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.

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