With a third of the season behind him, Brady Hoke has proven emphatically that he’s got Michigan football down pat! He’s said and done everything and more that was expected of him since taking over on January 12th, 2011 to impact the Michigan football program’s future in a positive way. Even the most critical followers of the Maize and Blue would have to agree.
Sure there are a few apparent issues that need to be addressed. And this Michigan team will only play tougher more complete competition as the Big Ten schedule moves on after Saturday – sorry Minnesota. It’s just overall, the Wolverine restoration project is well under way and the luster of Michigan football is being restored in spades.
Yet, before we can move on, I’d like to take a moment to evaluate where the Michigan 2011 football program is today and talk a bit about what Michigan followers can expect the rest of the year.
So in a most massively redundant and cliché fashion, I offer up now my 1st-3rd season analysis of Brady Hoke’s University of Michigan football team.
Just Win Baby!
4 and 0, can’t do much better than that now can you? The record speaks for itself. Granted though, the record in 2011 is pretty much the exact same as it was in 2010 and in 2009 under former coach Rich Rodriguez. Matter o’ fact, Michigan will need to win on Saturday against Minnesota to equal the 5-0 start of the previous two seasons. I expect they will, but more on future games later.
As for the current undefeated streak, I was cautiously optimistic about two months ago before the first game was played.
I figured that if things went well and if the players picked-up their new systems and schemes (offensive/defensive) then Michigan would have a solid year. I expected them to win-out their non-conference schedule, yet I was concerned about San Diego State, being a potential “revenge” game and all for the Aztecs.
Notre Dame didn’t really bother or worry me. The Irish – up until the day they played Under the Lights – really didn’t do much to garner any fear-factor in my book. And as expected, Michigan won Under the Lights.
Truth be told, I didn’t foresee the game playing out exactly like it did, but strictly in a conversation about wins and losses, it was a win. And again, that’s all that counts. Right?
Ultimately the San Diego State game was a big non-factor. Michigan kinda’ dominated from start to finish in a most business like fashion. When the final seconds ticked off the clock last Saturday, Michigan had another 4-0 start in the record books with Big Ten play looming ahead.
Offense is as Offense does!
One of the great expectations of the Michigan program when Brady Hoke was selected as the 19th head football coach was the anticipated return to the “Michigan” way of doing things…on and off the field.
That “Michigan” way also pertained almost exclusively to the style of play the football team would utilize during games. That style of play on offense was a perceived return to the pro-style scheme.
And that return to the pro-style scheme seems to have lasted about a half into the 2011 season before Denard was directed to get loose on the field circa 2010.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges should be commended though for his ability to cater his style of play calling to the personnel currently running the plays on game day. And Al knows offensive too and he’s been associated with successful offensive programs all the way back to his days at Boise State in 1993.
Not everyone would show the flexibility Borges has so quickly into a new season at a new school with such high regard for nostalgia and tradition.
Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is as explosive running the ball this year as he ever was. In fact, over the last few games, it would appear Denard has even increased his workload on the ground.
In the game against San Diego State, Robinson carried the ball 21 times. That’s the same number of carries Aztec running back Ronnie Hillman — the 2nd leading rushing in the country prior to Saturday — got in the game.
But Denard is now not entirely alone. Michigan has utilized the (recently dubbed by me) combination of Saint-Smith to great effect. Fitzgerald Toussaint and Vincent Smith have emerged as the primary ball carriers for Brady Hoke and they as a tandem have been mostly effective. The duo has combined for 56 carries and four touchdowns. The next closest player is Michael Shaw with seven carries.
No Michigan receiver has caught more than one touchdown pass which either speaks to the balance on offense of a lack of production from the position. I leave that to your discretion to decide. Although Junior Hemingway and Jeremy Gallon are having productive years with 211 yards and 193 yards receiving respectively.
The primary tight end and team captain senior Kevin Koger has caught a touchdown pass too, so…
The offensive line has had there moments, but mainly the jury is out. They’ve held there own so far, but it will be interesting to see what happens when they go up against a dominate defensive line and they try to run consistently.
The “jury” is also still out on the Michigan kicking game as Brendan Gibbons has attempted only two field goals and has made only one for a 50% success rate.
In summary, the offense as a group is more of what it has been the last two seasons…explosive…at times. As long as Denard is under center, its good to know that the offensive play calling will at least cater to his expertise and comfort zone instead of trying to make Robinson into something that apparently he is not…a traditional pocket passer.
