Ann Arbor — Finally, they can stop looking back. And perhaps finally, they're ready to start running forward.
The Wolverines didn't erase anything by wiping out Appalachian State 52-14 Saturday, and that wasn't their goal. Their goal was to take all this pent-up aggression — from last season's 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 we'll know soon enough if "only Appalachian State" is the reason. Michigan visits Notre Dame on Saturday night, and Devin Gardner probably isn't 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 Michigan's offense didn't 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 De'Veon 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 De'Veon.
In the middle of it was an offensive line that, despite dire projections, didn't come out sucking its thumbs. Draw whatever conclusions you wish from Michigan's romp, although please don't 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, that's been inexplicably absent.
"We came into the season with a little different mentality," Gardner said. "We're a tough team, we're gonna play hard and we're gonna run the football. (The offensive line) didn't need to be hyped at all. They've been responding all summer, you guys don't know that."
We've 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, that's 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 Gardner's 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."
Gardner's 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 wasn't interested in overstating anything after one game, but he clearly was pleased by his players' demeanor, and by his offense's 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 there's 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 Saturday's 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.
"I'm not really a normal wide receiver," Funchess said. "I'm 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 can't ever be forgotten, but finally, gradually, the Wolverines are preparing again to handle teams their own size.