ANN ARBOR It certainly was not perfect, but University of Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr saw many more positives than negatives in yesterday s season-opening 33-17 victory over Northern Illinois before a crowd of 110,971 fans at Michigan Stadium.
On the plus side, the Wolverine offense clicked to the tune of 447 total yards, special-teams play was above average, and the defense forced five turnovers, which effectively derailed any chances the Huskies had at winning.
This was more than enough to offset the surrendering of 411 yards to NIU and a fumble by touted freshman tailback Kevin Grady, who coughed one up at the Huskies 2 late in the third quarter for UM s only giveaway of the day.
Offensively, we played as well in the first half as any team since I ve been at Michigan, Carr said. I thought the execution was outstanding, we protected the quarterback, we mixed the run and the pass, we caught the ball extremely well.
In the second half we had great opportunities to put the game away much earlier. But give Northern Illinois credit.
Michigan found that quarterback Chad Henne (20-of-31 passing, 227 yards, two touchdowns) and tailback Mike Hart (27 carries, 117 yards, one rushing TD, one TD reception), both coming off sterling freshman seasons, haven t lost anything.
And, also that senior receiver Jason Avant (nine catches, 127 yards) appears ready to fill the shoes of record-setting wideout Braylon Edwards as the Wolverines go-to guy when the big play is needed.
Michigan wasted no time getting untracked, moving 74 yards on 14 plays on the season s first possession and going up 7-0 on Henne s four-yard pass to Avant, who made a difficult grab in the left corner of the end zone 5:26 into the game.
We started fast, put some points on the board, and we knew we could move the ball, Henne said. We came out and executed well. We were balanced, and that keeps the defense off-balance.
If we keep spreading the ball around like we did today in the first half, the sky s the limit for us.
By halftime the sturdy 6-1, 213-pound Avant already had seven receptions for 104 yards, his second 100-yard game at UM.
When you get off to a fast start like that it gives the team momentum, Avant said. I was just one of the guys in the package, and Chad was delivering the ball on time.
Northern Illinois answered with its own lengthy drive, a 16-play, 86-yard effort that concluded in Chris Nendick s 24-yard field goal with 2:34 left in the first quarter.
Although Michigan would continue to move offensively, things would have been much closer at halftime minus two crucial Huskie turnovers that amounted to a potential 14-point swing.
These giveaways came after Hart put UM up 14-3 on a 34-yard catch-and-run TD down the right sideline, NIU answered with a stunning 76-yard TD burst by speedy back Garrett Wolfe (17 carries, 148 yards), and Michigan responded with a 70-yard scoring drive capped on Hart s TD dive from two yards out.
First, after picking up 18 yards on a reception to the UM 13, Wolfe lost a fumble to snuff out a prime Huskie scoring chance.
Next, after forcing Michigan s only punt of the day, NIU suffered a back-breaker when Shatone Powers fumbled Ross Ryan s boot to give UM the ball at the NIU 13.
Instead of the Huskies running out the first half trailing by 10, Michigan made them pay two plays later on Grady s first career TD, a one-yard plunge 27 seconds before halftime.
I m disappointed in how we played, NIU coach Joe Novak said. I know our kids are too. We ve been a team that s been good with the football in the past, and when you look at this game, I believe we had a shot if we don t turn it over like we did.
In the second half, despite three more turnovers, NIU outscored the Wolverines 7-6, hardly a convincing finishing kick for UM as it heads to Saturday s marquee matchup with Notre Dame.
There were a lot of positives, Carr said. The most positive thing defensively is, we put a lot of pressure on the quarterback.
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