Larry Stevens was even more emphatic about the insignificance of individual accomplishments when asked what position he thought he would be playing in the NFL next year. “I don’t think about playing at the next level,” Stevens replied. “What are you playing for? If we’ve got guys over here worried about the next level then that means they’re doing individual things. I’m supposed to be fitting somewhere in a scheme and I’m concerned about statistics and tackles for losses? I mess up and now we have a jail-break for a touchdown,” Stevens exclaimed! “The next level is the next level. If that comes, it comes. My main thing right now…and everyone on the team feels the same way…is to do what we can do to win for Michigan. That’s the bottom line!”
To a man, the players on 2003 squad appear to have totally bought into the team concept and are focused on the task directly in front of them. While they are insistent about not ever looking past any game, the overall goal is clear…win a NATIONAL championship! Braylon Edwards conveyed that to me earlier this spring in an interview. That same objective has subsequently resonated from the lips of other players, including from both Larry Stevens and Jeremy LeSueur today. “Our goal is to go undefeated and win the championship,” LeSueur said. “We worked hard during the summer to do that. This team is a unit and it’s tight. When we perform, we don’t think we can be beat.” For long-time Michigan fans, such talk is foreign. For years, while a national title may have been a goal, it was not one that was publicly acknowledged nearly as much as winning the Big Ten title. Conversely, this group doesn’t hesitate to overtly state that being the toast of college football world is the ultimate objective. The impetus for this change could have been Carr leading the Wolverines to the title in 97, or maybe it was watching the Buckeyes take home the hardware last year. Whatever the case may be, this team is unapologetic about aiming high. “The thing about it is, we don’t want to settle for the Big Ten championship,” Stevens said. “We want to be champions not only of our own division, we want to be the best team in college football. A great Michigan team! We want to take it back to the glory days and put Michigan where it deserves, and where it should be. On top!”
Some may fret about the national title talk this early in the season, but it should be noted that this group is truly focused on the tasks directly in front of them. “We know that we’ve got to take it game by game and step by step and not look at the big picture yet,” Stevens said. “We’re not concerned about the polls because when you start doing that, that’s when you start losing. We’ve got Oregon this week and we’re just concerned about Oregon.”
The Ducks and their potent offensive attack certainly merit that concern. With 2 quarterbacks that have thrown for over 850 yards between them, and three runningbacks that have each carried the ball at least 28 times (averaging over 4.2 yards a carry), Oregon fields a much more balanced attack than Notre Dame could on even their best day. Adding to the danger is the mobility of both quarterbacks. While neither has Carlyle Holiday’s scrambling ability, they both have better than average movement in the pocket. Each has shown that he is capable of throwing on the run, and can even get upfield when the pass is taken away. Coach Carr certainly sees Belotti's team as a much stiffer test for his defense. “Oregon is going to be a much different deal here,” Carr said “They have tremendous skill. Their two wide receivers are outstanding. They have two quarterbacks that are both outstanding. They have not thrown an interception this season, and that alone is impressive. They have three or four running backs. They are also a tremendous screen team and they’ll probably take more shots down the field than any team we’ll play.”
The player that may be the most frequent target of those downfield shots is 5-11, 180 lb. senior, Samie Parker. He leads the Ducks with 18 catches for 326 yards (18.1 yards/catch) and 3 touchdowns. Carr singled him out as “one of the fastest players in America” and “a “tremendous deep threat.” The diversity of Oregon’s passing attack can seem daunting and the desire to load up against it can be great. That said, against a team that, as described by Coach Carr, “wants to take what the defense gives them,” such an approach could very well be counterproductive.
Coaches can prepare their teams for such on-field dilemmas. What can sometimes be more difficult to prepare for are noise problems similar to what Michigan will encounter in Autzen Stadium on Saturday. It is known as one of the loudest venues in all of college football. That makes it imperative that the offense be prepared to operate without audible communication. “The crowd, according to every coach I’ve spoken with, is a real factor,” Carr said. “You have to learn to communicate without talking because talking doesn’t do you any good.” The linemen have the most difficult task in such situations because it is they that normally react directly to the calls of the quarterback. That certainly is a point of concern according to center Dave Pearson, but not an insurmountable one. “It’s actually easier for me because I’m so close to the quarterback,” Pearson said. “Out there at the tackle, it’s more difficult for those guys because they have to see the ball as opposed to hearing John’s cadence. It’s difficult to make sure the calls are communicated all across the line when you play in a loud environment. But we practice real hard at it and we had experience last year playing in a few real loud places, so I think we’ll get the job done.”
If the Notre Dame game is any indication of the type of preparedness that they will enter into Saturday’s contest with, then they’ll pass this next test with flying colors as well.