Monday, October 31, 2011

Michigan Bounces Back, Despite Mistakes

The Wolverines have shown that they can take a loss in stride, proving to the world (or at least their own fan base) that the defeat at the hands of in-state rival Michigan State would not slow them down.

Michigan won convincingly at its homecoming game against Purdue, 36-14. The Boilermakers have struggled with injuries for a long time, and Purdue's program is one of the least stable in the Big Ten. Their head coach, Danny Hope, currently in his third year, just can't seem to get anything going. Some fans think it's not for lack of trying, others think Hope doesn't have a clue what he's doing. Purdue's 2011 season started with an embarrassing loss to Rice in the second game—largely because of poor clock management and poor kicking—but Hope's squad has found some positives. When Purdue's fan base was making outcries of doubt, the Boilermakers beat Minnesota to quiet the criticism, and then went on to upset Illinois, who was then ranked No. 21.

Against Michigan in the Big House, however, it's a whole different ball game. For the Wolverines, there were serious questions about how they would respond after failing to capitalize on any of the opportunities against Michigan State two weeks ago. In fact Michigan started sluggishly—which seems to be their M.O.—and allowed Purdue to score a touchdown on its first drive. Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner each threw an interception in the first half. It wasn't pretty.

Then Michigan finally settled down and got its offense rolling. The difference: the Wolverines established an effective running game. Fitzgerald Toussaint rushed for 170 yards on 20 carries, one of which burst through the Purdue defense and went for a touchdown. Michael Shaw also had a similar touchdown run. Michigan's special teams were acceptable, and Brendan Gibbons has shown that he can be somewhat reliable when it comes to making field goals—a stark improvement over last year.

However, the main story—as it seems to have been the entire season—was Michigan's defense, which even managed to force a safety. The Wolverines may have given up a touchdown in the first quarter, but Purdue would not score a single point again until the final minutes of the game. That touchdown wasn't going to affect the outcome of the game anyway, but it still got under the Michigan coaches' skin. The offense and defense highlights of the game can be found here, if you're interested.

Despite the win, the gameplay wasn't perfect, and I maintain my stance that Michigan, which has reached an impressive mid-season record of 7-1, is still not a top ten team. The beginning of the game, especially, had its share of miscues, and Mike Martin's tackle that resulted in a safety also had a facemask that wasn't called. Nevertheless, Michigan's defense is still improving at an impressive rate. It seems to be benefiting most from being put into good positions and has a bewildering knack for forcing turnovers. To some, the 7-1 record is no surprise.

Understandably, no one knows what to make of this Michigan team across the fan base and the blogosphere.
ESPN's Big Ten bloggers Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg prefer to see the positive side of Michigan's season so far. "This Wolverine team looks different," they wrote. "They made a statement on Saturday by bouncing back nicely from the Michigan State loss and trouncing Purdue 36-14 at home. Even without a superstar performance by Denard Robinson, Michigan still ran for 339 yards as Fitz Toussaint had a career day. The defense stiffened after an early touchdown, and defensive tackle Mike Martin's safety highlighted his terrific day. Because the Wolverines now can actually stop people and run the ball with more than just Robinson, they can be good in November instead of just September."

Additionally, Brian Cook of MGoBlog believes that most of Michigan's success is attributed to the fact that the Big Ten is not doing very well this year. "The Big Ten is not helping out here," he wrote. "Michigan's conference wins are over Minnesota, Northwestern, and Purdue, teams which have lost to North Dakota State, Army, and Rice, respectively." Meanwhile, the Big Ten's powerhouses-apparent have all been upset or suffered ignominious defeats: Nebraska lost to Wisconsin, Michigan State lost to Nebraska, and Wisconsin, largely believed to be the best team in the Big Ten, was recently upset by Ohio State in Columbus. The team who currently holds the best conference record in the Big Ten is actually Penn State—which won its last game against Illinois, 10-7, after three quarters of stalling offensively. This does not do much to inspire confidence in the conference.

