September 15, 2012

The benefits of playing bully

If the original Minutemen were as adept as the crew visiting Michigan Stadium on Saturday, the home crowd would have been singing "God Save The Queen" before settling in for a soccer match.

How bad is 0-3 Massachusetts? Let us count the ways.

They've been outscored 145-19 so far, including Michigan's 63-13 bloodletting in The Big House. They were shut out by UConn, which is coming off a 5-7 season in 2011. They got destroyed by Indiana, which is coming off a 0-44 streak of winning Big Ten championships lately.

The Crimson and Usually Creamed didn't just sneak by the Minutemen. They treated them like a soft ground ball waving bye-bye to Billy Buckner.

The academicians from Amherst appear ready to absorb more shots in the coming weeks than Roger Clemens denied taking in the backside. They're in for such a bad time that…

Well, you get the idea. Any more would be piling on. And a whole lot of Mid-American Conference schools are already planning to do just that.

So what do the Wolverines gain out of playing backyard bully against a crew more vulnerable than a one-legged chicken at Gator World?

Maybe more than you'd think.

For those who haven't noticed, Michigan isn't fielding a replica of its 1997 issue at this point in the season. The Wolverines began the campaign just trying to survive (and failing) against Alabama, scrambling to a last-second dogfight victory over Air Force and its seldom-seen option attack, and revealing areas begging for improvement all over the yard.

They entered the game with 49 yards rushing from their tailbacks in two games, an offensive line struggling to jell, and a defensive line getting pushed around at an unacceptable rate. They're putting inexperienced players all over the field, trying to get them up to speed before the Big Ten race begins.

They needed work, without another loss hanging over their heads. The Minutemen proved to be just what the scrimmage doctor ordered.

The Wolverines piled up 294 yards on the ground, including 85 by Fitzgerald Toussaint, upping his season's production by 78. Michigan's still-meshing offensive line enjoyed 68 more snaps to get better under fire, even if it wasn't exactly an inferno.

U-M's new twin towers at receiver - junior Devin Gardner and freshman Devin Funchess - ran that many more patterns. Freshmen and sophomores all over the defense recognized that many more situations.

Is it like playing Alabama, for stark athletic elitism? Obviously not. It's not even like playing Indiana. But it's the sort of breather out of which greater achievements in far tougher weeks are born.

"It's great to win, but if we want to win the Big Ten championship, we've got to improve in a lot of areas," U-M coach Brady Hoke emphasized. "They start up front on both lines of scrimmage."

The UMass game affords some baby steps. It also allowed Hoke to rest his injured, not risking a loss, while hammering home points of emphasis.

One of the main ones, coming out of the UMess? The Wolverines still haven't picked off a pass this year. They've jumped on just two fumbles in three games, and didn't force the one they secured against the Minutemen.

Don't think Hoke hasn't noticed, on turnovers and other topics.

"We've been terrible -- terrible creating turnovers," the head coach groused. "If we don't start creating some turnovers, we're going to get beat, because we need to give more opportunities to our offense. Running the football and defending the run, I think they were 7 of 17 on third down. We had opportunities to make some stops, and we didn't make them."

The film will tell the story, and the fixes will be emphasized again, and again, and…

And something else. More than a few Wolverines will have a little extra spring in their step this week, helping their teammates prepare for the showdown in South Bend.

"There's always a team morale factor, being able to play a lot of guys who have worked hard, who have gone down on the look teams," Hoke said. "Them having the ability to play in this football game in front of 110,000 family and friends, that's great. That's what you want to happen."

He wants a lot more to happen, against opponents who wouldn't give the Minutemen a second thought. He wants an attack that rises far above the MAC.

Hoke burns with the desire to win the Big Ten. He's seeing a team nowhere near ready to get that done, in a variety of ways.

It remains to be seen whether or not they can get there. A reeling Big Ten Conference certainly helps in that respect. But whoever wins it will be playing significantly better than the Wolverines have, on the whole, through the opening three weeks.

Michigan itself could be that team, even if it may not appear so yet.

They say a journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step. Consider UMass a tiny stepping-stone, with a whole box of rocks ahead.

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