By Andy Andersen
In the sport where games are played by college kids using an oval laced ball filled with gas, before large partisan crowds in somewhat ovate stadiums, Michigan has done better than the rest over time. Better than all the rest. Over all the time that college football has been played.
As satisfying as that fact is, it does not help them win one more game. Any game. They have to fight for each win, tradition or no tradition. They have to do the preparation and work. And according to Coach Hoke, they have to have the teamwork. He says this team has it.
Saturday, the slightly new coaching regime of Brady Hoke and Company gave it another try, and again contributed to the University’s total win column and lore by dispatching the Aztecs of San Diego State University in Michigan Stadium before some 110,000 fans.
Despite an otherwise workman like performance, the Wolverines did their level best to keep the game close by contributing four turnovers. Two fumbles and two interceptions. Yet the final score was 28 to 7, largely because of the largess of the Aztecs who returned three of the Wolverine’s four favors by fumbling.
The Wolverines seem to have each other’s back. Coach Hoke thinks that this might be the most important ingredient of all. The ability of this defense to deal with sudden change, the four turnovers, appears to be a sign of that
The Wolverines played perhaps their best football of the season for 2 and one half quarters. At the end of the half it was 21 to zip. In the third quarter mistakes and sloppy football prevailed, with the Aztecs closing the gap to 21-7 and visions of a late SDSU comeback perhaps replaced visions of sugar plums in Wolverine fan’s heads. Coach Hoke was understandably not pleased with the turn overs and “sloppy” play. Nor were the fans.
On the Wolverines’ flat third quarter … “We need to talk about it. It’s what happened out there and that’s what’s keeping us from being the kind of football team we need to be. We turned the ball over, and we couldn’t get a first down. The defense went out and did some really good things and kept us in the ballgame. We were minus one in turnover margin, which is the first time we’ve lost it. We turned the ball over four times; we got three turnovers from a defensive perspective. But really I wasn’t happy with how we played there in the second half.”
The defense came to play except for part of the third quarter, handling many short yardage/field situations. Craig Roh had two TFLs. Kenny Demens and T. Gordon had 7 tackles, and Demens forced a fumble. T. Gordon recovered a fumble. Jake Ryan had 5 tackles, one TFL, and two fumble recoveries.
The best defensive play was made by Ryan Van Bergen at about the ten minute mark of the third quarter. Ryan caught up with Aztec RB Hillman from behind while he was headed for six on a breakaway, whacking the ball away. This play was a probable game saver. Ryan said he just did what he was taught to do when catching a running back. Said chasing Denard has helped him with angles. Jake Ryan recovered. Except for that stretch in the third quarter, and some pass defense, the defense turned in a fine performance.
Before the game it was the worry that Michigan had not scored in the first quarter. Two TDs in the first and one in the second and a 21 point half time lead dispelled that concern only to have it replaced by a worry that they can’t put games away, or play a full sixty minutes.
The Wolverines now nurse 4 wins and 0 losses on the season, much to the delight of optimists and much to the concern of pessimists. After all, say the pessimists, we were 4 and 0 the last couple of years but couldn’t produce wins in the B1G.
The speculation regarding whether or not this edition of the Wolverines can win in the B1G will soon end, as we are about to get the answers. Like it or not or ready or not, the exhibition season is now officially closed, and the Big Ten hunt is poised to start.
Many hoped that by now the running back issue would be solved by a single individual, instead of a committee, and that the power game would prove more productive more than it seems now. It was also hoped the passing game would be of sufficient quality to grease Denard’s running game against the better defenses. All agree it is at the same time good and bad that Denard is still the best ground gainer on the team.
There is some help. Vincent Smith is proving productive, and made huge contributions to the win Saturday, despite a fumble. Nine-carries for 47-yards and a TD does not tell the entire story. His big plays were timely. A fine blocker, he plays bigger, tougher football than his frame would suggest possible. His three receptions for 44-yards with a long of 32-yards made him the Wolverines leading receiver, as well as a prime rushing contributor to this win. Fitz Toussaint was the day’s leading rusher with 13 lugs for 70-yards. Not bad, but how much of the load is actually off Denard? Big back Stephen Hopkins had the other fumble, and is not helping his playing time by laying it on the ground.