What does this mean for Michigan? I look at the rest of the schedule and think that Michigan could easily win or easily lose to any of those teams. Iowa, which was suffered a shocking upset to 1-6 Minnesota, hosts Michigan next week and will be looking to bounce back, but their performance against the Gophers was atrocious and complacent. Illinois, who may have at one point been a dark horse contender for the championship, has now lost to Penn State after an offensive production that was anything but graceful. Nebraska has been good except for its loss to Wisconsin, which made everyone think it was all flash and no substance, but the rest of the season could prove different. And finally Ohio State, which has played shorthanded for the entire first half of its schedule, somehow found a way to upset Wisconsin. The Buckeyes now have at least one of their hands back and could give Luke Fickell's debut season a respectable 9-3 finish.

It's tough to say who will win what games. Penn State hardly seems like it can hang on to its undefeated conference record, as they face Nebraska on November 12. Ohio State doesn't seem like it will have a tough contest until it faces Michigan, but either Illinois or Penn State could pull off an upset. Of greater concern are Michigan's contest against Ohio State and a victory which is starting to look less and less like a sure thing. I certainly didn't expect Ohio State to pull off a win against the Badgers—and I'm torn as to understanding why: is it because the Buckeyes are better than everyone expected, or because the Badgers are worse?

With the way Michigan lost so inelegantly to the Spartans, with so much riding on that game, I think the Michigan fans who aren't worried about Ohio State should be. Obviously, the college football world has set it up so that Michigan should win: Brady Hoke cares about beating Ohio State a whole lot, Jim Tressel has left Columbus, as has Terrelle Pryor, and Fickell is still learning how to be a head coach. Perhaps most importantly, Michigan is due for a win after a six-plus streak of losses. You'd think Michigan would have a distinct advantage. Then you remember that this is college football: Minnesota beat Iowa, and Ohio State beat Wisconsin.

This is usually the time when a fan puts his or her faith in the coach and hopes everything turns out for the best. Michigan could get to ten wins but could lose to Ohio State—again. Or Michigan could lose to Iowa or Illinois or Nebraska and put the entire season into doubt, but then pull off a victory against the Buckeyes that makes Brady Hoke's inaugural season memorable. This type of uncertainty and results shows us the best and worst sides of college football: Michigan has made tremendous progress since its struggling years under Rich Rodriguez, so much so that it has earned itself a bowl berth regardless of how it finishes, but the parting view of the season will likely come down to one game—the Ohio State one.

It's not really fair, because after everything they've worked for, the players deserve better than that. However, that's just how the Michigan football program is. Lloyd Carr was urged into retirement because of his consistent losses against Jim Tressel. Rodriguez's exciting starts were overshadowed by his embarrassing finishes. And when former players come back to Ann Arbor for reunions, and they ask each other "What's your record," they don't mean overall seasons, touchdowns, or championships.

They mean the record against Ohio State.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Way Forward

It's been a tough couple of weeks. You probably know by now that Brady Hoke's first career loss as Michigan's head coach and Michigan's first loss of 2011 came at the hands of in-state rival, Michigan State.

There was pretty much sloppy play on both sides, but Michigan's play was sloppier. Michigan State committed so many penalties that it accumulated to over 100 yards, but the Wolverines failed to capitalize. That was the story of the game: Michigan failing to capitalize. 

To say that Michigan State played dirty would be a gross understatement. By now you shouldn't be surprised by how they play against Michigan. Some people were; I wasn't. The proof is here.

Of course, one of the main stories about the game was Hoke and Borges's decision to call a play-action pass on fourth and very short, when the obvious call was simply to take a chance and run it. Nobody was happy about that. Personally, I think people are upset only because it failed. Yes, it was a bad call, but you wouldn't be saying it was a bad call if it had worked. Instead, quarterback Denard Robinson got sacked, and Michigan's coaches looked pretty stupid.

There's not much to discuss when it comes to the game against Michigan State. It was a loss and that hurts. To me, one of the worst things about it was Michigan's "special" uniforms—which I found to be awful. I usually tease my friends from Michigan State about the Spartans' inability to keep a consistent uniform and thereby start some kind of tradition, but I could not really say that today because Michigan was doing it too. 

Most Michigan fans were peeved with Hoke about the play call, while I was peeved about the uniforms. You don't mess with Michigan's uniform. This time I learned that it was "a surprise" that was waiting for the players instead of a senior request. Either way, it was a bad decision. Rich Rodriguez may have done a lot of things wrong at Michigan, but at least he was smart enough to never change the uniform. I sincerely hope that the game against Michigan State was the last time—and I mean it, the last time—that we ever see a spontaneous change or a change of any kind to the uniform.

