This was just one win, but it feels like a new beginning for Michigan
All signs pointed to this game being the beginning of the end for Rich Rodriguez
Rodriguez has found his muse in QB Denard Robinson, who was unstoppable
We made too much of Michigan's hot start last season, but this feels different
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- For Saturday's rededication of The Big House, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon adhered to a simple philosophy. "One flyover is good. Let's have two," Brandon said. "Let's not just clip a ribbon. Let's blow off some fireworks."
Brandon's football team apparently adopted an identical attitude. Beating a respectable out-of-conference opponent is good. Let's pound that team. Let's not just introduce a new starting quarterback. Let's run him 29 times for 197 yards.
The unveiling of the revamped and enlarged Michigan Stadium drew 113,090. Michigan officials believe it is the largest crowd to ever watch a football game. The maize-and-blue faithful arrived apprehensive, unsure if the sky might fall on their old/new palace of a football stadium Saturday. Connecticut wasn't a typical opening-day opponent. The Huskies had come off an eight-win season. They were loaded with veterans. They were considered a co-favorite to win the top-heavy Big East.
A bit of cruel calculus seemed to be at play. It would have been completely understandable had coach Rich Rodriguez's Wolverines lost to UConn. But here's the rub: At Michigan, you can't lose to UConn, no matter how good the Huskies are. Combined with an 8-16 record in his first two seasons in Ann Arbor and a two-front NCAA investigation into his practice habits at Michigan and West Virginia, all signs pointed to the beginning of the end of the Rodriguez era.
Instead, Michigan's 30-10 win just felt like the beginning.
Rodriguez has hinted since January that this would be sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson's team. He made it official at a team meeting Friday night. More specifically, Rodriguez said the Deerfield Beach, Fla., native known to his friends as "Shoelace" -- because he doesn't tie his shoes, ever -- would take the first snaps.
All artists have their muses. Andy Warhol had Edie Sedgwick. Quentin Tarantino has Uma Thurman. Rodriguez had former West Virginia quarterback Pat White. Sedgwick and Thurman never ran out of eligibility. White did. In Robinson, Rodriguez has a new muse to inspire the Go Blue period of his spread offense.
After the Wolverines' defense stuffed the Huskies on their first possession, Robinson trotted out for those first few snaps. On Michigan's first drive, Robinson took 14 of them. He led Michigan 96 yards, handing off to fellow Floridian Vincent Smith for a 12-yard touchdown run to cap the drive. The bewildered Huskies had grasped mostly at air as Robinson blazed for 58 yards on seven carries on the possession.
Robinson snaked through UConn's defense for a 32-yard touchdown run later in the first quarter. Six minutes into the second, Michael Shaw crossed the goal line. The team that was supposed to doom Rodriguez was down 21-0.
So flummoxed were the Huskies by Robinson that they gave up trying to bring him down behind the line of scrimmage and settled on a more realistic goal -- removing his unlaced shoes at the bottom of the pile. With the win already out of reach, an adidas trophy was the only consolation.
"They were like, 'Take his shoe. Take his shoe.' So they took my shoe," Robinson said. "It was on one of those plays where I ran for a first down."
Two hours later, as darkness fell and a chilly breeze blew, Rodriguez and Robinson embraced on the sidelines. Michigan players leaped into the student section to sing "Hail to the Victors" and to look forward to next week's trip to South Bend for the New Beginning Bowl. Later, Rodriguez promised to relish the win -- if only for a moment.
"I will enjoy the next three hours and 10 minutes and try to get me five hours of sleep tonight," Rodriguez said. "My wife will probably get the chance to sleep a little bit tonight. I'm proud of everybody that's associated with our program and our university. I think we've been through a lot."
Indeed they have. Of course, many of the problems are of Rodriguez's own making. He hired all the support staffers that acted as coaches in violation of NCAA rules. (Michigan's 2008 team photo featured more polo shirts than a PGA Tour event.) He chased off players, leaving the roster thin. He went 3-13 in Big Ten play his first two seasons.
Through it all, though, Rodriguez never let his players despair. "He's had more on him than any other coach in the USA," linebacker Craig Roh said. "He's just stayed so positive, and he's just kept his eyes toward the goal. To get this win right here, it's a stepping stone to what greater things can happen this season."
To his credit, Rodriguez isn't delusional like some colleagues who have found themselves on the hot seat. He understands his situation completely, and he isn't afraid to admit it. That's why he only allotted himself 190 minutes to enjoy Saturday's win.
"I know what they want here," he said. "The hope and expectation at the University of Michigan is to win championships. We understand that. Our players understand that."
It is only one win. Remember, this team started 4-0 last season before the wheels came off and the car burst into flames. Fifty-one weeks ago, we built quarterback Tate Forcier into Paul Bunyan after he led the Wolverines to a win against Notre Dame. Saturday, Forcier stayed on the bench even after Robinson took a helmet to the hip. (Freshman Devin Gardner filled in for a moment.) As his teammates celebrated Saturday, Forcier sat alone on a bench, his head hidden by towels. Approached by AnnArbor.com reporter Michael Rothstein after the game, Forcier granted an eight-word interview. "All you need to know," Forcier told Rothstein, "is I'm out."
We won't learn from our past hyperbole, though. We'll mythologize Robinson this week. He's an electric quarterback who doesn't tie his shoes, for goodness sakes. We'll paint the Wolverines as the second coming of the 1984 49ers. Maybe they are, but Notre Dame also looked a lot better Saturday than it did last year. We won't know for a few months what Michigan really is. It's only one win -- and it certainly doesn't get Rodriguez off the hook -- but darn if that win didn't feel different somehow.
"We've won one really big game, our home opener," Michigan AD Brandon said. "We've got a lot of games to play. ... Let's see how it goes. But I'll tell you what. I love the start."
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