What ever works!
By far the biggest, most important improvement has come on the defensive side of the ball. Brady Hoke from day one has preached about building a sound defensive foundation and he and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are backing up those claims with real measurable results on the field.
The Wolverines currently rank 54th in the nation for yards allowed. Last season, Michigan finished the year ranked 110th in this same category out of 120 teams. I know it’s early, but the improvement is apparent as well.
Michigan as a group has created 13 total turnovers. Unfortunately they’ve also given 8 back for a +5 turnover margin. In 2010, Michigan finished with a -10 margin. So again, another positive improvement.
Greg Mattison’s aggressive NFL style play calling has linebackers and safeties blitzing to create pressure, which has at times left the secondary venerable to the big play down the field. But overall this style is proving effective and successful.
There are some names being made in the 2011 season as well.
Linebacker Kenny Demens and safeties Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon are leading the team with 88 combined tackles. Defensive tackle Mike Martin, defensive end Ryan Van Bergen and freshman linebacker Jake Ryan are playing solid football and are setting a foundation for continued success as a group.
One note of caution here if I may – and I’m no expert – but having the backfield players leading the team in tackles means either the Michigan opposition is throwing the ball down the field a lot or that the Michigan linemen are letting players get into the second level of the defense. I’m not exactly sure, so just saying.
Overall, if I had to describe the 2011 defensive unit, I would say they are more than anything, opportunistic and tenacious. They fly to the ball, tackle in groups and love getting the chance to pressure the quarterback.
What Lies Ahead?
I preference this last section by saying I project with the utmost of non-partisanship. I will only apply just a smidge of “benefit of doubt” as I rundown the Wolverines remaining schedule.
And with that said, I do fully expect Michigan to win the Little Brown Jug on Saturday. I have no reason to think that they won’t. I know this game is considered a “rivalry” but Minnesota has a lot on their minds right now and I just don’t think their performance on the field will match the levels put forth by the Wolverines in their 2011 Big Ten opener.
So if Michigan does exactly go to 5-0…when will they actually lose their first game?
Their next game would be their first night game on the road at Memorial Stadium and they’d be facing a potential pretty solid Northwestern team. Depending how the Wildcats game against Illinois goes on the road this week, Northwestern might be bringing a 3-1 record into their Big Ten home opener to face the Wolverines. And if they do, that would mean their last win was a big road win against a ranked, currently undefeated team. So that might change everything.
But no! Either way, Michigan gets a huge win on the legs of Denard Robinson and just enough plays on defense to escape with the victory, 6-0.
Now the 2nd biggest true rivalry game on the Michigan schedule each year…MSU! For no other reason than the Wolverines being due a victory over the Spartans, I uncomfortably give Brady Hoke’s team the win on the road to end the losing streak. 7-0. Truth be told though, as much as it pains me to say this, Michigan might actually lose this game. I know! I know! But they might. And if they did, the Wolverines would still have a 6-1 record…not bad at all.
And then it’s home for Purdue and their currently 10th ranked rushing attack at 259 yards a game. Not to mention in their last game the Boilermakers dropped 59 points on some team whose name I don’t recall, but you get my point. Purdue might come into Ann Arbor as a decent to strong team. And if they do, it would be close. Yet, in a shootout, Michigan wins again. 8-0.
By now the Wolverines would have to be ranked in the top 10 in the nation in most polls. And the level of expectations around the country would be booming! The sky would be the limit and if in fact Michigan is rolling to at worst a 1 loss season, who’s to think they can’t continue the success?
At this point there would be 8 games played and Michigan would be getting ready to play one of their toughest four game stretches in many years with having to go on the road to Iowa and Illinois, then home for Nebraska and Ohio State.
And I stop right there. The rest of the season is on you.
Heck, I know it might seem like I know, but I really don’t know. I think I might know, but I really don’t have any idea. All we can do as fans is hope that the Brady Hoke and his Michigan football team is preparing to play the best each day. And without a doubt, it appears they are.
Michigan may not win as many games as I now believe they will and if they don’t it really won’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Wins are nice but wins alone will not tell the whole story. Building a program takes time and patience. Sure we’d like it all now, and might actually get it all now, but if we don’t that’s ok.
I’ve seen plenty enough to know things are on the right path and Michigan will be “Michigan” again…sooner then later.