By Ashley Dunkak
ANN ARBOR (CBS DETROIT) – The new Michigan offense made a memorable first impression Saturday, and quarterback Devin Gardner and wide receiver Devin Funchess looked particularly primed for stellar seasons.
Gardner completed 13 of 14 passes for 173 yards, and Funchess snagged seven of those passes for 95 yards. The duo combined for three touchdowns. Because the Wolverines quickly ran out to a large lead over Appalachian State, Gardner left the game midway through the third quarter, but even little more than one half of one game showed that Michigan’s offense could be special this year.
New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier watches the game on the sideline rather than from up in the press box, and head coach Brady Hoke and Gardner said Nussmeier’s presence helped Gardner and the offensive line significantly.
“It was really cool,” Gardner said. “It was really different. It was really nice for me to be able to make adjustments right there and not have to wait ‘til halftime to be able to see them, so I really enjoyed having him down there. It was very beneficial to the entire offense.
“It helped me a lot, just being able to make adjustments during the game in a face-to-face type of thing,” Gardner added later. “He can ask me what I see, and I can ask him what he sees, and we can come to a consensus of what type of plays we want to continue to run, or if we want to stop running or start running.”
Gardner said Nussmeier brings energy as well as discussion to the sideline.
“He got real hype when I do good things,” Gardner said. “He got the most excited when I did a run check. He was screaming at me. I’m like, ‘Wait, what? Did I do it wrong?’ But he was just so hyped that I got the run check correct, and it turned into like a seven-yard run, so that was really good. He said that’s the best play I had all day.
“I like to think I threw for touchdowns and stuff too,” Gardner noted with a laugh, “but that did set up another touchdown drive, and that’s very important to get those run checks because if I would have stayed with the run that was originally called, it probably wouldn’t have been as successful.”
The Wolverines racked up 210 passing yards and 350 rushing yards, and Hoke and his players made sure to spread the credit around, mentioning the offensive line as well as the blocking tasks of running backs and wide receivers. Michigan got solid production from multiple running backs – 170 yards from Derrick Green and 115 yards from De’Veon Smith – and the coach took the team’s ability to establish a run game as a good sign.
“I think it’s huge for our football team, and it’s huge for both those young men,” Hoke said. “They’re both big backs, but they’re different. As you notice, De’Veon, he would rather run you over than play tag or try and make you miss. And then Derrick’s got a little combination of both, and it was good to have those guys have success, and I think it speaks again to what the receivers did and the offensive line did.”
On the field, everything runs through Gardner, of course. Last season Gardner struggled at times, partly because of a leaky offensive line and partly because of some questionable decision-making. Hoke and players have touted Gardner’s improvement throughout the offseason, and Funchess spoke about it again Saturday.
“He’s got a lot more confidence in himself,” Funchess said. “As a football player or a player in general, you have to bring swag to yourself, and he brought that swag today, and he’s more comfortable with it. It felt great today.”
Throwing to Funchess, at least, Gardner should have no shortage of confidence. Funchess cannot disagree that he – a former tight end – poses a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
“I’m not really a normal wide receiver – six-four, six-five, 236, that’s what I was today,” Funchess said. “I just feel like nobody can match up with that size.”
Saturday’s performance will likely make Funchess the focus of opposing defenses for the remainder of the season, and Hoke concedes that Funchess warrants the extra preparation, but he did not seem concerned about it.
“He’s definitely someone you need to pay attention to,” Hoke said. “I think as the year goes on, as he keeps working, as he keeps learning, as he keeps developing, I think that maybe more people will … bracket him a little bit, put a corner … on him and a safety over the top. But then that helps [Jehu] Chesson, and it helps [Amara] Darboh, and it helps [Dennis] Norfleet and those other guys.”
Racking up a bunch of points on Appalachian State only reveals so much, but next week the Wolverines travel to Notre Dame, and what they do – or do not do – there should give fans a better picture of what Michigan football will look like this season.
Certainly, however, Saturday’s performance was an encouraging start.