Monday, September 26, 2011

Michigan's Record Improves to 4-0 as Team Prepares for Big Ten Conference Play

Well, that was interesting. For a game that I expected to be decided in the fourth quarter, it really wasn't. San Diego State's running or passing attack could not get past Michigan's visibly improved defense. Despite currently being ranked No. 1 in getting turnovers, the Wolverines' defense is neither spectacular nor atrocious. They surprised a lot of people, however, by completely shutting down San Diego State's offense (which was supposed to be threatening) in the first half.

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's "bend but don't break" philosophy appears to be exactly what Michigan needed, and it's worked in transitioning them from a defense that was awful last year to a defense that is not bad. I had said back in July that one of the expectations for Hoke's first year was that there must be remarkable improvement on defense. Well, if the defense continues to play as they have, against teams that make me nervous, then they have improved remarkably. We still have yet to hit the meat of the Big Ten, but Michigan has finished its non-conference schedule undefeated. Michigan escaped two of those games (Western Michigan and Notre Dame), and dominated the rest (Eastern Michigan and San Diego State). Given that trend, all the signs indicate that this is a team that is improving week to week.

Before the season, I had thought it would be satisfactory for Hoke to finish his first season at 8-4. When Michigan defeated Notre Dame (a game I expected us to lose), I thought Michigan was suddenly in a position to go 9-3. Now that they defeated San Diego State, a team I expected to narrowly upset Michigan, it's possible the Wolverines may even go 10-2 in the regular season. I'm still worried about Nebraska, and the games against Michigan State and Ohio State have gone from difficult to definite toss-ups. The Spartans face continued question marks on their offensive line and, predictably, the Buckeyes aren't happy with either their rookie quarterbacks or their rookie head coach.

Meanwhile, Brady Hoke couldn't have asked for a better start to his head coaching career at Michigan. The start of the Big Ten schedule is not daunting for the Wolverines as they face a beleaguered Minnesota, whose head coach will likely not be on the sidelines because he has checked himself into a hospital to resolve his recurring seizure situation. After Minnesota, Michigan faces Northwestern as their first road test, which could prove difficult if the Wildcats show a significant difference in the passing attack with the return of quarterback Dan Persa. The real test, however, will come against Michigan State in East Lansing, as the Wolverines look to snap a three-game losing streak which the Spartans have been clinging to ever since the days of Rich Rodriguez.

Despite Michigan's 4-0 start, it's becoming increasingly difficult to analyze this team. Denard Robinson is still the effective and explosive runner—he put up a net of 200 rushing yards against the Aztecs—but his passing game still needs work. Denard only completed 8 of 17 passes and threw two interceptions. You can credit that somewhat to San Diego State's defense, but some of it came from Denard making poor decisions. His receivers, specifically tight end Kevin Koger, did not catch even the easy passes that Denard made, which further hurts his completion percentage but admittedly isn't all on him. It did force Michigan to rely on more of a running attack, but fortunately the combination of Vincent Smith and Fitzgerald Toussaint was able to take some of the load off Denard's legs—which, of course, is always a good thing.

Perhaps the biggest and most observable difference to Michigan's play on both sides of the ball was the "fast start." Michigan finally broke the stigma of not scoring a touchdown in the first quarter of a given game, and by halftime the Wolverines were up 21-0. The third quarter, however, was sloppy. Michigan turned the ball over four times, losing the turnover battle 4-3 for the first time this season. Nevertheless, Michigan maintained its lead and finished the game 28-7, allowing San Diego State only one touchdown.

It's easy to say that Michigan's defense was the reason San Diego State failed to capitalize on many of its drives, but had Aztec quarterback Ryan Lindley been more accurate in his throws, it would have been a much closer game. Michigan was able to stop the run and Heisman candidate Ronnie Hillman by winning the battle in the trenches. The Wolverines' front seven was able to get enough pressure on Lindley that forced bad throws. I said before that San Diego State would be a good test for Michigan's defense. Unless San Diego State simply had an off-day with emotions running high because of the Brady Hoke factor, then I'd say the Wolverines passed the test ably. With the exception of the third quarter, this is how Michigan will have to play to stop Michigan State, who rely on a similar establish-run offense and then destroy you with the passing attack. If Michigan can get penetration with their defensive line, Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins will find himself in a lot of tough situations, and Michigan can make a game out of it. It's only when Michigan State is able to establish the run that they've been able to give Cousins liberty in the passing game.