Now, we can focus on the way forward. I had said before the season that Michigan State was not a team to underestimate, and though I thought that Brady Hoke understood the rivalry enough to prepare the players for it, I was clearly wrong. I also said that a loss against Michigan State would not doom Hoke. To a large extent, that remains true. It's still Hoke's first year, and we can't expect a perfect season.

That said, I would have much rather had a loss to Northwestern than Michigan State. In the article that described the expectations for Brady Hoke's 2011 debut, I hadn't asked for much: primarily, an 8-4 season with wins over the rivals, but a loss to Notre Dame was excusable. The loss to the Spartans puts a particularly bad taste in your mouth if you're a Michigan fan, and it's almost good to know that Hoke himself is still taking the loss pretty hard. What the loss to Michigan State does is turn up the pressure for him to beat Ohio State.

It's becoming increasingly clear that Michigan will not likely be competing for the Big Ten championship this year. You don't get any closer to the title game by losing to a team that's in your division. Hoke's focus should be almost solely on preparing for Ohio State, because a loss to that team will be damning. Yes, he still thinks there's a chance Michigan can surely compete for the Big Ten, and depending on the rest of Michigan State's season, he may turn out to be right. But he took a step back from that goal instead of a step forward. His goal should now be to beat Ohio State.

In so many ways, Hoke's Wolverines have defied expectations. So far, they have shown good improvement on defense, they have started well at 6-1, and they made athletic director Dave Brandon happy by winning the much-hyped first night game against Notre Dame. Hoke went on to defeat his old team, and then Michigan started their Big Ten schedule well. His team is already bowl-eligible, and they're very close to having a winning season, and after Rich Rodriguez, 8-4 sounds pretty good.

The only thing that will make this season a true disappointment is a loss to Ohio State. Michigan has shown that they have become a good (but not great) team in the Big Ten. I said before that they are not a top ten team yet. A Big Ten title would be great, but I said many times that I don't believe it's necessary for Hoke's first season. This being a coaching transition, it surely shouldn't be expected. What should be expected, especially now, with Michigan losing to a hated rival once already, is a victory over Ohio State. The Buckeyes are still struggling to have a good season, and signs indicate that they won't maintain the winning streak against Michigan. Both Hoke and his team need to solidify that. It must be their focus.

Michigan goes on to play Purdue for homecoming. Despite all the articles that said that Michigan's fork in the road was the Michigan State game, I think that this one is pretty damn important. Yes, the deciding factor was usually the Michigan State game, but that's only because it was when things started to go bad. If the Wolverines can bounce back, and they should, then it'll show that this is a different team. Michigan has had a bye week to get healthy for the Boilermakers, and they should be ready. A loss will not only bring disappointment, it will start to feel like the team hasn't improved.

To be different from Rodriguez, Hoke's team will need to improve week to week. Despite the better overall season records, the Wolverines of 2009 and 2010 would actually get worse as the season went on. That needs to change. Don't get me wrong: I still believe in Hoke. I'm just saying that he now has the chance to show that he's different from Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez's teams never seemed to fully recover from their losses against Michigan State. How Hoke's teams respond will reveal a lot about who they are.

The pressure is way up. How Hoke's first season is remembered will come down, almost unilaterally, to whether or not the team beats Ohio State. Michigan fans will be able to remember the Wolverines' thrilling win over Notre Dame because it continued for the rest of the season—despite a hiccup or two. But a loss against the Buckeyes will bring back all those old feelings—the bad ones.

Bo Schemebechler knew that the game against Ohio State was crucial. All signs indicate that Hoke knows that too. Because of its place on the schedule, it has the ability to shed a good light on a rough season, or solidify that the season was rough. The Wolverines missed an opportunity to snap a losing streak against a rival.

They have one more chance to do it this year—against the Buckeyes.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

It's Going to Come Down to the Rivals

In his first year as Michigan's head coach, Brady Hoke has surprised a lot of people. He arrived in Ann Arbor on January 11, more than nine months ago, to a congregation of supporters and skeptics. Most of the latter weren't impressed with him because of his then-overall record (47-50) and the fact that he's 52. Some felt he was a cop-out for bigger name choices like Jim Harbaugh and Les Miles, both of which weren't interested in the Michigan job. Yet Brady Hoke wasn't the bumbling idiot many unfairly expected him to be. There were considerably fewer critics after Hoke gave his first press conference. He showed skeptics exactly how much he cared about Michigan, what it meant to him, what was important, and what he was going to do.

