Wojo: Wolverines power returns cheer to home crowd

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — He wears the new coach’s old number and he wears the look. Straight up, straight ahead, hit hard and hit again.

De’Veon Smith kept blasting and so did Michigan, and the old-time feel was unmistakable. It was Jim Harbaugh’s home coaching debut and Michigan did what it was supposed to do, pounding outmanned Oregon State, 35-7, Saturday. But this wasn’t just about the score — it was about the sores, the ones the Wolverines inflicted.

This was power football, the style Harbaugh knows and Michigan once knew. Harbaugh downplayed everything about his return to Michigan Stadium, but when the topic turned to the runners and blockers, he finally got a tad animated. For one afternoon at least, you could see why he’s determined to hammer away with Smith, who doesn’t have breakaway speed but sure has break-your-back power.

Again, it wasn’t whom the Wolverines beat, but how they beat ’em. Smith would run over one tackler, then happily go hunting for another. He rushed for 126 yards, and naturally, the guy wearing No. 4 had to score the first touchdown of ol’ No. 4’s home debut. And the second touchdown. And the third touchdown. And a two-point conversion.

“The offensive line was seeing it and they were commenting on the sideline, ‘Hey, DeVeon’s really running hard, he’s making people miss, he’s running through contact,’” Harbaugh said. “That inspires them.”

It inspired the defense, too. After a rough start, when Oregon State scored on its first possession, then recovered a Jake Rudock fumble, Michigan’s defense was impenetrable. The Beavers had 136 yards in the first quarter and collected exactly 2 more the rest of the game (although 48 were lost on a botched punt snap).

In the loss at Utah last week, Michigan struggled to run and Smith was part of it, missing the few holes that actually appeared. Following a week of intense practices, there was an anger to the offense, and more important, a purpose.

I thought Smith might be the symbol of this Michigan team — fiercely competitive and physical, but not big-play flashy. And he still could be, in a positive way. It’s almost as if he’d rather hit a defender than hit a hole, and Utah’s defenders didn’t buckle, holding him to 47 yards.

Oregon State’s defense isn’t remotely as tough, but the difference from one week to the next was profound. Smith’s ability to bounce off tacklers, churn his legs and then bounce again, was impressive, and also infectious. Late in the third quarter, with the game still in doubt at 20-7, tight end Ian Bunting grabbed a short pass and hit just about every orange-clad person on his way to a 21-yard gain.

Tangible improvement

Michigan finished with a 405-138 yardage edge and held Oregon State to one third-down conversion in 11 attempts. Defense will take this team wherever it goes this season, but if the Wolverines actually can run the ball, suddenly Rudock isn’t tempted to force risky throws, and maybe, possibly, they can wear people down. You know, like old times.

“Shout-out to my offensive line, they made some huge holes that a bus could drive through,” Smith said. “You can tell when a defense is wearing down, and you want the ball even more. Because I feel my strongest quarter is the fourth quarter.”

It’s about vision, too, and that’s been the question about Smith, who sometimes isn’t patient enough to spot open lanes. Running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley pounded the point, and we saw a vision of what Harbaugh wants his offense to be.

It’s not a secret, obviously. And it takes way more than two games to establish it. But there was tangible improvement, which is all anyone is requesting, so far.

“It was better, something to build on,” Harbaugh said. “I thought our backs ran better, harder, they saw things better. We can get them to the line of scrimmage as coaches, but they gotta see the holes and make the right cuts.”

Reminiscent of old times

Michigan needs other backs to stick their noses in, and Ty Issac and Derrick Green had a few decent runs. If Drake Johnson can provide a change-up to all the big runners (he returned from injury and carried once), the Harbaugh transition could be less painful.

Smith said before the season he couldn’t believe all the No. 4 jerseys around campus and joked, “I try to claim them to be mine.” Some of them are, or might be. Harbaugh is looking for tough guys who fit the program, and in the home opener, we saw the blueprint.

It was handoffs to fullbacks. It was throws to Jake Butt and other tight ends, and hey, maybe the offense can be more Butt and Bunting than simply punting. You can bet it’ll be more of Smith, who runs upright, shoulders squared, reminiscent of a big back from the smash-mouth days. Anthony Thomas was the A-Train in the late ’90s, and although it’s way too early to call Smith the D-Train, you get the idea.

Harbaugh deflected all questions about his return, determined to direct attention to his players. Asked about his first sideline eruption, a foot-stomping, folder-tossing classic after Michigan was called for roughing the punter, he admitted, “Maybe I stand to be corrected.”

Oh, plenty of corrections still need to be made. But as a preview of what’s expected, this was what everyone came to see.