Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Year of the Hoke: Reviewing the 2011 Season

As we approach the 2012 season, it’s important (or, at least, it should be) to glance over what went down last year, and where the program is going forward.

Of course, there’s more to 2011 than simply Michigan getting to 11 wins that included a BCS bowl victory. There was substantial improvement on defense, defeating an old rival, meeting expectations, and even exceeding them. But was Michigan’s 2011 season an unmitigated success? Let’s take a look.

Biggest Hits

Beating Ohio State

If there was one accomplishment, one development, that absolutely cannot be overlooked, it is Brady Hoke’s first win over Ohio State as Michigan’s head coach. He had seen victories over the Buckeyes during his tenure as a Michigan assistant under Lloyd Carr—as the defensive line coach from 1995-2002, until he was offered a head coaching gig at his alma mater, Ball State—but a win as the head coach of the Wolverines in his inaugural season must have been infinitely more satisfying.

“It would be the ultimate validation of his stewardship and confirmation of his methods,” wrote Ohio State blogger Ramzy Nasrallah the week before the Michigan-Ohio State game. Michigan would enter the contest with the reminder that they had not beaten the Buckeyes in nearly 3,000 days. Through the efforts of Brady Hoke, his staff, the team captains, and all the players who pulled together, the losing streak was snapped. For once, the Michigan faithful could finally breathe easy as they neared the end of the year.

Beginning with the fateful victory over Ohio State in 1969, when the new era of Michigan football was ushered in under Bo Schembechler, every Michigan coach since then (Schembechler, Gary Moeller, Lloyd Carr) had won their initial game against Ohio State—save one: Rich Rodriguez. Ever the “Michigan Man,” Brady Hoke restored that tradition to its rightful place.

Starting Strong

On September 1, 2008, Rich Rodriguez received the first piece of evidence that his spread offense probably wasn’t the best fit for Michigan when the Utah Utes stuffed any attempt the Wolverines made to get yards. The once-proud Wolverines lost the game 25-23, ensuring that the first game of the Rich Rodriguez Era was a disappointment—the first of many to come. “Don’t leave the Rodriguez bandwagon early,” wrote Dan Feldman of the Michigan Daily after the game. Rodriguez’s Wolverines would go on to win only three games in what became the absolute worst season in Michigan football history.

Brady Hoke’s first game against Western Michigan on September 3, 2011 was the first, necessary step into restoring Michigan’s reputation. The Wolverines defeated the Broncos 34-10, although the game was cut short in the third quarter because of thunderstorms. Nevertheless, Michigan’s ability to take control of a game they had every right to win proved that Hoke and his staff knew their stuff and knew how to coach it. For the first time since Lloyd Carr, it finally seemed like Michigan was going to meet some expectations.

The next game against Notre Dame was another huge test, and the Wolverines pulled out that one in a last-second thriller, forcing the Irish to start their season at 0-2. Though I personally didn’t expect Hoke to walk away from that contest victorious, it was definitely a pleasant surprise and another reminder that Hoke was serious about big, important games.

With the Wolverines coached competently on defense (finally!), Michigan was able to start 6-0 against several opponents that, with less competent teaching, they may have easily lost to, such as Hoke’s old team in San Diego State or Pat Fitzgerald’s ever-unpredictable Wildcats of Northwestern. Michigan also made a statement in the Big Ten by winning its conference opener against Minnesota 58-0. Rather than having to escape every game—which was how Rodriguez’s teams were able to start undefeated in 2009 and 2010, only to be crushed and humiliated by legitimate teams in the later part of the schedule—the Wolverines under Hoke were actually able to force some three and outs, resulting in decisive wins.

Finishing Strong

One of the biggest reasons why Rich Rodriguez’s seasons became “disappointments” was because the way they ended. In 2009 and 2010, the Wolverines won a combined four games in October and November for both years. This put added pressure on the players (and the seniors) to beat Ohio State, and they were never able to do it. When January came around, the winters were a lot colder, and Rodriguez’s seat was a lot hotter.

While in 2011 Michigan put up three signature victories in October (dropping only Michigan State), it was their run in November that truly allowed the Wolverines to make a visible difference. A strong defensive stand against Illinois, a 45-17 beatdown of a favored Nebraska, and finally snapping the losing skid against Ohio State was a November Rodriguez’s players never saw.

It quickly became clear that Hoke and Mattison got fundamental on defense, while Al Borges focused more and more on how to make a spread/pro-style hybrid offense. The competency of the coaches carried over to the players and showed a clear distinction against Rodriguez’s staff, where losing in November was not only dreaded, it eventually became expected. Hoke’s ability to break the tradition of losing during November stretches that had gripped Michigan’s football program for the past three years helped solidify him as Michigan’s man.

Vast Improvement on Defense

There was perhaps no question more asked of the Michigan football program going into the 2011 season than “What about that defense?”

Throughout all of 2009 and 2010, in the waning months as the Rodriguez era slowly and steadily reached its end, there seemed to rage an eternal debate about the nature of Michigan’s increasingly porous defense and what could be done to fix it.

The initial reaction was that it was the players: lack of talent because of heavy attrition, injuries, and the inability of a few recruits to gain admission to the university. (The best example of the third is Demar Dorsey, a highly-rated cornerback whom Rodriguez and company banked a great deal of their hope on, only to discover that his poor grades made the admission department deny him admission. Yet another reason why Rodriguez’s philosophy clashed with Michigan’s standards.)

When season after season passed, the debate eventually shifted to the coaches, although some still held firm to the notion that Rodriguez was doing everything he could. The defense was so bad in 2010 that, finally, fans started to question the direction Rodriguez was taking the program, after the questionable hire of Greg Robinson. (Most of Rodriguez’s most ardent supporters, to this day, believe that Greg Robinson is chiefly, if not solely, to blame for the defensive struggles.)