It was like he had said what everybody was thinking. Finally there was someone who cared—and cared deeply—about beating Ohio State. It was a rivalry that was personal to him. Finally there was someone who understood that you have to compete for the recruits in the state of Michigan and in the Midwest, particularly Ohio, which is a factory for blue chip recruits. And most importantly, there was finally someone who understood Michigan's tradition and how this job wasn't like any other job and how this is Michigan for God sakes.

The next few months were unexpectedly encouraging. Hoke had succeeded against one of the program's biggest recent challenges—finding a top-notch defensive coordinator—by hiring Greg Mattison away from the Baltimore Ravens. Then, with Mattison in tow, Hoke and his staff put together one of the best recruiting classes for 2012. They had locked down nine of the top ten prospects in the state of Michigan, and had also earned commitments from defensive end Mario Ojemudia and tight end Devin Funchess, both of whom had been previously considered locks for Michigan State. Spartans everywhere panicked as they watched the best players pick Michigan over their program. For a Michigan fan, and for anyone who had watched MSU coach Mark Dantonio continually beat out Rich Rodriguez for the best in-state players, it was a refreshing change of pace to see things going back to the way they were supposed to be.

Yet there were still lingering questions about the productivity Michigan would have on the field for the 2011 season. Would Denard Robinson still be utilized effectively? How will the defense grow and develop under defensive gurus Hoke and Mattison, and how quickly? Will there be any progress in the kicking game? What about an efficient running back to help keep the pressure and the injuries off of Denard?

When the 2011 season approached, a lot of Michigan fans were anxious and nervous, the sort of excitement that is rarely positive. Brady Hoke had done things so well, had gotten so much good press, so many great recruits, that now we'd see just how rough things were. These fears, even though they still remain somewhat, were largely unsubstantiated. Michigan came out against Western Michigan and, although it got off to a rocky start, dominated the Broncos defensively and scored two defensive touchdowns. Hoke and Mattison had apparently done a remarkable job improving the defense, and they'd done it quickly. Then against Notre Dame, Michigan found a way to win with an explosive offense and a defense, while not excellent nor horrible, made stops when it needed to. Michigan went on to win all of its first six games, the last of which was on the road against Northwestern. With the exception of a close victory over a formidable Notre Dame, for the rest of those games, Michigan did not escape by an eyelash because of horrible defense, as it so often had under Rodriguez. It won decisively.

Brady Hoke has surpassed expectations, so much so that he's even started to win over his most hateful critics. Back in July, I had put together a quick run-down of the expectations that Hoke was facing for the then-upcoming 2011 season. The list included expectations of differing priority: for instance, winning the Big Ten fell at medium because it's Brady Hoke first year, but notching at least 8 wins was considered a high priority. 

So far, Hoke has met all of those expectations except the two with the highest priority: snapping the losing streaks against Michigan State and Ohio State. He and his team will have the chance to snap the losses in the Michigan State rivalry this weekend.

It's no secret that beating your rivals goes a long way to making you look good as a coaching hire, and it obviously makes the alumni, donors, players, and fans very happy. However, it's almost an unfair reality that a large part of Hoke's first season at Michigan will be remembered in how he won or lost against the school's two most hated rivals. This is pretty much the nature of the beast. Both Charles Woodson and Desmond Howard cinched Heisman candidacies with how they played (and won) over Ohio State—and, remembering Woodson's one-handed interception, Michigan State.

If Michigan can snap the losing streaks against its rivals, imagine how this season will be remembered. It was the season that was not only Brady Hoke's first year, but it was the one with Michigan Stadium's first night game and a thrilling victory over Notre Dame. It was the season that Michigan started its road back to dominance and doing things the right way, the Michigan way.

