October 6, 2012

First point proven, far to go

The Wolverines wanted a clean break from non-conference to conference campaigns, and especially from Notre Dame to the future. They wound up laying down a more definitive divider than five bye weeks could have provided.

They self-assessed, dug deep, and got gritty. They shoved aside any self-pity over the six-turnover nightmare in South Bend, a 2-2 non-league start, and an increasing rumble about their season slipping away.

They produced their best week of practice all season, leading into the Big Ten opener in Ross-Ade Stadium. They stepped in front of a crowd not half as big as they usually see, and chopped the home team in two.

Step one, of eight. Checked off the list.

"One loss can do it to us," fifth-year senior linebacker Kenny Demens cautioned, echoing Brady Hoke's repeated warnings. "We don't want that. We want to go to the Rose Bowl. He treats every game in the Big Ten like it's the Big Ten championship. We understand it, he understands it, and he puts a lot of emphasis on it.

"It's, 'Hey fellas, if we lose Saturday, we might not go.' It's do or die, basically."

When Michigan and Purdue kicked off their conference seasons, the Wolverines did, and the Boilermakers died like a campfire in a hurricane.

Denard Robinson and his offense set out to prove a point, and the Boilermakers just happened to serve as the deer in the Michigan semi's headlights. Every doubt they created in the debacle at South Bend, they worked overtime to dispel.

In a 17-play opening drive that had Bo Schembechler cackling in delight, they proved plenty. They ran it 14 times, including a number of Robinson keepers on his way to 235 yards rushing.

Instead of four interceptions, he threw none. He gunned a crisp touchdown pass to Devin Gardner, cheered on an increasingly potent Michigan defense, and directed a dominating performance in the Wolverines' Big Ten road opener.

Afterward, the smile returned, and the apologies were nowhere to be found.

"That's how I want to play -- have fun and be relaxed," Robinson said. "There are 10 other guys on the field, busting their butt every time they're on the field so I just have to go out there and have fun, and play relaxed."

They all had fun, except for the Boilermakers, who saw the Wolverines relaxing altogether too much in Ross-Ade during a remarkably stress-free fourth quarter.

Purdue senior defensive end Robert Maci anticipated some help from Robinson and the Wolverines. That's understandable, watching the film from Notre Dame.

But this team wasn't that team, Maci discovered. Robinson did drop the ball once on a handoff exchange, but for the most part, he guided a team that wasn't in a giving mood at all.

"Yeah, we thought we were really going to be able to get them to turn it over," Maci said. "We kept fighting, thinking they were going to screw up or we were going to make a big play, but it just never happened. We kept thinking it might happen all the way to the end, but it just didn't."

It didn't because Michigan parlayed its second half of the Notre Dame game into four quarters of solid football in West Lafayette. Hoke issued anew his challenge to his offensive line, to pave the way for the running game.

While the Boilermakers effectively took away Fitzgerald Toussaint (17 carries, 19 yards), they had no answers for Robinson and an overall ground game that piled up 304 yards. While Robinson connected on just half his throws, he never hit the Boilermakers in stride once.

When in doubt, he tucked the ball away and ran, a scary proposition for any defense. He even fired one well beyond the sidelines, making good on the message given and received about ball security.

Michigan's defense, meanwhile, barely gave the Boilermakers enough ground to bury their over-sized drum. Purdue managed 213 total yards, a meager 56 on the ground, and saw its longest completion of the day go the wrong way - 63 yards on a Ramon Taylor interception return.

"That was awesome," Demens said. "Any time you get a defensive score, that's great. We had two picks today, and forced fumbles. That's great, and it helps. It gives the ball back to the offense and it creates points for us."

It also creates confidence, the feeling that Michigan is getting more and more adept on that side of the football, even after significant personnel turnover from 2011. That defense gave the Wolverines a chance at Notre Dame, even amid an avalanche of giveaways.
With the football secure in West Lafayette, the total lockdown ensued.

"I think it was a focused team," fifth-year senior captain Jordan Kovacs said. "It was a team that understood the magnitude of this game, on the road, a Big Ten game. We accepted the challenge and we played pretty well."

Make no mistake - it's also a team that expects to get better. Hoke hammered on the areas to shore up, the toughness of the road ahead, etc., like he knows he must.

Even then, he knew this notch on the belt means plenty. For a team dreaming of the Rose Bowl, it was the perfect time to wake up.

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