August 30, 2014 at 11:11 pm

Bob Wojnowski

No history this time, as Michigan flashes old-school power

Michigan football discusses win over Appalachian S...
Michigan football discusses win over Appalachian S...: The Wolverines defeated the Mountaineers in their season opener.

Ann Arbor Finally, they can stop looking back. And perhaps finally, theyre ready to start running forward.

The Wolverines didnt erase anything by wiping out Appalachian State 52-14 Saturday, and that wasnt their goal. Their goal was to take all this pent-up aggression from last seasons collapse, from the criticism, from the questions and find a way unleash it.

It was only Appalachian State, which was in no position to repeat its 2007 shocker, so this rout was about as expected. But remember a year ago, when Michigan huffed and puffed trying to put away only Akron, and only Connecticut? Remember when the Wolverines wheezed just staggering back to the line of scrimmage?

In this opener, they did things they never did last season, and well know soon enough if only Appalachian State is the reason. Michigan visits Notre Dame on Saturday night, and Devin Gardner probably isnt going to smoothly complete 13 of 14 passes without an interception, as he did Saturday. Devin Funchess, newly adorned with the No. 1 jersey, probably will draw more defensive attention than a wink from tiny cornerbacks.

But this is the early transformation we had to see, and I think it carries some weight. Why? Because Michigans offense didnt just do one thing well, like saddle up the quarterback and go for a ride. There was Funchess, their 6-4 big-play monster, snatching three touchdown passes as if plucking apples from a tree. There were a pair of tough runners, Derrick Green (170 yards) and DeVeon Smith (115), becoming the first Michigan running-back tandem to top 100 yards in seven years.

The Wolverines finished with 560 yards, 350 on the ground, more rushing yards than in any game last season. If their offense earned a D then, it could be about the Ds now Devin, Devin, Derrick and DeVeon.

In the middle of it was an offensive line that, despite dire projections, didnt come out sucking its thumbs. Draw whatever conclusions you wish from Michigans romp, although please dont label it a cleansing for the historic 34-32 debacle in 2007. The revelation that truly might matter is that Michigan showed an aggressiveness on offense and defense, in scheme and in effort, thats been inexplicably absent.

We came into the season with a little different mentality, Gardner said. Were a tough team, were gonna play hard and were gonna run the football. (The offensive line) didnt need to be hyped at all. Theyve been responding all summer, you guys dont know that.

Weve heard similar vows before. But in his fourth season, Brady Hoke has more big bodies, more depth and more guys desperate to prove themselves.

Close to the action

Gardner is one. So is Funchess, finally settled at receiver instead of tight end. So is Green, who went from No. 1 high school running back to overweight slogger, and is battling back. So is new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who came from Alabama eager to do more, and was a bundle of energy on the sideline, balancing play calls instead of ramming for the sake of ramming.

You want a difference that might be real, thats one. A year ago, Al Borges called plays from the press box, detached and occasionally stubborn. Nussmeier is right there next to Hoke, right there in Gardners face, loud and encouraging.

It was really cool, really different, Gardner said. It was nice for me to able to make adjustments right there, not wait until halftime. I really enjoyed having him down there.

Gardners favorite moment came when Nussmeier cheered crazily after the quarterback switched a play at the line of scrimmage, and did it exactly right. Gardner checked from one running play into another, and Green rumbled for 62 yards.

Hoke wasnt interested in overstating anything after one game, but he clearly was pleased by his players demeanor, and by his offenses efficiency. Sometimes, Nussmeier put Gardner in the shotgun and spread it out, and sometimes he lined him up for power football.

We wanted Devin, No. 1, to manage the game and take care of the football, Hoke said. He made some really good decisions. I thought he played locked in. With Doug being on the sideline, I think it helps.

Laying it on the line

It helps if the offensive line stands its ground, then starts pushing forward. The line was partly responsible for the most-hideous numbers in program history last season, when Michigan ranked 102nd in the nation in rushing and 121st (out of 123 teams) in tackles for loss.

The sledding is about to get much tougher, but theres no excuse for sliding. The top two starters are gone from that woeful line, and among the new guys is true freshman Mason Cole at left tackle. In Saturdays debut, junior center Jack Miller and sophomore right tackle Ben Braden played well, and when sophomore Kyle Kalis got comfortable, the line actually looked strange word here cohesive.

It also helps if a fifth-year senior like Gardner has the trust of his coordinator, who has the willingness to try all sorts of things. One thing the Wolverines will try a lot is that Devin-to-Devin connection, which should be lethal.

Im not really a normal wide receiver, Funchess said. Im 6-4, 6-5, 230 pounds. I just feel like nobody can match up with that size.

Size on the outside, size on the inside. Michigan is bigger, for sure. Seven years ago, a little team with a funny name amazingly knocked them down. That cant ever be forgotten, but finally, gradually, the Wolverines are preparing again to handle teams their own size.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner signals to his teammates during the third quarter against Appalachian State on Saturday in Ann Arbor. / David Guralnick / Detroit News