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.