College football may have regressed about 90 years on Saturday. The teams ran the ball 85 times – more than half by Mike Hart – and completed no passes longer than 24 yards. This shouldn’t really be a surprise, considering Penn State coach Joe Paterno started coaching around then.
But no matter how far back in time you feel you traveled while watching Saturday’s battle in the trenches, the throwback game provided a glance into the Wolverines’ future – and it looked pretty good.
If you’re talking about progress, you must start with the defense.
The same ‘D’ that allowed more than 70 points in the season’s first seven quarters suddenly hasn’t given up a touchdown in two games.
Whether it’s the Brandon Graham effect (five sacks in his last two games), the Johnny Sears effect (addition by subtraction, anyone?) or just that Michigan is playing against more conventional offenses, the past two games’ results speak for themselves:
Eight quarters, nine points. Two games, two wins.
“That’s something I expected: shutdown defense,” Graham said. “That’s something that we always strive for. We always talked about it. (Coach Ron English) sees it in us every week, he sees that we can get better every week in certain spots.”
(And don’t say there wasn’t any progress in terms of offense innovation, either. In the second quarter, fullback Mark Moundros shuffled right before the ball was snapped. But when Mallett handed the ball off to Hart, it was to the left. After regaining my breath and clearing my eyes, I realized what I had actually seen: a form – albeit a ridiculously minor form – of misdirection. Carr and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord are probably still high-fiving each other over that crazy play as you read this right now. Then again, it could have just been Moundros’s mistake.)
The progress extends beyond the players and coaches, though.
Case in point: the crowd.
Entering the game, there was a lot of talk that Michigan’s “hostile atmosphere” is overstated. OK, by entering the game, I mean for about 20 years, people who have been to a Michigan game use their experience as proof that bigger isn’t always better.
Opposing players have thought similar things, too. Leading into his return trip to Ann Arbor, one of those former visitors decided to make his opinion public.
“It’s not a super-overwhelming place,” said Nittany Lion wideout Deon Butler of the Big House last week. “Yes, it’s large, and they’re supposed to have more people than us, but it’s not overwhelming in the sense that it’s not as tense as Beaver Stadium. Their fans aren’t near as rowdy as our fans.”
I don’t know if Michigan fans heard Butler’s comments and wanted to prove him wrong, or if the old folks that typically sit down during games realized it’s OK to stand and cheer, but something changed.
At Beaver Stadium last year, the press box literally shook because of the volume of the raucous Penn State crowd. When I made my way to the field in the fourth quarter, it was the loudest sound I had ever heard.
But Saturday’s game at the Big House came close to that experience. On the game’s final drive, all of the maize-and-blue clad fans were on their feet, making the most noise I had ever heard in Ann Arbor. Don’t believe me? Ask the players.
“Listen to them. That’s what I want to hear every game – listen to them,” senior linebacker Chris Graham said on the field following Saturday’s game. “That’s love right there. I love the fans. Thank you, Michigan, for your support at the end.”
But the most promising progress for the future of the program could be seen in freshman signal caller Ryan Mallett.
In his debut against Notre Dame, Mallett attempted 15 passes, completing just seven. His sub-.500 completion percentage wasn’t frowned upon by most, though, since he threw three touchdowns.
Most called it an efficient debut. But even with nearly half of his completions going for touchdowns, two things have to be considered:
First, the game was against Notre Dame, who would be a double-digit underdog against Ann Arbor Pioneer this season.
Secondly, and kind of frankly, his efficient game wasn’t all that efficient at all. Below 50 percent is below 50 percent, and Mallett’s starting debut was pretty shaky no matter how you look at it.
Saturday, Mallett became a noticeably better football player from the first half to the second. In the opening 30 minutes, he looked like he did against Notre Dame. He made some questionable throws, took a few hits and missed a few open receivers.
But by game’s end, Mallett had calmed down and completed more passes than he attempted in his debut (16). Thirteen of those went for first downs. He went 8-for-10 in the second half, making many of those completions on the run.
That’s efficiency. And that’s progress.
Mallett’s progress isn’t limited to the field, either.
The confident teenager who may have initially rubbed some people the wrong way when he first arrived has already gained perspective during his short time in Ann Arbor.
“It’s Chad’s team,” Mallett said following Saturday’s game. “It’s Chad’s team.”
No matter whose team it is, it’s a squad that doesn’t remotely resemble the 0-2 Wolverines that limped through the start of this season.
And if you couldn’t tell by now: that’s progress.
– Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.