National Columnist

Big start, new QB take heat off Rodriguez ... for now


ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- After 16 losses and four major NCAA violations in his first two years at Michigan, Rich Rodriguez heard from screaming fans on Saturday at Michigan Stadium. Here's what he heard:

"Good job, Coach!"

Here's something else he heard:

More Michigan

"Proud of you, Rich!"

People say Rodriguez sits on the hottest seat in college football, and maybe he does. Or maybe he did, before kickoff on Saturday. But after Michigan opened the 2010 season by throttling Connecticut 30-10 in front of the biggest crowd in NCAA history, Rodriguez looked awfully comfortable. His boss looked awfully satisfied. And his new starting quarterback looked awfully good.

All three of those things are related, and they are tied together by a singular fact: Rodriguez will be the coach at Michigan as long as he wants, assuming he wins at the level Michigan fans have come to expect. That's a high bar -- 10 or more wins a season, Big Ten championships, national contention -- but the team Rodriguez unveiled Saturday is on the right track, and might already be there. Last season UConn lost five games by a combined 15 points. Saturday, it lost to Michigan by 20.

"It's just one game," Michigan athletic director David Brandon said. "But I love the start -- love the start."

So did the crowd of 113,090 that squeezed into renovated Michigan Stadium, breaking the previous stadium and NCAA record of 112,118. Before kickoff the crowd was treated to a re-dedication of the stadium, which underwent a $226 million upgrade after last season. There was no talk of the four major NCAA violations the school has admitted its football program committed under Rodriguez, or of the team's 8-16 record under Rodriguez. There was talk of tradition and championships and size, size, size.

"We haven't had a dedication since 1927, so I challenged our marketing staff to do it up big," Brandon said. "If one [jet] flyover's good, let's have two. Let's not just clip a ribbon -- let's blow off some fireworks."

The pregame was good, but it was nothing compared to the pyrotechnics of Michigan sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson, who beat out incumbent Tate Forcier and freshman Devin Gardner this fall and ran for 197 yards and a touchdown and passed for 186 yards and another TD on Saturday. It was a revelatory game for Robinson -- who in one game had more completions than he had all last season, and more rushing yards than any quarterback in Michigan history.

The rushing yardage was no shock. Robinson was the team's top returning runner from last season with 351 yards, and he ran sprints on the Michigan track team this past spring. But the passing? Put it this way: The Michigan radio network's post-game show was piped through the stadium, and when an analyst mentioned that Robinson had completed 19 of 22 passes, I overheard this reaction from one Michigan fan:

"Oh ... my ... God."

UConn's defense couldn't stop Robinson righteously, so the Huskies went devilish. Robinson plays with his cleats untied -- hence the nickname "Shoelace" -- and as the game went on, he said the UConn defense was trying to rip off his cleats.

"They were saying, 'Take a shoe, take a shoe!'" Robinson said, smiling.

UConn succeeded in derailing Robinson only once, with a clean hit to his hip that sidelined him late in the third quarter. After two plays off, Robinson drove Michigan 70 yards in six plays -- highlighted by a 43-yard pass to Terrence Robinson, and capped by an 11-yard TD toss to Vincent Smith -- for the final margin.

Afterward, Michigan's quarterback and coach both seemed surprised that the 6-foot, 193-pound Robinson had carried it 29 times.

"Looking at the numbers, I had no idea -- 29 runs is a lot," Rodriguez said. "If he can carry it 29 times for 200 yards, he'll carry it 29 times again. That's a little more than we had planned -- but he can handle it."

The easy comparison is between Robinson and Rodriguez's best quarterback at West Virginia, Pat White, who coincidentally was released on Saturday by the Dolphins. But the most honest comparison is between Robinson and the best quarterback Rodriguez coached as the offensive coordinator at Clemson -- Woody Dantzler, the first player in Division I history to throw for 2,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in the same season.

Robinson can be that kind of player for Michigan, and if he's that kind of player for Michigan this season, Michigan is going to win a lot of games. The schedule is favorable for early momentum, with a tough game next week at Notre Dame followed by presumably easy wins the next three weeks against Massachusetts, Bowling Green and Indiana. That leads to the meat of the schedule: home dates against Michigan State and Iowa, then a visit to Penn State. Michigan closes the season against Wisconsin and Ohio State.

It won't be easy, and Michigan's tackling must improve, but Rodriguez has built this team on a combination of Midwestern toughness and South Florida speed. Three of the touchdowns Saturday came from South Florida -- Robinson is from Deerfield Beach, Vincent Smith from Pahokee -- and receiver Martavious Odoms and multiple defensive backs also are from that area.

And overall, the Wolverines are playing angry. After the losses on the field and in the NCAA hearing, they have been blasted by some outsiders, lampooned by others. And they've been listening.

"They've got a chip on their shoulder. They've got something to prove," said Brandon, who played for Bo Schembechler at Michigan from 1971-74. "I've been to enough football practices -- I've been in enough football practices -- to know when a team's practicing with a purpose."

That purpose was to get Michigan back to the business of winning. Rodriguez knows it. What happened Saturday was just one game, but after the last two seasons -- and after this last offseason -- Michigan needed this one badly.

"Winning makes everything better," Rodriguez said. "Food tastes better. You're in a good mood. [The] 110,000 Michigan fans, they deserve a win. They deserve this. I know what they want here. The hope and expectation is that Michigan wins championships. I know that. I wanted our players to feel good. I wanted our coaches to feel good. It's been hard."

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. More importantly, he is 4-0 as an amateur boxer, with three knockouts. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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