There are significant differences between the opener this year and the opener last year, differences which portend a great future for the football team in years to come. From the moment I arrived in Ann Arbor for game day this year, it was different. As expected, there were many people to see the game but I didn't expect THAT many. Last year we had the usual 100,000 plus but this year I had suspicions it was going to be announced as even more. I'm one of the folks who park on the side streets and then migrate to the Stadium. I arrived early, say 2pm, to get a good spot but I ended up parking over by Washington St, which is towards the shops and eateries along Main St, and walked with the throngs towards the Big House. The crowd was intense; I haven't been to any of the 'Big Games', like Notre Dame or Ohio State, but this is probably the largest crowd I have ever been a part of and I've been to around 10 games so far. It would be announced later that the crowd was over 109,000.
Last year there was excitement about the new regime, but this year there was more: we were coming off the 3-9 season, there were revelations of possible NCAA violations, and of course the game itself and how it would play out as we were starting a freshman on a still very young team. Despite the negativity surrounding the program the past week, the feel of the crowd was positive, together; a force to drive and motivate the team in solidarity. In '08 the feel was more of positive expectation of seeing what we were accustomed to seeing, a victory. Despite the newness of the program's direction, we're 'Michigan' and we will overcome any newness; we were there to see the team win as they always had.
The acoustics are clearly improved from last year. Even in '08 the sound 'signature' was noticeably louder than in year's past, but this year the sound reverberations throughout the stadium were even more impressive, creating an aura or a blanket above the stadium. Our seats were behind the goal posts so it must of been even louder towards the center of the stadium. When the cheerleaders were leading us through the spelling of "Michigan" around the stadium, a split second after the section across from us said their letter, an echo of their yell reached our ears.
Game play, especially on the offensive side of the ball was sharper in '09 than in '08. The men knew where to line up. Last year, there was this 'hurry up, times running out' feel to play as players shuffled in and out and simply were unsure of where to line up. Last Saturday it was like clockwork as player platooned in and out and everyone set up with plenty of time on the game clock to spare. In the second half we were lined up so fast I was unsure how were were going to stand around for 15 to 20 seconds to bleed the clock. Throughout the game, Western's defense was unprepared by the efficiency of our offense, consistently moving around and often not set for the next play before it began.
From the first series, execution in '09 was there; the ball was thrown to a receiver 'in space', allowing him either to adjust to move up field or simply keep on going. Last year Nick and Steven used up precious time getting the ball out to the receivers that resulted in little to no space for them to adjust to the next phase of the play. We easily ran 3 maybe 4 plays last Saturday in the time it took us to run two last year.
On the first series we had a 3rd down play that Tate had to scramble to get the first down, shifting and running past three Bronco defenders to get to the first down marker. Last year, that play wouldn't have made it to the first down and probably would have been a loss of yardage. Several times Tate as well as Denard made great plays with their running ability that last year would have resulted in little, no, or even loss of yardage.
The amount of successful plays ran in '09 were significantly greater than in '08. Last year there was so much sputtering, so much inconsistency and confusion that few 3rd down conversions were made. In the stands we couldn't get past starting to cheer the team on, constantly hoping for a first down. Last Saturday there was instant gratification as Tate moved the team down the field quickly for a TD. it was like an IV shot of adrenaline almost from the first play of the series that built upon itself with each successive play, each play for yardage, each first down, culminating with a score. A flow was established and maintained.
The defense looks so much better prepared in '09 than in '08. With the offense struggling last year, the defense was quickly back on the field. It doesn't matter how conditioned you are, you remain on the field much longer than the offense, you are going to get gassed. Confidence wains, the heat on the field gets more oppressive, there is less continuity. Last year, Coach Scafer was placed in an almost lose lose situation: the defense was on the field entirely too long, often placed in a disadvantageous positions, and often on back on the field almost as soon as they left it. Being a new guy in a year of 'newness', Scafer could not adjust to this environment and failed often. This year Coach Robinson's experience and knowledge has the defense more focus and attuned. Throughout the entire game it acquitted itself well. It was great to see the defense bring pressure while at the same time keeping the receivers well covered, which often times didn't happen last year.
Offensive line play is significantly improved; this year we racked up 242 rushing yards while only gaining 36 last year. There were penalties attributed to the unit but aside from that they blocked well, opened up holes for the RB's, and gave the QB's time to throw.
Turnovers were significantly reduced, 3 last year to 1 last Saturday. In '08 the turnovers were a result of pressing and trying to force things, feelings that were not apparent last Saturday. Ironically, the only turnover coming against Western Michigan this past Saturday was a Sheridan pick on a play were he was trying to press the issue.
Last year's game felt chaotic and pressed; folks left the game confused and concerned about the team. This year, the opener was glorious and people didn't want to leave; with 5 minutes left in a game that was well in hand the stands were still full of people. Last year there was nearly a civil war about to erupt concerning Coach Rodriguez, this year with a couple moments left in the first half the crowd erupted in heartfelt chants of "Rich Rodriquez!!!" that resounded throughout the stadium.
The comparison between the starting games of this year and last reveals dramatic improvements between the two squads. Nuances and procedures of the offense have been learned this year and the squad doesn't struggle to simply line up and run the play, they actually can get to the execution portion of the play and get things accomplished. Defensively, the unit looks stout; although it is arguable that last year's squad had more talented personnel, this year's defense looks to be more effective.
The well documented second year turn around expressed by teams under coach Rodriguez can now be understood more clearly when reflecting upon these two games. It appears the '09 squad is prepared to have similar year two success.