Ann Arbor — Michigan is now .500 against Appalachian State.
But that’s not what matters, because this wasn’t about righting the past but moving on and establishing groundwork for the future, as in this season.
The Wolverines were looking for a lot of things that were lacking last season, and they found some new life against an overmatched team to kick off the season at Michigan Stadium.
This one wasn’t exactly about avenging the stunning Appalachian State upset of Michigan in 2007 when the Mountaineers were an FCS team, although the team did watch some of the clips from that game as a reminder.
This was about something much more tangible.
It was about finding a consistent running game, exorcising the issues that had plagued the offensive line, getting quarterback Devin Gardner entirely comfortable and showing off a deep defense that intends to be a differencemaker.
Michigan walloped Appalachian State, 52-14, on Saturday before 106,811 at Michigan Stadium, and no one should even begin to think the Wolverines have arrived. Not even close. But this was a solid start for the Wolverines (1-0) who will play at Notre Dame next week in the final game in that series for the foreseeable future.
“We watched some film from ’07, were reminded of it a little bit, but again, there’s a certain point where you realize this is a different team, different year kind of thing,” senior linebacker Desmond Morgan said. “We wanted to get that first win under our belt for (this) team.
“It’s not a revenge game, it wasn’t anything like that. It was moving forward and winning that first game and getting some of those kinks out.”
While the defense has been anticipated to be the hallmark and tone-setter of these Wolverines, the offense wanted to prove it had worked out the multiple kinks from last season.
Michigan had 560 total yards of offense and converted all six of its red-zone attempts.
Devin Funchess made his 2014 debut wearing the coveted No. 1 jersey, which had not been on the field for Michigan since Braylon Edwards in 2004. He did it in style.
Funchess, who began his Michigan career as a tight end and is now a receiver, caught three touchdown passes from Devin Gardner in the first half. They were the Wolverines’ first three scores, and he is the first receiver in program history to catch three touchdowns in a season opener. He had seven catches for 95 yards.
Gardner looked poised and consistent going 13-of-14 for 173 yards and throwing the three touchdowns before backup Shane Morris came into the game late in the third quarter. Gardner now has thrown for 37 touchdowns during his career and is tied for seventh in Michigan’s all-time leaders in that category, passing Tom Brady.
But perhaps the biggest boost for the offense under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier was the running game, which was mostly anemic last season.
Michigan had its first game with two 100-yard rushers — both tailbacks — since Oct. 27, 2007, against Minnesota (Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown). Against Appalachian State, Michigan gained 350 yards rushing with Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith carrying the bulk of the load. Green had 170 yards, including a long run of 62 yards, and a touchdown, and Smith had 115 yards, including a 61-yard run, and two touchdowns.
Smith said running backs coach Fred Jackson, who calls the backs his “one-two punch,” has been hammering a simple point all during spring football and preseason camp.
“Coach J was beating it in our heads, you’ve got to be better running backs to be the toughest running backs in the Big Ten,” Smith said. “Our preparation was to at least get over 100 yards each, and that’s what we came out and did. That’s a shoutout to the offensive line and the wide receivers blocking for us.”
Smith gave the offensive line, which started a true freshman, Mason Cole, in the first game of the season at left tackle for the first time in program history, a generous “A++” grade and said the holes were bigger than those provided last season.
“I’ve seen this in camp — (last) Tuesday and Wednesday were our best practices of camp,” he said. “Our offensive line came out and dominated the defense, so I was expecting nothing less.”
Smith and Green each had career-best long runs. Smith ran for 61 yards in the second quarter, beating his previous best of 38, while Green had a 62-yard run in the third quarter. His previous best was 30 yards.
The Wolverines also got a special-teams contribution on a punt blocked by Mike McCray that Ben Gedeon returned 32 yards for a touchdown.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke wasn’t exactly heaping praise on his defense, though, mainly because the Wolverines didn’t cause any turnovers, had only one sack and allowed 14 second-half points. Appalachian State was 0-of-8 on third-down conversions in the first half and 5-of-9 in the second.
“They get the ball out of their hands pretty quick, but (we) should have been a little better than that,” Hoke said. “Had some opportunities and have to make them when they’re there.”
Senior linebacker Jake Ryan said the defense has plenty of small things to clean up.
“You can’t give up those 14 points,” Ryan said. “Little mistakes we made, we’ve got to work on all those things. We’ve got to work on the pass rush, the little things we need to work on to improve this defense. I think everyone was getting to the ball, everyone was doing their job. I thought we played a good defensive game, but those points we gave up were tough.”