September 7, 2009 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Wolverines tougher for adversity

True freshman quarterback Tate Forcier got the Michigan crowd fired up by completing 13 of 20 passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)

Ann Arbor

The chant started early and returned at the end, when Michigan players ran to the student section and their coach followed.

"Rich Rod-ri-guez!" is what the fans yelled, and make no mistake, Rich Rodriguez heard it. This is not your normal Michigan football season and this certainly was not your normal opener, although the Wolverines' 31-7 stomping of Western Michigan had an old-school feel to it.

Nothing was fully resolved except this: Rodriguez's resolve is real, and his response to the toughest week of his career was impressive. Michigan looked enthused and well-coached, which can happen when you have two elusive freshman quarterbacks, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, making big plays.

Larger tests beckon, with Notre Dame next, and hey, the Irish might not be overrated after all. But for Rodriguez, this was the biggest test imaginable, and he handled it with poise.

In the space of a week, Rodriguez answered charges he overworked players in violation of NCAA rules, and had to deal with signs of divisiveness from old-guard Michigan. Then he had to pick a quarterback to lead a young team against a tricky MAC upstart.

This isn't about sympathy, not at all. Rodriguez is a big boy making big bucks, and he should have known what he was getting into making major changes at a storied program, then dropping a 3-9 bomb in his first season.

Rodriguez shows leadership

Who knows where the Wolverines go from here, or where the investigation goes from here, but what Rodriguez did was paramount to his success here. He showed solid and passionate leadership, not lashing out. He bared raw emotions. And he coached his (butt) off.

"It was more emotional than a normal game, but once you get into it, I kind of tune everything out," Rodriguez said, smiling afterward. "It is kind of a relief to move past the drama and have everybody talk about a football game. I thought this team was tight nine months ago, I really did. Then I saw it in the spring, then I saw it in camp, and then I saw it even more this week. I've got a neat group of young men, hungry guys."

There was intense relief and a hint of gratitude from Rodriguez. Getting to Saturday took forever in his mind, but once there, he got a chance to attack the only way he could.

"I just wanted to get on the field and show the progress we've made, and for a half, you saw it," Rodriguez said, speaking of the 31-0 halftime lead. "I wish the second half would've been better, but we still got a long way to go. I got a lot of film work to do (Sunday)."

Pause. Smile.

"With the coaches. On our own."

Ah, a bit of levity, directed at the allegation that Sunday was a tough workday for players.

Does one victory suggest all is right and Michigan is better than a 7-5 team? No. But its speed and explosiveness are intriguing, and it's not like the Big Ten is overly tough. And we've already seen, with Oklahoma and Oregon suffering huge blows, how quickly things can change.

If the Wolverines keep playing with this fervor and the quarterbacks keep developing, sure, they could rise more rapidly than expected.

"It brought us closer together to see our coach hurt by his former players (who alleged violations)," defensive end Brandon Graham said. "We wanted to prove to him, we're gonna fight for him, no matter what."

Team delivers in need

This doesn't erase 3-9 and bind Michigan football forever. But Rodriguez needed to show how badly he wanted to succeed here, and Michigan people needed to show they still supported him. And there had to be on-field progress to warrant the support.

Rodriguez showed it, and so did Forcier. The new defense under Greg Robinson was the biggest revelation, much better at the simple art of tackling.

I could minimize this because it was a MAC opponent, but uh-uh. The Broncos aren't bad and the Wolverines seemed ripe. It turns out they were more ready than ripe.

Rodriguez should enjoy it and move on quickly. He called the crowd reaction "unbelievable," and at least for now, the topics change. Can Michigan's secondary handle Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen and his fine receivers? Can playing three quarterbacks actually work? Will Forcier's daring and feistiness produce turnovers in addition to big plays?

For Rodriguez, the distractions were real -- he admitted he didn't sleep much -- but not debilitating. Asked if this meant even more to him personally, he wouldn't bite, sticking to the "All in for Michigan" script.

It was an important start, even as some were predicting the beginning of the end. The best way to show cohesiveness is through adversity, and if they can handle all this, the Wolverines will be better for it. And so will their coach.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com