I still haven’t had the chance to re-watch the game in its entirety, but I have watched the highlights and most of the offensive plays, so here are my initial impressions from what I saw in Michigan Stadium on Saturday:
- I was unbelievably impressed with the blocking for Michigan, especially down the field. Check out Vincent Smith’s second touchdown (at the 2:34 mark of this clip) and watch as Martavious Odoms seals off the corner on the outside, tackle Mark Huyge manages to get all the way around the safety and keep him stuck inside, and Stephen Schilling leads Smith down to the goal line in case anyone else needs to be blocked. It was like that all day — great blocking up front from the linemen, and critical blocks from receivers, running backs, and linemen on the second level to spring big plays. There were some issues with run plays getting blown up when the tackles got beat off the edge, but it’s tough to complain about the blocking with the day they had.
- Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw both looked good running the football — Shaw’s 10-yard loss notwithstanding — and they seem to complement each other well. Shaw brings the speed, while Smith is a more aggressive, north-south runner and a great receiver out of the backfield, and both block well. Even though Rich Rodriguez said the team would play 3-4 running backs, those two saw every meaningful snap, and I’m completely fine with that. Smith could become a major weapon in this offense with his ability to catch and run — we could see a lot of plays like his second touchdown on Saturday, where a screen opens up and all he has to do is secure the ball and make a beeline for the end zone.
- Even though nobody stood out as having a stellar day in the group, I liked what I saw out of the receivers — the quarterback doesn’t go 19-22 unless the guys he’s throwing it to are catching everything they can, and that’s what the Wolverine receivers did on a very windy day in Michigan Stadium. Seeing Darryl Stonum haul in five catches is a great sign, especially if he can start stretching the field in future weeks. Kevin Koger looked like the big-play tight end we expected him to be after the first half of 2009, finding holes in the UConn zone and catching three passes for 30 yards. Odoms and Terrence Robinson both had big plays in critical situations. Only Kelvin Grady somewhat disappointed me — he had three catches for 17 yards, but I think he missed some holes that could have turned a couple short catches into big yardage. He should bounce back, however, and he will need to with Roy Roundtree almost certainly out for the Notre Dame game.
- As for the defense, I was impressed with the play up front. Even though UConn tailback Jordan Todman broke 100 yards rushing, many of those came after the game was well in hand, and the team did a great job of limiting yards after contact. Although the team did not manage to record a sack, Craig Roh and Mike Martin both consistently beat their blockers and got into the backfield, and Jonas Mouton looked very good on the blitz. Ryan Van Bergen made his presence known by chasing down a screen and making a tackle on the sideline for a minimal gain, a play that shows off his versatility and athleticism. Obi Ezeh recovered a fumble (luck, I know, but it’s still a good play) and didn’t catch my attention for doing anything horribly wrong — after last year, I’m happy with that.
- The secondary may not have been tested too much by an inaccurate quarterback and some butter-fingered receivers, but they tackled very well and didn’t give up any big plays besides one very lucky 47-yard bobble-and-catch. It’s really tough to assess the play of the corners on a day where the team played mostly zone and the opposing quarterback struggled with his accuracy, but any day where I can’t single out a defensive back for poor play is a good one. I was really impressed by the tackling — Cam and Thomas Gordon both hit very hard, James Rogers had some nice tackles, and J.T. Floyd came through with possibly the biggest play of the game when he got his helmet on the football and forced a fumble near the goal line. We still don’t know how this unit will hold up in pass coverage against a good passing team, but if they can tackle like they did Saturday to keep yards gained after the catch to a minimum, that will be a very good sign.
- Special teams was a bit of an adventure, but I think those issues will be ironed out with game experience. Drew Dileo was forced into holding when Jared Van Slyke went down with an injury, and he had some issues that led to a missed extra point and possibly the missed field goal as well (though the wind certainly played a big factor in that as well) — with more practice, that shouldn’t be a problem going forward. Jeremy Gallon will be told to never again run 25 yards and lay out to try to field a punt. Terrence Robinson hopefully won’t lose his footing again on a kick return. Will Hagerup’s only punt didn’t look pretty, but it went 51 yards into the wind — he’ll be just fine. The jury is still out on kicker Brendan Gibbons, but at least he nailed his short field goal attempt and hit all the extra points he had a chance at.
In short, this was a great all-around performance from a team that was expected to have to simply out-gun teams in order to pull out victories. We’ll have to wait and see if UConn is as good a team as they were hyped up to be in the preseason, but I think it’s safe to say that this was much more impressive than waxing Western Michigan to kick off last season.