I had said so long ago that all I wanted out of this season was an 8-4 record with wins over Michigan State and Ohio State. When Michigan beat Notre Dame, a game I expected us to lose, I suddenly thought that Michigan could legitimately go 9-3. When they beat San Diego State, I thought 9-3 was even more attainable. When they beat Northwestern after starting undefeated, I thought this team might actually go 10-2. Such a season would no doubt please Michigan fans everywhere, and for Brady Hoke to have a 10-2 season would definitely defy all my expectations. But here's the problem: how his season is viewed is ultimately going to come down to the rivalry games. A 10-2 season won't mean much if those two losses come to MSU and OSU. Denard's fantastic play in the Notre Dame game won't be as remembered or as cherished because it didn't continue against the Spartans or the Buckeyes. This is why 2010 and 2009 are remembered unpleasantly. Despite the amazing starts and victories over Notre Dame, the seasons themselves weren't memorable.

The game against Michigan State this weekend is important for many reasons, but perhaps the most important reason is that it is a chance for Brady Hoke to show, on the field, how his leadership will be different than Rodriguez's, who never seemed to take either game completely seriously. Hoke has already defeated the Spartans in the recruiting field, but on the football field it would be considerably more tangible. 

There's also the fact that Hoke is being asked to snap a losing streak rather than continue a winning one. The Spartans have won the last three years in a row, and they're more than happy to rub their victory in Michigan fans' faces. Some people outside of Michigan don't really get what's the big deal about the rivalry with Michigan State, but MGoBlog's Misopogon sums it up nicely:
Out-of-staters are bewildered that so much attention is paid to a mid-season, in-state rivalry that stands at 67-31-5. Really it's not even a full-state rivalry, as the west is pretty much blue or Notre Dame. Those who grew up in Ann Arbor don't see what the big deal is either. It's mostly about Detroit, where Michigan fans are seldom more than 10 feet from a Spartan, where classes of 10-year-olds are 70% Michigan fans and only 10% of those will get in.
Despite losing to a Notre Dame team that Michigan defeated, and having a poor showing against a shorthanded Ohio State, the Spartans are confident that not only will they beat Michigan but that they'll beat Michigan by two scores—at least. Obviously, this could be nothing more than simple pre-game trash talk, which is expected of the rivals. Michigan State's offensive line is arguably its biggest question mark. Kirk Cousins is still one of the Big Ten's best quarterbacks, but only when he has protection and only when the offense has already established the run. Michigan's game at Michigan State will not be impossible to win, and it will likely be very close. Lloyd Carr frequently said that the game against Michigan State is "the most physical" game Michigan plays all season. "It's a dog-fight," Brady Hoke recently added. That's likely because the players on this team know each other, and recently also because of Mark Dantonio's unwavering hatred for Michigan.

It's another challenge that Brady Hoke faces in proving himself to the Michigan faithful. One would think that since Hoke has won so many challenges already and has defied so many expectations, he could maybe afford to lose to Michigan State. I wish I could say yes, but given the circumstances of the past years under Rodriguez, and how the game against Michigan State was so often the turning point for the season (in Rodriguez's case, usually for the worst), it's just not possible. Brady Hoke and Michigan need to win this game.

That doesn't mean that a loss would universally and unequivocally doom Hoke. He'll have another chance on the last Saturday in November to redeem himself. But a victory this Saturday would go a long way to re-establishing Michigan's dominance in the state. Hoke's already taken the fight to the recruiting trail. 

He just needs to take it to the field.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Wake-Up Call

2011 is becoming one of the most intriguing years in college football. 

Ohio State seems hell-bent on collapsing into dust. Michigan State lost to Notre Dame but is still confident that it doesn't mean much for the Spartans' upcoming bout with Michigan. Illinois, despite that its fans previously believing Ron Zook to be one of the most incompetent coaches in the Big Ten, is now looking like a viable contender for their division—with only Wisconsin standing in their way. (In the other conferences, all the usual players are making runs for their titles. The only real surprise has been Baylor.)

However, the most intriguing team of the year has to be the Michigan Wolverines. Last year they had one of the worst defenses of any BCS conference, they lost their games in the worst ways possible, and the athletic department made a coaching change. Usually, that spells trouble for the next couple years: coaching changes almost universally spell losses in the first season, and there's always player attrition. 

Instead, Brady Hoke has had very few players leave and has coached the team to a 6-0 record midway through the first season. There are even whispers that Michigan will be legitimate contenders for the Big Ten championship game (probably against Wisconsin), something which I didn't expect until Hoke's second year. All I wanted out of Hoke's first year was an 8-4 record and to snap the losing streaks over the rivals. Now it looks like Hoke could take this team all the way.

