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.

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