Saturday, August 30, 2008

A much easier loss to swallow


The differences are very, very stark.

A year ago, the Michigan football team suffered perhaps the biggest upset in college football history. You know the story. Ranked No. 5 in the nation. National-title expectations. Three explosive offensive playmakers. And playing against a Division I-AA team.

The Wolverines' loss to Appalachian State was a shocker, a stunner, a dumbfounding defeat to any Michigan football fan. It — one loss — almost ruined the season single-handedly. And afterward, all this was evident on the faces of the devastated Wolverines.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon at the Big House. There were some similarities: It was the first game of the season; it was at home; and it was against a non-BCS school. And Michigan lost, marking the first time since the 1951 and '52 seasons that it dropped opening games in back-to-back seasons.

But the circumstances weren't even close to comparable to those of a year ago. For one, the Wolverines were playing a very difficult opponent in Utah. (Appalachian State was good last year, but I wouldn't put it on Utah's level.) The Utes are being talked about as a BCS bowl-crasher. There's no question they're legitimate.

Then, of course, there was unranked Michigan. Chock full of young, inexperienced players who were competing in new coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offense system for the first time. There was an offense with two plebe quarterbacks devoid of its top running back and two wide receivers from a year ago, not to mention its All-America left tackle.

It all added up to Utah's 25-23 victory. And the result wasn't shocking at all. Except, maybe, that it was so close. If not for Michigan's spirited fourth-quarter comeback, the final score could have looked much uglier.

The Michigan defense is what will need to carry this team in September, and it'd be wise to copy what it did in the second half Saturday — not the first half. Sticking with the no comparison theme, the Wolverines' D changed identities at halftime. All of a sudden, its strength — the front four — started getting into the Utah backfield. And middle linebacker Obi Ezeh — coolest name ever, by the way — was a beast, racing all over the field to record 15 tackles.

Utah scored three points in the second half. It managed all of 28 yards.

That is something to build on. I bet that defense wished it could play another half of football after the game, because it didn't really show up the first 30 minutes. It was just warming up when the game clock hit 0:00.

The offense, meanwhile, resembled exactly what I expected — in one word, ugly. Anyone who expected a smooth attack from the young Wolverines was — and probably still is — delusional. Actually, the fact that Nick Sheridan and Steven Threet only threw one interception in 38 attempts and were sacked three times isn't half bad, because many of their throws were off the mark.

Of course, the wayward tosses were the result of nerves, inexperience and playing in a new system. Utah put some serious pressure on the QBs, too. Saturday won't discourage either of the signal-callers, and they'll only get better as the season progresses. The same should be true for the rest of the offense.

And, I'm pretty sure, the rest of the team.

That doesn't translate into wins, though. Next week, the Wolverines should get their first win against a weak Miami (Ohio) team. That would be a nice boost for the youngsters. But then tough games against Notre Dame and Wisconsin await. And after a Toledo reprieve, Illinois visits Ann Arbor.

So temper your expectations, folks. Yes, I'm sticking with my 8-4 prediction, but I won't be surprised if the Wolverines stand 1-3 at the end of September.

Still, that sounds much better than the 0-2 start of a season ago.

With a new coach, new players and tough competition, these Wolverines are ground beef next to last season's Fillet Mignon.

Yes, a loss is a loss. And the close ones, especially, always hurt.

But, I'm sure, the atmosphere in Ann Arbor Saturday evening was much lighter than that of a year ago. No national reporters, I'm positive, we're flying in to interview the morbid Wolverines about what went terribly wrong.

This is, after all, the beginning of a new era. The wins — and higher expectations — will come.

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