But in a lot of ways, the game against Northwestern was a wake-up call. Michigan stumbled terribly through the first half, where Denard Robinson threw three interceptions. One can always be expected in any given game and is forgivable, two is rough-going and usually means a bad decision was made, but three—that's means the quarterback is having a bad game. 

As Pat Fitzgerad's Wildcats finished the half up 24-14, Michigan fans thought they were watching a repeat of 2010. Last year Michigan started 5-0 but couldn't finish the second half of the season, ending at 7-5 and a blowout bowl loss. Last Saturday, what Michigan fans were seeing wasn't necessarily a repeat of Rich Rodriguez's final year, it was more a repeat of the night game against Notre Dame.

Michigan's offense in the first half was bad then too. It couldn't get anything going. The defense was stout but couldn't fully stop an explosive attack. Then something changed in that second half, and against the Fighting Irish, it ultimately came in the fourth quarter. 

Against the Wildcats, Michigan looked like a completely different team after halftime. The most surprising and satisfying statement: Michigan's defense shut out Northwestern in the final two quarters. The Wildcats didn't score a single point. Michigan capitalized on penalties and turnovers, which went both ways.

There was one call that Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald was absolutely livid about. In Michigan's second half rally, Jordan Kovacs came from the secondary to put pressure on Wildcat quarterback Dan Persa. Persa's helmet came off and Fitzgerald claimed that Kovacs had ripped it off, but there was no flag on the field. After seeing the video replay, I had to agree with Fitzgerald, although if the officials can't see it on the field, they won't throw a flag. Northwestern, and Fitzgerald especially, will be bitter about that one for a long time. However, it wasn't by any means the deciding factor in the game. Besides, the game's officials had helped out the Wildcats throughout the entire first half. Most notably, they got away with a blatant roughing the passer, where Denard Robinson took an unnecessary shot, and it wasn't called. So, I guess it all evened out.

The final score was Michigan 42, Northwestern 24. The Wildcats are now 2-3.

Despite typically being considered the Big Ten's doormat, Northwestern has improved greatly under Pat Fitzgerald. His record is 36-32. At the age of 36, he was the youngest head coach in college football before Lane Kiffin. Fitzgerald had a great 9-4 season in 2008 and has built the program into a viable contender. His quarterback, Dan Persa, is considered by some to be the best passer in the Big Ten and a possible Heisman candidate, but Persa's main deterrent in both has been his susceptibility to injury. Fitzgerald has done a good job to bring the spread offense to the Big Ten, and some Michigan fans even wanted him to be a candidate for the Michigan job. That wasn't ever going to happen, though. Northwestern is Fitzgerald's alma mater, and he's going to stay there forever or as long as he can.

What Michigan learned from its game against Northwestern is that they can go up against a tough team, and this season is going to be tough. With the way this season has started out, it's almost like climbing a ladder. The Notre Dame game was obviously challenging, and it was a good indicator of how things would look in the Big Ten. 

Brady Hoke has had tests that gradually got harder. His first Big Ten game was against a struggling Minnesota, but that can be likened to a season opener. That's probably why Northwestern reminds me so much of the Notre Dame game—although, of course, it wasn't nearly as close. Michigan State, despite their offensive line troubles, will make the game fierce and difficult, but the good news is that this is not last year's Michigan. This is a Michigan that is competitive.

That's what we learned. The first half in Evanston showed us that Michigan, ultimately, is not a top ten team. Not yet, anyway. They are, however, competitive in the Big Ten, and that makes all the difference. A competitive Michigan is able to rally from behind instead of being blown out. It's able to react and make adjustments. Most importantly, it's able to find a way to win.

Last year's wake-up call was in game six against Michigan State. The Spartans showed Michigan fans exactly how bad the Wolverines' defense was. This year's wake-up call is different. Michigan is not perfect, but it's improved. You are not watching 2010 because the Wolverines can finally make a stop. You are not watching 2010 because Michigan finally has an established running game (or at least several different runners) other than Denard Robinson. You are not watching 2010 because we are holding teams scoreless while we put up points and make necessary third-down conversions. This is a team that is focused on controlling the ball, time of possession, and that ultimately is why the teams we have faced have not been able to get back into the game. What is perhaps most refreshing is that, for the first time in a long time, this team is duly confident. It is at the same time cautious of its dangerous opponents. That's how a good football team acts.

