Published Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 12:21 am
FOOTBALL
Barfknecht: Wolverines look like leaders of the pack

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan football insiders sure like to talk about championships.

Coach Brady Hoke calls any season in which the Wolverines don’t claim a Big Ten title “a failure.” Quarterback Devin Gardner said the theme of summer workouts was “to finish” after two straight years of UM ending up one game out of the title contest. Other players parrot the “championship or bust” talk.

UM expends a lot of words on the topic when the program hasn’t won a share of a Big Ten title in nine years or an outright crown in 10.

Surprised to learn it was that long ago?

Michigan, according to some Nebraska fans and local media brethren I hear from, gets too much credit for being a program on a roll when the amount of recent hardware doesn’t back it up.

That’s a reasonably fair analysis. But it may not be for long.

What the No. 17 Wolverines did to No. 14 Notre Dame on Saturday night indicates they are on track to put words into action. After that 41-30 victory, Michigan moved to the top of my Big Ten rankings, and looks like the most settled and well-rounded team to date.

Take note of the phrase “to date.”

Every team is still de-bugging its systems. The Wolverines, though, looked well-tuned in Week 2 against Notre Dame.

“We’re starting to get it,” All-America offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said. “This team understands what we need to do to win a championship.”

Strong quarterback play is Job 1.

Fourth-year junior Devin Gardner provided it in his seventh career start — 376 yards of total offense and five touchdowns in front of the largest crowd ever (115,109) for a college or NFL football game.

“This rivalry was such a big deal,” Gardner said. “For me to play in front of so many people and perform and respond under adversity and under what you guys see as pressure was amazing for me.”

Or leave it to Lewan to sum it up more succinctly: “It tells me he’s a damn good player.”

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly also liked what he saw of Gardner, though he wished it hadn’t happened against the Irish.

“Gardner is a very difficult quarterback to defend,” Kelly said. “He can run it, and he threw with efficiency. They kept their option principles involved. Within their structure, they are hard to defend.”

What you saw offensively from Michigan on Saturday night was what you’ll get from now on.

In Hoke’s first two years as coach, the offense was more spread-based to take advantage of quarterback Denard Robinson’s running skills. Now, the pro-style attack that coordinator Al Borges wants is fully installed, and Gardner is fully qualified to manage it.

“We were fortunate to have Denard,” Hoke said, careful to pay tribute to a holder of many Michigan records. “But I would say this year is more what we’d like to do.”

Multiple formations, multiple personnel groups, a blend of dropback and rollout passing mixed with power running and some zone read. Overall, a 55-45 split of run to pass.

With the offense in gear, Michigan needs work on defense after a strange night in which its top tackler was a cornerback. The pass rush was spotty and the linebackers not very noticeable.

Still, in this week’s snapshot of the Big Ten, the Wolverines are more in focus than the rest.

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht

lee.barfknecht@owh.com    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.

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