When Brady Hoke was named the new head coach at Michigan it was received with mixed feelings. When Hoke and the Wolverines took the field on Saturday it was safe to say that the Michigan faithful were all in for Hoke as he brought the traditional Michigan style back to the Big House.
Michigan won the toss and deferred to the second half. I’m always a fan of putting your defense out there first, but it’s been a while since Michigan has had a defense worth putting out there at all.
Being a passing team, Western Michigan came out tossing it around. Michigan looked okay, not playing out of position and missing assignments like the past few seasons, but still looked a bit shy. WMU marched down the field almost unimpeded. Carder completed every pass he threw; not all for large gains, but all were complete.
Western came out in multiple looks, but it was the five-wide set around the nine-minute mark that did the damage. Michigan had one guy covering two receivers and Carder hit his man. Were it not for a great effort by Courtney Avery it would have been a touchdown. Michigan held on 3rd-and-goal but WMU went for it on fourth and put it in the endzone to go up 7-0. Carder was 8-for-8 on a 15-play, 74-yard drive taking up just over seven minutes.
Michigan’s new look offense took the field at its own 24. On the first play, a designed Denard run, gained 11 yards and I couldn’t have been happier. Living amongst Buckeye fans and general naysayers, seeing Borges call a designed run showed he is going to use what he has, and what Denard has is electric feet. Denard’s first throw was not as spectacular, a 3-yard completion to Roy Roundtree.
The Bronco defense had good speed and didn’t look out of place, while Michigan’s offensive line did a solid job of opening holes for the runners, especially on yet another QB draw which led to a first down.
A great play action pass to Kevin Koger was, in my opinion, the best play of the drive. Denard stood back in the pocket looking poised and threw a strike to Koger, who made a great grab and came down with it while getting railed by the opposing defender. Facing a 4th-and-1, Michigan went for it with a power running play, Toussaint straight up the gut for the first down. While not a big gainer or a terribly exciting play, those of us who grew up watching guys like Tyrone Wheatley and Tim Biakabutuka or more recently Chris Perry and Mike Hart, had been starving for some power Michigan football.
Denard looked good in the pocket, not getting happy feet and making his progressions, although the word on the street is Borges has a 1, 2… run progression for Denard. Michigan ate up a fair amount of clock as well, and started the second quarter still in possession and still marching. Toussaint had the honor of scoring the first Michigan touchdown in the Hoke era on a short run up the middle. The drive went for 16 plays, 76 yards and took 8:33 off the clock.
On the kickoff return, Troy Woolfolk, who had a couple tackles and a big hit on the first series, came off the field limping. Not a good sign at all. Carvin Johnson replaced him and he did not return with a sprained ankle, though Hoke said after the game that he could have come back in if needed.
WMU’s next drive was about the same as its first: moving the ball down the field with short, quick passes. Michigan started to apply some pressure, and a Kenny Demens blitz up the middle forced Carder to get rid of it quickly and throw incomplete. WMU settled for a 38-yard field goal attempt but came up shy, missing it wide right. The Michigan defense seemed to be playing a “bend but don’t break” style. Not what I expected but it seemed to be working.
After a 3-and-out by Michigan, Western took over again and started marching down the field just as before. Michigan turned loose a blitz and Carder picked it up, just barely stepping out of Demens’ way, but sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan busted through the line to tip Carder’s pass. It fell into the hands of linebacker Brandon Herron who then took it 94 yards to the house for the longest interception return in Michigan history and the first since Donovan Warren did it in 2009.
For once, broadcaster Craig James said something worthwhile, if not completely obvious, that those are the kinds of plays this defense needs, especially early on, to gain confidence in itself.
After a 3-and-out by the Broncos, Michigan followed up on its next series with some more nifty moves by Denard and another Toussaint touchdown run, this time from two yards out.
Michigan dialed up the pressure again on defense and the all-out blitzes started getting to Carder, but just a hair too late. They resulted in incomplete passes but they’ve yet to get him to the ground. WMU settled for a field goal to enter the half trailing Michigan 20-10.
WMU’s Jordan White had nine catches for 96 yards in just the first half, while Carder started hot but struggled late in the half in the face of pressure.
Michigan’s defense allowed 199 total yards in the first half, looking improved but still in need of a lot of work. Aside from the pick-six, it pretty much got owned by Alex Carder. Receivers were open all day. The blitzes late in the half forced some bad passes but overall WMU looked solid and was able to do whatever it wanted. Were it not for the missed field goal and the tipped pass leading to the touchdown, Michigan might have been down 17-7.
Denard had 101 yards of total offense overall, with no one else really stepping up on offense. Toussaint had 2 touchdowns, but his per carry average was under four.
At this point, Michigan fans were interested to see what sort of adjustments Hoke and Co. would make at the half, one thing Michigan lacked the past three seasons.
Michigan starts the second half with the ball and at this point, the pouring rain led to the officials call for a 30 minute delay due to the lightning. When the game resumed, Jordan White and WMU picked up where they left off in the first half, passing it all over the field. Michigan struggled to get pressure except when it blitzed up the middle.
Mattison seemed to have enough of the “bend but don’t break” philosophy and started sending more blitzes. Carder got drilled by Jordan Kovacs on a blitz, the first sack of the Hoke era, fumbled. The ball was scooped up and returned for a touchdown by none other than Herron, who became the first Michigan defender with two returns for touchdown in a game since Tom Harmon in 1940.
Mattison continued to dial up the pressure and send blitz after blitz. Carder was having a tough time and Michigan was starting to look like, well, Michigan. WMU was clearly getting rattled and the penalties started to rack up.
Michigan’s next possession looked very much like last season. Toussaint ripped off a 43-yarder, and two plays later, Mike Shaw went untouched 44 yards for a touchdown. A 3-play, 87-yard drive in just 39 seconds, putting Michigan ahead 34-10.
During the next series, play was halted again due to lightning and the stadium was evacuated. The game was called soon after with a few minutes remaining in the third quarter.
The Hoke era began with a win, as most expected, but WMU showed some of the weaknesses still lingering on the defensive side. It certainly didn’t look as bad as last year, but until Mattison started sending some serious pressure it didn’t look that great.
The offense was solid and it was great to see someone other than Denard lead the team in rushing. Toussaint went for 11 carries for 80 yards and 2 touchdowns, while Shaw had 4-for-54 and a TD. Denard finished 9-for-13 for 98 yards in the air and had 8 carries for 46 yards.
Carder went 22-31 for 183 and an interception, but most of those completions came before the blitzing spree occurred. A sore spot for Michigan last season, pass coverage, showed improvement, though Jordan White still had 12 catches for 119 yards. Is this guy on the Biletnikoff watch list?
The game changer was definitely Mattison sending the pressure with blitzes and forcing three turnovers, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
Who knows what we would have seen had the weather cooperated and we’d finished the remaining 17 minutes. It could be a blessing in disguise for Michigan, allowing Borges to not have to show much of his hand to Notre Dame. All in all, there is reason to be excited in Ann Arbor again. Bring on the Irish!