Season recap: Michigan

December, 7, 2011

Record: 10-2 (6-2 Big Ten)

It's hard to imagine the Brady Hoke era getting off to any better start than it did.

Mired in mediocrity -- at best -- during Rich Rodriguez's three years, the Wolverines made one of the biggest leaps in the country this year, getting to double-digit wins and back to a BCS game for the first time since the 2006 season. And it wasn't just that Michigan won more games or made it to the Allstate Sugar Bowl, because you could argue the home-friendly schedule helped and the at-large BCS bid should have gone elsewhere. It was how Hoke did it.

Along with defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, Hoke taught these Wolverines to actually play some defense. Michigan ranked 110th in total defense and 108th in points allowed in 2010. Using mostly the same players, the defense ranks 18th and seventh, respectively, in those categories this season.

That stunning defensive improvement came without reeling in the explosive offense Rodriguez had built. Though Denard Robinson had his ups and downs while adjusting to new offensive coordinator Al Borges' style, he finished the year strong and still had more than 1,100 yards rushing. Borges eased the burden on Robinson by finding another weapon in running back Fitz Toussaint, who went over 1,000 yards rushing himself.

Eight of Michigan's victories came by double digits, and the other two were instant classics against Notre Dame and Ohio State. Hoke fulfilled a promise by beating the team he calls "Ohio," snapping a seven-game losing streak to the Wolverines' most bitter rival. That was the icing on a near-perfect regular season, and a helping of Sugar awaits in the new year.

Offensive MVP: Denard Robinson. "Shoelace" struggled mightily with his passing at times this year, and he split reps at quarterback in many games with Devin Gardner. Fans were calling for Gardner to take over full time until the end of the season, when Robinson bounced back with terrific performances in the final two games. No one in the country had a better pair of games than he turned in against Notre Dame (446 total yards, five touchdowns) and Ohio State (337 and five). But the real story of the season was that Robinson didn't have to do it all alone.

Defensive MVP: Defensive tackle Mike Martin. In a fortunate convergence, Hoke and Mattison -- two defensive line coaches at heart -- inherited a defense that was strongest up front. The Wolverines proved tough to run against, especially in short-yardage situations, and Martin was a main reason for that. His numbers (54 tackles, 5.5 for loss) don't tell the full story of how much he meant to the defense, on and off the field. Defensive end Ryan Van Bergen and cornerback J.T. Floyd were among many others who flourished under the new staff's tutelage.

Turning point: Following a 24-16 loss at Iowa on Nov. 5 in which Michigan came up empty on four cracks near the goal line at the end, the Wolverines could have gone into another November tailspin. Instead, they finished with a bang, beating Illinois by 17 on the road, blowing the doors off Nebraska in a 45-17 win at home and then finally getting past Ohio State in a 40-34 shootout. That put the team in position for an at-large BCS bid.

What's next: The Big Easy could turn into Big House South as Michigan heads to the French Quarter to take on Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Despite ranking behind the Hokes, the Wolverines likely will be favored against a team that played a very soft schedule. Hoke must find replacements for Martin, Van Bergen and Rimington Trophy finalist David Molk, but he's got Robinson for another year and some blue-chip talent on the way in recruiting.



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