September 8, 2012

Wolverines need to grow up fast

The initial reaction to Michigan's near midair stall against Air Force, following the opening-week washout against the Crimson Tide seemed gripping and undeniable … uh-oh.

The rational consideration following a step back and long-term evaluation … they'll grow.

Michigan fans moved from abject emotional devastation to relieved concern in the week between 'Bama and the bombs-away boys. The Wolverines' 31-25 win over the latter felt better than a loss, but also unleashed questions as rapid fire as a 20-millimeter cannon on an F-15C Eagle.

• With Air Force rushing for 290 yards, can Michigan stop anybody on the ground?

• Given a negative-four non-Denard Robinson rushing yards, does every win the Wolverines steal need to be a D-Rob inside job?

• If the Wolverines barely escape against a team they out-weigh like a sumo wrestler overshadows The Biggest Loser, what happens when the Big Ten's big boys rumble onto the field?

The last one, of course, represents a ridiculous exaggeration. But that's what happens in premature panic mode. Robinson - whose 426 total yards and four touchdowns (two rushing, two passing) proved just enough to keep Air Force from shooting the Wolverines down for the second straight week -- rejected the assumed blowout notion altogether.

"Air Force is a good team," Robinson insisted. "That's a hard offense to stop. We came out and played ball today, and we played it pretty well.

"We've just got to keep getting better and progressing in everything we do. That's how I look at it. We did get better than we were that first week."

Now, Idaho State might have whispered to the Wolverines to simply take to the air on every down, after strafing Air Force by connecting on 42 of 53 throws for 365 yards passing. Even so, Air Force won that opener, 49-21.

Without a doubt, an Alabama-Air Force one-two punch to open the season can be a dizzying proposition. The former beats you bloody, the latter leaves your head spinning with a triple-option whirlwind.

The Wolverines won't see anything quite like that again all year on defense, but defensive-minded Brady Hoke understands how much better his team has to get anyway.

"There's a uniqueness to the offense, to the schemes," Hoke acknowledged. "At the same time, we're a work in progress. Q. [Quinton Washington] is getting better every time he plays. Ondre Pipkins, I think he's getting better every time he plays.

"[Keith] Heitzman played a decent amount today. [Mario] Ojemudia, he's getting better. The older guys are doing a pretty good job, but we're a work in progress, on defense and in total."

Hoke said a mouthful there. As much as it's more comfortable to view this team as merely building on an 11-2, Sugar Bowl-winning campaign with an explosive senior quarterback and a ton of returners, that's ridiculously misleading.

The Wolverines don't have a single player on the defensive line starting where he's started before. Washington, at nose tackle, is seeing his first significant time ever. Fellow defensive tackle William Campbell is getting his first extensive run, while players such as redshirt freshmen Heitzman and true freshmen Ojemudia and Pipkins are experiencing their first snaps ever in college.

Two true freshmen linebackers, Joe Bolden and James Ross III, have been thrown heavily into the mix. Bolden helped stuff an Air Force fake field goal try, in conjunction with sophomore Raymon Taylor, a cornerback suddenly thrust into a much more visible role.

On offense coming into the season, Michigan's leading receivers figured to be veterans Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon. While Gallon posted a 100-yard game against Alabama, the Wolverines flew by the Falcons on the catching capabilities of a pair of rookies at their positions.

Freshman tight end Devin Funchess used his 6-4 frame to make a sensational debut at The Big House, hauling in four passes for 106 yards and a touchdown. A week after making a TD grab against Alabama, 6-4 wideout convert Devin Gardner added five grabs for 63 yards and another touchdown against the Falcons.

Nobody else caught more than two throws.

The Wolverines are breaking in a new center in fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer, and fifth-year senior left guard Ricky Barnum has started only a handful of games as a collegian. The Wolverines flat-out need to block better, so returning 1,000-yard rusher Fitzgerald Toussaint doesn't have any more eight-carry, seven-yard days like he did in his post-suspension grounding.

Work in progress, indeed.

It's obvious the Wolverines are not now what they will be. The key is surviving until they get there, and improving enough to give themselves a chance once the Big Ten season rolls around.

What's become obvious, even through two games, is simply this: if Michigan has any hope of challenging for a Big Ten title, rookies and newly elevated veterans have to play a role as crucial as nitroglycerine tablets for cardiac patients during Air Force's final foray towards U-M's goal line.

Asked about the youth movement, featuring a dozen true freshmen seeing big-boy snaps in big-boy moments, Hoke proved typically blunt.

"It's by design and necessity," he assured.

Fifth-year senior captain Jordan Kovacs sees change all around. He knows the growth has to happen quickly, but believes it can.

"I expect us to make some huge strides," Kovacs said. "That's one of the things Coach Hoke emphasizes - to get better each game. Do I think we played our best ball today? No, not at all. But did we play better than week one? Probably, and that goes to those younger guys playing, and even the older guys - I'm going to make strides each week, and if we all do that I think we'll be all right."

All right doesn't win the Big Ten, but Kovacs is an understated sort of guy. They all know the challenge, and the expectation. It's time to grow up, faster than a Robinson race to the end zone.

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