When Rich Rodriguez was introduced as Michigan’s coach in December 2007, he said he envisioned the program struggling in his first year, but he thought the Wolverines could succeed soon after that.
For the first time under Rodriguez, Michigan is beginning to show signs of a turnaround.
Looking to build on last week’s last-minute victory, the 25th-ranked Wolverines will try to go 3-0 for the first time since 2006 as they play Eastern Michigan on Saturday at home.
While heading to the airport to take over the storied program, a few hecklers told Rodriguez that he “better not start 3-8” like he did in his first year at West Virginia in 2001
Instead, he endured a 3-9 campaign, the worst season in Michigan history.
“The first year is always the most difficult no matter what sport you’re in, what time you come in,” Rodriguez said at his initial press conference. “Your first year in transition is the most difficult. … I’m just going to be who I am, and we’ll coach the way we coach. We’ve had success in the past, and we certainly think we’ll have success with it now.”
Michigan’s thrilling 38-34 win at home over No. 18 Notre Dame might be the starting point to a return to national prominence.
With the Wolverines trailing by three points and 2:13 remaining, freshman quarterback Tate Forcier directed a 57-yard drive, capped by a 5-yard touchdown pass to Greg Matthews with 11 seconds left.
The victory helped the school earn its first ranking since former coach Lloyd Carr and current Eastern Michigan coach Ron English - then a Wolverines defensive coordinator - beat a Tim Tebow-led Florida squad in the 2008 Capital One Bowl.
The Wolverines finished No. 18 in the final poll that season, but Rodriguez knows a stay in the Top 25 could be brief if they suffer a letdown against the Eagles, who nearly won at Northwestern last week.
“It just takes one bad performance for all that positive vibe to go away,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll talk quite a bit about that this week, playing to our capabilities and playing with the same intensity all the time.”
Eastern Michigan (0-2) scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to tie the Wildcats with 2:40 left, but Northwestern kicked a 49-yard field goal to escape with a 27-24 win. In English’s debut Sept. 5, the Eagles fell 27-14 at home to Army.
In his fourth year at starting quarterback, Andy Schmitt has thrown for 331 yards and two touchdowns, most of those to Jacory Stone (15 catches, 158 yards, one TD).
Dwayne Priest had a career-best 127 yards in the loss to Northwestern, and has rushed for 212 yards and two touchdowns thus far after gaining 474 with five TDs as a sophomore.
Forcier has effectively ended a three-way competition at quarterback by completing nearly 68 percent of his passes for 419 yards and five touchdowns in the two wins.
“It’s something I’ve been fighting for this whole time,” Forcier said. “It’s a relief that it’s over.”
Fellow freshman Denard Robinson is expected to remain at quarterback but could eventually be used mainly as a runner or at wide receiver. Robinson has passed for only 18 yards but had a 43-yard touchdown run in the season-opening win over Western Michigan.
“You can’t keep somebody like that off the field,” Forcier said.
Both quarterbacks could get a boost with the expected return of Junior Hemingway, who caught five passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns in the opener but sat out last week’s victory with an ankle injury.
Michigan has won all eight meetings with the Eagles, including a 33-22 victory in Ann Arbor on Oct. 6, 2007.
Eastern Michigan will travel six miles for Saturday’s game, the second-shortest road trip in the FBS behind Rice’s 4.9-mile trek to Houston on Nov. 28.