Monday, September 5, 2016

Michigan 63, Hawaii 3: Shutdown

Not all blowouts are equal.

In 2014, Michigan beat Central Michigan, 59-9, to kick off its season. Devin Garden threw a pair of interceptions (Shane Morris also threw one) and Derrick Green carried the ball 11 times for 58 yards, which sounds nice until you know that one of those carries went 30 yards (leaving an average of 2.8 YPC on the remaining 10). Fitzgerald Toussaint carried it 14 times for 57 yards, with a long of 20.

CMU didn't do much of significance on offense, but it did crack 200 yards on the day. The Wolverines also gave up a 27-yard kickoff return.

If that feels like nitpicking, then you're right -- Michigan did win by 50, after all.

But when juxtaposed with a win like Saturday's, a 63-3 no-doubter against Hawaii, it feels a little different. It's like, on the one hand, trying to rationalize a B movie into an all-timer versus watching something that requires no rationalization, because it just is great without your attempts to hold it up.

Michigan sent out wave after wave of defensive linemen and running backs, overwhelming the visitors with depth and talent. It was a rout of yore, like the 49-0 blowout of Long Beach State in 1987. Bo's teams were before my time -- his last season was my first season being alive -- but from everything I've read and clips I've seen, those old-school blowouts bore a particular resemblance to Saturday's: staunch defense paired with running back after running back after running back.

There's not much to gather, big picture, from Saturday's win, except insofar as you might compare it with the performance of other major-conference squads playing lesser competition. Florida beat UMass 24-7. Tennessee scraped by Appalachian State in overtime. Michigan State beat Furman 28-13. No. 13 TCU gave up 41 points against South Dakota State. Washington State, a 9-4 team last season, lost to Eastern Washington.

So, there's that feather. More importantly, Michigan proved it could still look exactly as dominant as you'd expect without many of its best players playing even a single snap (and others, like Taco Charlton and Bryan Mone, having their days cut short by injury). This isn't 2007, where the absence of Mike Hart for a couple of quarters seemed to short-circuit Michigan's entire team against Appalachian State.

Pleasantly, the game turned out to be a snoozer, but only after the brief faux drama of Wilton Speight's interception on the offense's first play from scrimmage. He finished 10-of-13 for 145 yards and three touchdowns.

On the ground, Michigan racked up 306 yards on 39 carries. DeVeon Smith didn't need to do much, but when he did it was classic Smith.

Frankly, none of the backs had to do much of anything, but Chris Evans, he of the recent fall practice hype, stole the show with his 112 yards on only eight carries. While it remains to be seen what Evans can do against real competition, he offers the raw speed and burst that Smith (and even Ty Isaac) lack.

Whatever the case, this isn't like 2015, where a dinged up DeVeon Smith is an ominous thing. Think of this like 1997, with Smith as the dependable but plodding Chris Howard, with a little Anthony Thomas and Clarence Williams mixed in. The Wolverines don't need Smith to be Mike Hart or Chris Perry circa the 2003 MSU game. He can be Chris Howard, and that would be perfectly fine.

Defensively, Michigan's front eviscerated the Hawaii protection like one might do playing on the easiest difficulty level on NCAA. If we gleaned anything useful from the day, it's that Mike McCray can definitely play -- or, at the very least, can definitely not not play. McCray led the way with nine tackles (3.5 for loss), playing a position group that is considered one of the few real perceived weaknesses of the squad heading into this season.

On top of that, given the thinking that Don Brown's defense will be a decidedly more high-risk outfit, Michigan gave up very little in the way of big plays. The longest Hawaii run of the day went for 17 yards. The longest pass went for 28.

Channing Stribling and Delano Hill returned interceptions for touchdowns. The defensive line burst into the backfield upon the snap like a a crowd waiting to get into a concert venue. Jabrill Peppers zipped to and fro and jumped over people because he could.

Michigan didn't punt in a game for only the fourth time in its history. Eleven players ran the ball and 11 players caught a pass. Chris Evans carried the ball into a gaping hole, stopped, turned to the crowd, and recited the entire oeuvre of Shakespeare before zipping to the end zone. 

I could go on and on. Minus injury scares, the performance was just about perfect.

Things can only get more challenging from here, but early returns are positive. In a weekend full of name-brand teams not looking like legitimate contenders -- including an LSU squad that is perpetually a quarterback away from contention despite having a roster of NFL talents -- then you can't ask for much more than Michigan gave on Saturday.

They put the fans to sleep, pleasantly, without fanfare. That is what Week 1 is about, most of the time. There will be time for sleepless nights later in the season, when the leaves change color and the air begins to chill.

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