As most Wolverine fans know, Brady Hoke was the Aztec Head Football Coach, preceding this year’s SDSU Coach Rocky Long. Most of the players on their team were recruited by Hoke.
SDSU Coach Rocky Long commented on his conversation with Coach Hoke after the game … “Brady and I are good friends. I just wished him good luck the rest of the way. Brady will win a national championship here. I don’t know how soon it will be, but he’ll win a national championship.”
Obviously it was SDSU’s opportunity to slay the Wolverine dragon before a large crowd and TV audience but it was not to be.
Both Brady, and Ryan Van Bergen, commenting at the post-game press conference, and those commenting before that conference, discount any special significance to this game because of that issue. Brady has regularly maintained that the game was not between coaches but between players. Coach Hoke obviously has great respect for his former players and has showed it in all his comments, before and since the game.
There is much to respect in the Aztec’s offense. QB Ryan Lindley has prolific passing yardage and is hyped as having a future in the pros. TB Ronnie Hillman is an effective back. Saturday he managed 112-yards for a 109-yard net in this game on 21 carries. He had a long of 30-yards. This is not remarkable production and is a testament to Michigan’s improving defense.
QB Lindley was 23 of 48 for 253 yards, but no TDs, and was sacked only once. The damage would have been far greater if he had not faced unsettling pressure, and at times some decent coverage. Hearing footsteps contributed to many incomplete passes.
His Michigan counterpart, Denard Robinson had 24 carries for 200 net yards, and three TDs with a long of 53-yards. This is nothing but outstanding. When the team needed him Denard stepped up literally. His biggest contributions were with his feet. He had an inconsistent day with his arm, but still managing to complete 8 of 17 for 93-yards. He is charged with two interceptions.
Coach Hoke: “I think there are some predetermined things. I will give Rocky (Long) a lot of credit because he gives you a lot of different looks — a little bit of disguise there that’s a little harder on our quarterback. Again, your feet, we talked about you have to settle your feet and really take the first option to the second option. I do believe one time the route wasn’t exactly what we needed.”
The Wolverines began the scoring at about the 10 minute mark of the first quarter. Six plays and 61 yards led to six. All EPs were converted. M 7-SDSU 0. Robinson ran for 19-yards and Vincent Smith for 32.
A fumble forced by Demens was recovered by T. Gordon at the Michigan 47. Official review upheld. Denard engineered a 3-ply, 61-yard drive. M 14-SDSU 7. So much for the slow starts worry Denard used an option keeper to jet 53-yards.
In the second quarter, the Wolverines manufactured a 12-play, 81-yard scoring drive converting fourth down and three on a short Denard run after a timeout. Denard scored from the one. F. Toussaint runs and a Hemingway catch did the damage along the way. At the half, it was M-21, SDSU.
The offense and defense both sputtered in the third, and a fumble led to an Aztec TD after a six play 38-yard drive was culminated by a pretty Lindley 16-yard pass. M-21, SDSU 7.
It took M until less than the 8 minute mark to produce the capper in the form of a tough Vincent Smith 7-yard TD run. Got a good look at this one from the edge of the North end zone. He started right and cut up the middle for 6, shedding lots of contact. Robinson and Toussaint contributed nice runs in this series. Final M 28, SDSU 7.
So here we are at the start of another B1G campaign. This will be their first game in the newly established Legends Division.
These Wolverines are still a work in progress. Much has been accomplished yet they have much to do. Maybe there will be a successful long field goal or two in their future. Gibbons missed the only attempt. KO coverage seemed improved. Punter Will Hagerup returns from the doghouse to punt again. True Freshman Matt Wile has done a good job, but Hagerup will provide very stiff competition for the job.
Those pesky rodents, the Minnesota Gophers will gnaw and claw next Saturday, but the Wolverines should be able to reply in kind, and hopefully then some. The Jug is again at stake.