SOUTH BEND, Ind. – In a year that has featured so much change for Michigan, the Wolverines' record looks disturbingly familiar.
Michigan owns the same 1-2 mark that it posted through three games last season. Only this time, the Wolverines lack the star power and senior leadership on offense that helped them recover from a slow start to finish 9-4 a year ago.
"I'm disappointed, but I'm not discouraged," Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said Saturday after a 35-17 loss to Notre Dame. "Michigan football will be back – hopefully sooner rather than later."
If Michigan's error-prone performance against Notre Dame offers any indication, it could be later rather than sooner. Michigan gave the ball away six times, committed seven penalties and allowed Notre Dame to score three touchdowns off turnovers. The Wolverines rank 101st in the nation in total offense, 84th in rushing offense and 92nd in passing offense.
No wonder the Wolverines are so eager to turn the page and start the Big Ten portion of their schedule. Michigan has a week off before playing host to Wisconsin on Sept. 27.
"We're looking forward to the Big Ten season," Michigan redshirt freshman quarterback Steven Threet said. "We haven't lost a Big Ten game yet, so that's what we are working for now."
Though Michigan hasn't looked impressive at all so far, there's reason to believe the Wolverines can earn their NCAA-leading 34th consecutive bowl bid. Michigan's slow start shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Recent history shows that it takes about a year for a team to adapt to the spread option that Rodriguez implements everywhere he coaches.
West Virginia went 3-8 in its first season under Rodriguez after going 7-5 the previous season. The Mountaineers went 9-4 the following season and never looked back.
Michigan fans shouldn't fear that their team will win only three games. The Wolverines' defense is too good to allow that to happen. But the offense probably will be a work in progress all season as Rodriguez tries figuring out which players best fit his system. In that regard, the Notre Dame game offered a few potential solutions.
For one thing, Michigan has found its running back. Sam McGuffie's high school highlight tape made him a folk hero in the recruiting world before he suited up for Michigan. The Internet legend hit the mainstream Saturday afternoon.
McGuffie often made Notre Dame's defenders seem as overmatched as Houston Cy-Fair High School's opponents looked on his highlight package. He broke tackles all day long and even bounced off one of his own blockers on his way to turning a short completion into a 40-yard touchdown. McGuffie finished the best performance of his young career with 131 yards on 25 carries and four catches for 47 yards.
"He was slippery," Notre Dame linebacker Brian Smith said afterward. "Especially when it was wet outside, he was slippery. He's a good back. (He has) good vision. He's a hard-nosed runner."
McGuffie wasn't the only newcomer to provide reason for optimism. Martavious Odoms, a true freshman from Pahokee (Fla.) High, led the Wolverines with four catches for 46 yards. Threet, a Georgia Tech transfer, went 15 of 21 for 170 yards after entering the game with a 43.8 completion percentage.
BETTER DAYS AHEAD?
Michigan has lost two of its first three games under new coach Rich Rodriguez, but Rodriguez's track record at West Virginia should give the Wolverines reason for optimism. Here's a look at WVU's offense each season under Rodriguez. NCAA rankings are in parentheses.
* - Rodriguez only coached West Virginia for the first 12 games of the 2007 season. Bill Stewart coached West Virginia in the Mountaineers' Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma after Rodriguez left for Michigan.
While Threet also made a critical fumble that Smith returned 35 yards for a game-clinching touchdown, many of Michigan's other notable mistakes were made by upperclassmen. Junior running back Brandon Minor fumbled at his 11 on Michigan's first possession. Notre Dame scored its first touchdown after a pass interference penalty on senior strong safety Morgan Trent kept the drive alive. The turning point came late in the third quarter when junior running back Kevin Grady lost a fumble at Notre Dame's 4 with the Wolverines trailing 28-17.
"I don't think we're that (far) off," Rodriguez said. "We're not good enough to play poorly and win. We're not. Maybe in the future we will be. There are a lot of positive things going on. The guys are working extremely hard."
Michigan's offense should improve over the course of the season, but the Wolverines will go as far as their veteran defense can carry them. Michigan returns seven starters from a defense that ranked 24th in the nation last year.
The defense has been good. It needs to be great.
Michigan allowed Utah's Brian Johnson to throw for 305 yards in a season-opening loss. Notre Dame's Golden Tate caught a 48-yard touchdown pass Saturday and turned a short pass into a 60-yard gain that set up another touchdown. The Wolverines are allowing just 1.8 yards per carry this season, but Robert Hughes gained 54 yards in the second half Saturday to help the Irish run out the clock.
"(Rodriguez) told us to keep our head up high, to keep fighting and to learn from our mistakes," Michigan cornerback Donovan Warren said. "We have two weeks until Big Ten play starts."
Michigan already proved last year that it can perform well in Big Ten competition even after struggling early in the season. Of course, that team could rely on a star-studded offense featuring Chad Henne, Jake Long, Mike Hart and Mario Manningham.
Those guys are gone, leaving a cast of underclassmen to get the hang of an unfamiliar offense. Michigan's chances of finishing in the top half of the Big Ten standings depend on whether its defense can pick up the slack.
Michigan's upperclassmen on defense await the challenge. Even though they've lost two games, they haven't lost their swagger.
"We don't have our heads down because we know who the better team was," Michigan junior free safety Steve Brown said after the Notre Dame game. "They did beat us today and that happens, but in our hearts we know we're the better team."
The Wolverines still are talking a good game. Now they need to start playing a better game.