The hiring of Brady Hoke not only brought a defensive-minded head coach, but also a surprisingly elite hire in Greg Mattison, former defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. Together they taught and re-taught the same Michigan players fundamentals, technique, and preached toughness, and the defense went from being 110th in the country to 14th. That ended the debate. It was always coaching.

Going to the Sugar Bowl

This one was really unexpected. It was a fitting end to a great regular season. I don’t think there was a single Michigan fan out there who anticipated that the Wolverines would get to 10 wins and a BCS bowl. Maybe eventually, but in year one?

Mike Martin said in a video that one of the reasons why he committed to Michigan was because he expected to go to BCS bowls every year. Obviously, the last time Michigan played in a BCS bowl was against USC in the Rose Bowl in January 2007. After Lloyd Carr retired, Michigan endured something of a bowl drought for two years under Rich Rodriguez. In 2010 they were finally bowl eligible but got humiliated 52-14 by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.

Coming from that drought makes the BCS bowl berth after the 2011 season all the more surprising and all the more impressive. For seniors like Mike Martin, who when they committed to Michigan had hoped to be there every year, it was good of them to finally get there. Their effort brought Michigan back to national relevance.

Biggest Misses

Losing to Michigan State

The most notable and palpable blemish on Hoke’s record so far has been the loss to in-state rival, Michigan State. Michigan—which previously dominated the rivalry for six straight years, winning every contest from 2002 to 2007, and before that was victorious for 14 games over 20 years—has now been on the losing side of the rivalry, falling to the Spartans four straight years in a row.

Granted, it’s nowhere nears as bad as the Spartans’ record in the rivalry, but this is something that Michigan is not used to. Lloyd Carr was known for almost never losing a game to the Spartans, even when he was at his most complacent. It wasn’t until Rodriguez arrived that the rivalry quickly turned and got worse every year. When Brady Hoke arrived, that was supposed to change. It didn’t.

This isn’t to say that Hoke hasn’t made necessary steps in the rivalry. Locking down nine of the top ten players in the state of Michigan for 2012 certainly helped, as well as landing five-star quarterback Shane Morris for the class of 2013, a development which sent Spartan fans into a harried frenzy.

But domination needed to happen on the field.

Michigan’s game against Michigan State in Spartan was an embarrassment on all levels. Not only did both teams look ridiculous with hideous uniforms, but Michigan State somehow won despite giving up over 100 yards in penalties. It was surprising to see Michigan lose after all the strides they’d made in discipline, and they were clearly more disciplined than the Spartans, but they just couldn’t produce.

Performance in the Sugar Bowl

Though some of this can be chalked up to pre-game injuries, Michigan’s offense in the Sugar Bowl didn’t exactly play their best game. It’s hard to say anything bad or good about Michigan in the Sugar Bowl because, well, they won. They won ugly. So does how they won matter?

In terms of this review, yes. With the high of winning the Sugar Bowl now gone because enough time has passed, it’s fair to say that Michigan’s performance in the game was somewhat of an embarrassment. After all the talk that Michigan and Virginia Tech didn’t deserve to be in the game in the first place, for Michigan to come in and have such inept offensive performance (the defense, while keeping Michigan in the game, although simultaneously gave up huge yards on third down, keeping VT in the game) that eeked out a close win in overtime was more of a negative than a positive. While Michigan fans and players were happy that they had fought hard to get the win, it also gave Michigan’s detractors more fuel because, let’s face it, that game was not fun to watch.

You won’t find too many Michigan bloggers or fans saying anything about the Sugar Bowl other than “a win is a win,” but if Hoke’s Wolverines had a moment when things could have and should have gone better, this was arguably it.

The Way Forward in 2012

To cite any expectations for the coming season with the phrase “Obviously this needs to happen” would be both pedantic and premature. There are numerous reasons why the Wolverines will be able to replicate a lot of their success from 2011 into 2012: the fact that they return playmakers like Denard Robinson, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Roy Roundtree, Jeremy Gallon, behind a stout offensive line that features seasoned veterans like Taylor Lewan and Patrick Omameh, as well as defensive standouts like Jordan Kovacs, Kenny Demens, Craig Roh, Jake Ryan, and Blake Countess is all very encouraging.

The primary concerns are on the lines themselves. This is understandable, since huge question marks were left when David Molk, Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen, and Kevin Koger (a tight end) all graduated. The question apparently is if the 2012 seniors can fill those shoes. (I’d personally be more worried about the lines if Hoke himself wasn’t a defensive-line coach at heart.)

The schedule is considerably less forgiving. Still, Brady Hoke must have the game against Michigan State circled in red. It is played at home, and with the Spartans losing almost all of their offensive weapons (quarterback Kirk Cousins, receiver B.J. Cunningham, running back Edwin Baker, receiver Keshawn Martin, and receiver/tight end Keith Nichol are all gone), the Wolverines should have a distinct advantage. (I should note that Michigan State’s defense returns almost all of its starters and will arguably be the best in the Big Ten.)

I won’t get too much into previewing the 2012 season just yet, but suffice it to say that several teams will be gunning for Michigan (Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Urban Meyer-led Ohio State). The Wolverines will certainly have their hands full.

You’d think that with such daunting expectations Brady Hoke would be worried, but he isn’t. If anything, he feels the 2011 was a failure because they didn’t win the Big Ten championship.

Imagine that, all the success Michigan had, and somehow they still failed. That driving hunger, that eternal desire of always wanting more is something Michigan has lacked for a long time, and it shows that Hoke is the perfect guy for the job. He can handle it. Michigan will be just fine.