sophomore Jason Avant dropped a Navarre bullet in the end zone on third down. Finley hit the 32-yard field goal to give Michigan three points in its first two trips to the red zone.
“There were a few times we were in the red zone and didn’t convert,” Perry said. “That cannot happen against the better teams on our schedule. That is something we need to do to be a great team.”
Stopping the opponent’s running game is something else the Wolverines will have to address if they want to spend New Year’s Day somewhere other than Central Florida. Michigan allowed 218 yards rushing to the Chippewas, who used three runners to keep Michigan’s defense on its heels for most of the afternoon. Terrence Jackson, Jerry Seymour and Kenan Lawhorne rushed for five, 4.6 and six yards per carry, respectively.
“Two hundred yards, no matter who you’re playing, is too many to give up running the ball,” defensive tackle Grant Bowman said. “It’s definitely going to be a huge concern for next week.”