Michigan offering reasons to believe

October, 5, 2011
10/05/11
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There's a certain 1980s power ballad that's quite popular whenever it is blared on the loudspeakers at Michigan Stadium. Particularly the line about a city boy, born and raised in south Detroit.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke is singing a similar but slightly different tune: "Don't Start Believin'."

Hoke has consistently downplayed just about every aspect of his team's 5-0 start. When the two major polls placed the Wolverines among the top 12 in the country this week, Hoke did everything but lead an "Over-rated!" cheer.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Tim Fuller/US PresswireBrady Hoke is telling anyone who will listen that the Wolverines have not arrived yet.
"I think we're a long way from being a Michigan football team," Hoke said Tuesday. When asked if he saw any signs on the field to believe his team could eventually become one of the nation's best this year, he answered simply: "No."

That attitude has filtered down to the players.

"The thing that I like about our team the most is that none of us believe we should be ranked what we’re ranked," center David Molk said. "We don’t like it. We don’t want anything to do with it. As a group, we believe we’ll downplay ourselves and look at our weaknesses before we look at our strengths."

It's a smart move on Hoke's part to keep expectations low. In each of the past two years, Michigan got off to solid starts in September and worked its way into the national rankings. Those teams, however, quickly fell back to earth in Big Ten play under Rich Rodriguez. This year's squad has most of the same players and many of the same flaws. And these Wolverines have played each of their first five games at home, with their first road trip of the season finally coming this week at Northwestern.

But Hoke and his players can soft-pedal the situation all they like. Truth is, there are actually reasons to start believing in Michigan.

Our preseason view of the Wolverines was that they could be a little better on defense while perhaps taking a step back offensively as Denard Robinson adjusted to a new system. The stats show a significant improvement on defense, while the offense remains one of the most potent in the Big Ten.

It's almost shocking to see Michigan tied for second nationally in points allowed per game (10.2) after the way this defense played the past few seasons. First-year coordinator Greg Mattison's switch to a 4-3 scheme has helped maximize the team's talents, and players like Craig Roh, Kenny Demens and Jordan Kovacs are playing some of the best football of their careers. Through five games last year, Michigan allowed 127 points and 433.6 yards per game. Through the same span this season, it has yielded just 51 points and 316 yards per game.

What's even more encouraging is how the defense usually gets better throughout the course of a game. Wolverines opponents have scored only seven points in the fourth quarter all year long, a sign that Mattison and the players are making good adjustments. The defense is also stiffening at big moments, as opponents have scored only seven times in 14 red zone opportunities.

This is hardly a shutdown defense. But Michigan did pitch its first shutout since 2007 last week against Minnesota, and Mattison's crew has had a knack for coming up with turnovers, grabbing an average of three takeaways per game. Mattison has kept players fresh by rotating in lots of bodies up front, and this defense is playing with obvious confidence, if not always perfect technique. It's certainly doing enough to keep the Wolverines in every game they play, especially given how the offense is performing.

Robinson & Co. may be playing in a new system, but things don't look all that different statistically and stylistically. Michigan is averaging 37.2 points per game, only slightly down from last year's production through the first five games (41.4 ppg) and ahead of the 2010 full-season average of 32.8 points a contest. Robinson ran for more than 1,700 yards a year ago; this year, he's on pace for 1,565 yards.

Shoelace's running numbers dipped during Big Ten action last year, as the toll of taking so many hits got to him. The Wolverines have committed to using more people than just their quarterback to run the ball this year, and Fitzgerald Toussaint and Vincent Smith are each averaging at least 6.5 yards per carry. While Robinson has looked shaky as a passer at times this season, offensive coordinator Al Borges pledged to design more short and intermediate throws to help his confidence. Using that plan last week, Robinson completed 15 of 19 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions against Minnesota.

Maybe the best reason to believe, though, is the schedule. While Michigan finally hits the road this week and will play a tough rivalry game the following Saturday at Michigan State, it caught a big break by not drawing Wisconsin as a cross-division opponent. Everyone else in the Big Ten looks beatable, and Michigan's final two games at home against Nebraska and Ohio State don't appear nearly as daunting as they did back in the preseason. With all the Buckeyes' current problems, the Wolverines could finally snap their seven-game losing streak in their most important rivalry.

Is this the nation's 12th-best team right now? Probably not. But ...

"I believe we have the potential to be [ranked that high]," defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said. "I don't think we've played enough quality opponents, and I don't think we've played to the level we need to have earned that honor. But we can get there."

The journey is really only beginning. Maybe, though, it's time to start believing.

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