Say it with me now: college football is back.
Feels good, doesn’t it? It sure did before this past weekend kick-started the 2010 season, and it definitely does now after a rousing spate of games.
At first glance, there was late-game suspense in the form of ECU’s incredible Hail Mary victory over Tulsa, a riveting upset with FCS squad Jacksonville State taking down Houston Nutt’s Ole Miss in double overtime (also Jeremiah Masoli’s Rebels debut) and valiant effort as a short-handed UNC (missing 13 key players due to NCAA investigations) nearly bested LSU in the Georgia Dome.
For Big Ten teams, the opening weekend of the season also proved remarkable, as 10 of the conference’s 12 programs began the year with wins. Yet, Week One of the college football season generally proves to be more educational than entertaining, so without further ado, here’s what we learned about the Big Ten this weekend.
Michigan just might have some offensive firepower
Under the much-maligned Rich Rodriguez, Michigan hasn’t seen much success. After importing RichRod and his vaunted spread offense from West Virginia in 2008, the Wolverines managed only eight wins in two years, and missed bowl games in both.
While some, not unfairly, would say a head coach needs a few years to get his own recruits familiar with his own system, the simple fact is that RichRod has struggled mightily in Ann Arbor. Consequently, the seat couldn’t have been any hotter for the Michigan coach entering this season.
Enter sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson.
After battling returning sophomore Tate Forcier and freshman Devin Gardner for first-team reps all spring and fall, Robinson was RichRod’s choice to start the season opener against Connecticut — only one day before the game.
Yet, the quarterback affectionately known as “Shoelace” surprised 113,090 fans (the biggest in the history of football, professional or college) in the Wolverines’ 30-10 victory and — at least temporarily — took some pressure off of RichRod. Robinson was 19 for 22 on pass attempts, compiling 186 yards with one touchdown and zero interceptions. Yet, more impressive was Robinson’s prowess on the ground, as the sophomore set the Michigan single game rushing record for a quarterback with 197 yards on 29 carries.
6.8 yards per carry from your quarterback? A game like this from a sophomore who only completed 14 passes last season? Flashback to Pat White? That’s what RichRod and the Wolverines got Saturday afternoon. What they might have moving forward, though, is something far more significant: the possibility of taking the Big Ten by storm.
Of course, the season opener is exactly that — just the season opener — and this is still the Rodriguez-led Michigan Wolverines we’re talking about. So all the media hype and hyperbole emanating from Ann Arbor surely could be toned down a bit.
So, then, what do we take from Saturday’s game? For the first time since White was the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback under Rodriguez at West Virginia, the Michigan coach finally has a legitimate candidate to successfully engineer his spread attack. Robinson will be hard pressed to consistently replicate Saturday’s performance, and Michigan will surely face greater obstacles along the way — starting receiver Roy Roundtree and safety/linebacker Carvin Johnson are already both doubtful for next Saturday’s showdown with Notre Dame. Yet, at the very least, there is legitimate optimism stemming from Ann Arbor for the first time in a while.
Freshmen prove experience doesn’t always trump talent
For the Penn State Nittany Lions, the departure of quarterback Daryll Clark felt like it would never come. After all, Clark redshirted his freshman year and then, after his junior year, was granted extended eligibility. Overall, Clark started two full years in Happy Valley, leading the Nittany Lions to a Rose Bowl berth in 2009 and a Capital One Bowl win last year.
This season, with Clark finally graduated, head coach Joe Paterno had a giant hole to fill at his team’s most important position. Like RichRod, JoePa found his options to be threefold — sophomores Matt McGloin and Kevin Newsome, or true freshman Rob Bolden.
To the surprise of most onlookers, Bolden won the starting job — despite only joining the team at the beginning of the summer. Some freshman, particularly quarterbacks, look to enroll earlier in spring camp, but the Orchard Lake, MI. native didn’t have that option. Yet, Bolden was the most impressive option at the close of fall camp, and JoePa tabbed the true freshman to open the season as his starting quarterback — for the first time in school history.
Against Youngstown State, none of that seemed to matter. Bolden completed 20 of 29 passes for 239 yards, two touchdowns and an interception that wasn’t his fault. As a result, Bolden was named one of the Big Ten’s Co-Freshman of the Week.
Accompanying Bolden in the weekly honors was Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell, who ran for 141 yards on only 10 carries. Bell also contributed two touchdowns and had a big, 75-yard run in the second quarter.
For Wisconsin fans, true freshman James White also put his name on the list of standout freshmen after rushing for 59 yards on 11 carries against UNLV Saturday. White also caught 3 passes for 37 yards, and his breakaway speed was immediately evident.
Badgers in need of some fine-tuning
At first glance, the final score and stat sheet for Wisconsin’s season opener against UNLV would paint a relatively pleasant picture. A 41-21 final score, a total yardage advantage reading 475-217 and 278 rushing yards rushing should normally result in a very solid win for the Badgers. Yet, the win was somewhat bittersweet, as UW turned the ball over twice in the first half — a Scott Tolzien pass that was returned for a touchdown and a redzone fumble by Nick Toon that was returned 82 yards.
Consequently, the scoreboard read 17-14 UW at halftime, way too close for the 20.5-point favorites. Yes, the Badgers responded in the third quarter with 24 unanswered points, but against a better team, two turnovers that result in touchdowns could spell doom for Wisconsin. Fortunately for the Badgers, the schedule provides ample time to polish their game, with the first real test coming Oct. 2 at Michigan State.
Mike is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts. What did you learn from the Big Ten’s opening weekend? Let him know at [email protected]