Understandably, a lot of Michigan fans may be asking themselves if 2011 is going to be a repeat of the past two years. Michigan started out 4-0 in non-conference games both times and also won their Big Ten opener. Then, of course, by the time the real part of the Big Ten schedule hit, the Wolverines buckled and "the wheels fell off the bus." This year, I had thought that losses to either Notre Dame or San Diego State would propel the Wolverines to approach the Big Ten with something to prove, and hopefully that would mean better play. Obviously, however, since Michigan didn't lose the non-conference games I expected them to, they will head into the conference undefeated, and any losses they suffer this season will come presumably at the hands of the Big Ten. That is, unless Brady Hoke can turn Michigan around in one year.

The differences between this year and 2009/2010 appear to be palpable. Michigan won its first games in 2009 and 2010 by escaping them narrowly, or because the offense bailed out Michigan's inept defense in the fourth quarter. We had seen the warning signs when Michigan faced UMass but refused to accept what we saw and what it meant. When we eventually faced Michigan State that year, we couldn't hide from the truth anymore. We couldn't hide from the simple fact that our defense was bad and wasn't going to stop anybody.

Fast forward a year and we have a new coach, but we also still have those old feelings, the dread that we'll see the wheels fall off the bus again. As such, both those who support Brady Hoke or were skeptical of him approached the non-conference schedule with caution, and sometimes we're looking for excuses of why we won. That's because we were burned so bad the past three years. Is it really unrealistic to see improvement? I want to say no, to say that the improvement is there, but I had let my optimism get the better of me in 2010. It was Rodriguez's third year, and we should have seen a difference. Now it's Brady Hoke's first year, and a lot of us secretly expected Michigan to go back to square one, but amazingly that hasn't happened. Hoke's first year will at least be as good as Rodriguez's third, and that's saying a lot. I said I'd settle for an 8-4 season with a victory over Michigan State or Ohio State, but Brady Hoke never said that. He wants to go all the way.

After an offseason that made us giddy with the pouring in of elite recruits, Michigan fans may have started to think that it was too good to be true. The season was going to be sobering. We weren't going to win against Notre Dame, and we'd have to sit through watching another incompetent defense. Then we apparently forgot that Brady Hoke is Brady Hoke, and this is Michigan for God sakes.

Have we become so accustomed to disappointment from the past three years that we can't even consider the possibility that we might actually be a contender for the Big Ten title? Michigan will eventually face challenges against Nebraska, Michigan State, Iowa, and Ohio State, but we can go into those games with the knowledge that we at least have a chance. More than a chance, maybe. It's not like when we faced Indiana last year: Michigan didn't desperately escape a team they were expected to beat, they dominated them. They dominated a San Diego State team that quite frankly made me nervous. And say what you will about Notre Dame, but they'll turn out to be a good team this year, and we'll look back and be satisfied that Michigan did what they had to do to win the game.

Michigan's fifth home game in a row is played against Minnesota, a team that almost staged a comeback against USC but later got destroyed by North Dakota State. Jerry Kill has his work cut out for him, and the Gophers will struggle to even make it to a bowl game this year. What's even worse is that Minnesota probably won't have their head coach on the sidelines for the Michigan game. Kill has decided that his seizure disorder, a side-effect of him having cancer, has become an obstacle and has checked himself into Minnesota's Mayo Clinic until it is resolved. The Gophers also have painful question marks at quarterback. Minnesota fans insist that true freshman Max Shortell is the best option and that the coaches should put Marquis Gray back at wide receiver, but even with Shortell under center the Gophers hardly have a dangerous offense. Their defense simply gave up against North Dakota State, and penalties will continue to be a nightmare for the team this year. Jerry Kill, who when he was first hired reminded people that he can't work miracles, has said that Minnesota is about as good as a high school football team. This is strange considering how well they seemed to fare against USC, but the prognosis is that the Gophers have gotten worse as the season goes on. If this continues, Minnesota may struggle to win four games. Kill's only had spring and fall camps to work with.

The Wolverines should have no trouble beating the Golden Gophers in the Big House, but overconfidence has led to upsets more than once in college football. Denard Robinson will have to settle down in how he throws the ball, and Al Borges would be wise to script easy passes in the beginning to build his confidence. Borges will also likely run Denard all over the field, which Minnesota will struggle to defend. 

It's not exactly an exciting way to begin Michigan's trek through the Big Ten conference, but Brady Hoke will take wins where he can get them. The start to his first year could not have been smoother. Michigan's schedule will become increasingly difficult as the season goes on, but as we all know, it's always easier to stomach mistakes and steadily make improvements when you're winning.

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