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.

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