Understandably, Michigan fans are finding reasons for optimism, but let's not go crazy. The Wolverines went from being a team that was bad defensively and mediocre offensively to a team that is good in both. But they aren't great. They aren't mentioned among the BCS title contenders such as LSU, Alabama, and Oklahoma, nor should they be. It's hard to keep things in perspective when you're having so much success. 

Michigan's game against Northwestern was hardly a flawless victory, and this is hardly a flawless team. But where there is legitimate reason for optimism is in this team's apparent ability to do everything they can to overcome their flaws, and that's to be commended.

They still have a lot of work to do. There are going to be a lot of tough battles ahead, but I have a feeling that's exactly how Brady Hoke wants it. The best things in life are rarely easy to attain.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Wolverines Retain Brown Jug, Jump to No. 12 in Rankings

Two old-school coaches with Midwestern ties met on the field in the Big House last Saturday. Both inherited programs that needed to be rebuilt. Both are first year coaches hired to instill a sense of toughness and physical play that is demanded in the Big Ten. However, only one walked away with answers to the questions about whether his team was steadily improving. The other walked away with more questions.

Brady Hoke and Jerry Kill are cut from the same cloth. They are amazingly similar. Both are honest, hard-nosed guys who speak from the heart and tell it like it is. Both put a strong emphasis on physical and mental toughness, and both have turned around moribund programs before. It's not only fitting that these two coaches found their way to the Big Ten, it's practically destiny. Hoke and Michigan should feel privileged that they'll be going up against someone like Jerry Kill in the coming years.

Yet, while Hoke is living his dream at Michigan, Kill seems caught in a nightmare. Granted, it's only his first year, but there are so many indicators that, as similar as Hoke and Kill are as coaches, they inherited two vastly different teams. Even though Michigan does have the benefit of Greg Mattison, it's not really a question of coaching personnel: Kill's staff is just as loyal as Hoke's.

Some believe that the difference is in the players. Michigan's have bought in and are eager to learn. Ultimately, after three years of pitiful conference play, they are eager to win. Minnesota's players, by contrast, perhaps want to win too but are caught in a tight battle with their own doubts. The schedule for Minnesota has also been unforgiving. The Gophers started out competitive against a then-ranked No. 25 USC, but after suffering a loss, they came home to easier teams but surrendered the momentum. They managed a fluke win over Miami of Ohio. The Gophers are now staring down the barrel of the Big Ten schedule, going up against Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa as their toughest opponents. It won't be pretty.

It wasn't pretty for the Gophers either on Saturday. To the delight of many Michigan fans (myself included), the Wolverines throttled Minnesota on both sides of the ball and delivered a punishing performance in a game that felt great because it was one Michigan was expected to win. The Michigan faithful haven't had the chance to experience such a satisfying win in a long time. Even in 2010, when we beat teams we were predicted to beat early in the season, we didn't destroy them. Against Minnesota, the final score was 58-0, Michigan's first shutout victory since 2007.

Now before we go crazy and start chanting "Michigan is back" and dream of playing in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game, let's remind ourselves that Michigan won because, yes, the Wolverines were very good, but they hardly faced a challenge. Minnesota has gotten worse since it played USC in week one. They had little fundamentals, and many of Michigan's scores came because one of the Gophers missed a tackle. Minnesota would have broken the shutout with a kick return for a touchdown if it didn't come back because one of the Gophers got a holding penalty. (Of course, you could also argue that the Gophers wouldn't have even been in that position to run it back for a touchdown if the guy hadn't been holding, but at this point it's moot.)

The good news for Michigan: they did their job. On defense, Michigan's front seven dominated a weak Minnesota offensive line as they should have. Will Campbell, who a couple years ago came in as one of Michigan's highest ranked recruits at defensive tackle, and who seemed to struggle during the Rodriguez years, has finally seemed to be put into a position where he can excel, and unless his dominant play against Minnesota was a flash in the pan, he's steadily meeting his potential. In one of the most beautiful defensive plays, Campbell pancaked the Gopher offensive linesman and creamed Minnesota freshman quarterback Max Shortell. Now if he can only do that for the rest of the season. Besides individual plays, the defense as a unit never let up, and it continued to force surprise turnovers. Cornerback Courtney Avery picked up a forced fumble and ran it back for a defensive touchdown.

