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.

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