On offense, Denard Robinson settled down early and made 11 straight completions, which helped build his confidence. The running backs (Toussiant, Smith, Shaw, and Rawls) each racked up good yardage and shed tackles. And of course, receivers played well, especially sophomore Jeremy Gallon, who appears to be Denard's new favorite target. Tight end Kevin Koger and receiver Drew Dileo each got touchdowns. And perhaps most impressively, Michigan placekicker Brendan Gibbons made 3-of-3 field goals. 

You can check out all the Maize and Blue highlights here.

Again, the win came partly because of what Michigan did right, but also because of all the things Minnesota did wrong. Their offense was impotent and their defense had little (if any) intensity. Things in Minneapolis are getting worse for the Gopher faithful as they become despondent towards the remaining part of the season, and some are even questioning whether or not Jerry Kill can effectively turn that program around. My personal belief is that Kill can and he will. He just needs time. I like Jerry Kill because of his history, his demeanor, and the fact that he can finally make Minnesota competitive again, which is good for the conference.

Meanwhile, for Michigan, things continue to improve. The Wolverines face a good road test in Evanston, where they will face a Northwestern team whose threat level I would classify as medium. Then the better test will come the following week in East Lansing, as Michigan looks to snap the three-game losing streak to Michigan State. Despite the Spartans' pathetic play against a shorthanded Ohio State, even though it ended in a 10-7 victory, they will be aptly prepared for their much-anticipated contest against Michigan. Thankfully, the Wolverines should be prepared too. That game will be a good indicator of how well the team has come along. So far, everything has gone right for Hoke. Let's hope that continues.

If I have one gripe about anything Hoke has done, and I'll probably address this is in more detail later, it's that Michigan's helmet will feature numbers on the sides for the remainder of the season. As someone who feels that Michigan's helmets are perfect the way they are and do not need anything to muddy them up (numbers, stickers, etc.), I obviously think adding numbers is an incredibly bad idea. That's largely because I'm a purist when it comes to Michigan's uniform. Brady Hoke has said that the rationale behind the helmet numbers is to honor those players who came before and because the seniors asked him to do it. "I'm pretty sure it was a senior thing," backup quarterback Devin Gardner said at a press conference. "We have a great group of seniors. I'm pretty sure they lobbied to get it done, and what the seniors want, the seniors get."

My fear is that the helmet addition of numbers will likely become permanent. As for the seniors, I commend their effort and I respect them. But like so many alumni, you don't really appreciate the tradition until after you leave. Players go to Oregon because of the prospect that they'll wear a different uniform for every game and somehow that's cool. That's fine for Oregon, but that's not Michigan. If Hoke gave into the seniors' demands this time, and if the rationale was to honor previous players, then there's nothing to suggest that helmet-numbers will not be a permanent addition. You don't mess with the helmet. Hoke has, and I'm pissed about it.

Of course, as I watched the game, I was the only one who apparently noticed and got upset about it. The other people around me were basically of the opinion that it's more important to care about winning games than what's on the helmet. Because Michigan hasn't won a lot of games yet, that sounds like a Rodriguez-era mentality. We should be winning games, not changing helmets.

Finally, back to the topic of games and schedule, Michigan jumped to No. 12 in the rankings. This is the highest Michigan has been since 2007, so that's good, but appropriately, Michigan fans feel a mixture of excitement and trepidation. There's a sentiment that 2009 or 2010 might repeat itself. The last time Michigan soared in the rankings, it got throttled by Michigan State. We won't really know how good we are until we play the Spartans, and ultimately when we face the Buckeyes.

As much as I didn't think Michigan had a shot at the Big Ten title this year, it's starting to look more and more that Michigan could become and maybe already is a dark horse contender. They'll still have to knock off Michigan State and Nebraska, the latter of which I remain terrified. But Hoke has put together a solid team that, while they don't play perfect, they play far more fundamentally sound than they have for the past three years. And when you've got fundamentals down, the rest falls into place.

Just don't get ahead of yourself.