- Chantel Jennings, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- This is Michigan.
Where it seems an acceptable explanation for why a player might be a good pass rusher or wide receiver is simply because he is a “Michigan man.”
Where coach Brady Hoke praises his team for its resiliency after a 24-21 victory over UConn. It’s where a team -- ranked No. 15 in the nation -- needed resiliency to put away a team that lost to Towson in Week 1.
It’s where the current team is cloaked in the history of the previous 133 teams. It’s where the quarterback, once shrouded in Heisman hype, is given the No. 98 to honor a 1940 Heisman winner but then ends up turning the ball over eight times the first three games he wears that uniform.
That is Michigan? Really?
“We all are trying to figure out where we’re at as a team,” Hoke said after his team left the field the second week in a row without really being able to celebrate the victory.
It might just be semantics, but “where they are” is not quite “who they are.” It’s two different statements. The latter seems to be the bigger question the Wolverines face right now. They’re staring the Big Ten schedule in the face -- with a bye week to help their bruised bodies and egos -- but they still aren’t sure who they are.
It’s certainly not Michigan to admit that it doesn’t have an identity. Especially this close to the conference schedule.
But some time after Under the Lights and during the Akron Hangover and the East Hartford Horror, Michigan was supposed to look like a complete team. And it hasn’t.
Michigan, right now, is Jekyll and Hyde -- a team making highlight reel plays one down and making bad teams look dominant the next.
It has succeeded in making wins embarrassing -- something few former Michigan players would’ve ever thought possible.
If there is a silver lining it’s that they know what they want to be. And at their best, that’s what they are.
But the downfall comes in the distance between how good their good is and how bad their bad is, and that fact that it should never be this hard to find their good against subpar teams.
Playing down to the level of competition is a trait of the decent, of the mediocre.
Not of Michigan.
Michigan knows it wants to be a team that pounds the ball down defenses’ throats. And against UConn, the run game showed some life. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.
Want to know who did better?
Michigan wants to be a good passing team with a pocket presence and a quarterback who makes solid decisions. But Gardner threw for 97 yards and was 11-of-23 with two interceptions and no passing touchdowns.
Take a guess (or two) at who did better.
Towson’s Peter Athens threw for 192 yards and one touchdown with just one interception and finished the day 13-of-20. Maryland’s Brown finished his day against UConn with 277 passing yards and one touchdown as well as just one interception and a 15-of-28 performance.
Michigan wants to be great -- or at least better than its equivalents at Towson and Maryland.
It wants a stout defense and at times against UConn, it looked that way. But it also gave up big plays -- a rush of 16 yards, passes of 18, 19 and 26 yards. They’re not deal breakers by any means. But a Michigan defense shouldn’t give those up to UConn offense.
On Saturday, Michigan needed its defense to come up big and it did. The defense coming up big isn’t the problem, it’s the fact -- once again -- that Michigan needed it to.
After spotting UConn a 21-7 lead, the Wolverines needed to claw their way back. And late in the fourth quarter, they were finally hitting their stride.
Linebacker Desmond Morgan came up with a huge one-handed interception in the fourth quarter while the Wolverines were down seven.
“That was pretty spectacular,” Gardner said of the play. “That’s going to be replayed a long time in Michigan history.”
And it will. It was full of athleticism and perfect timing. Morgan should be proud of that play and Michigan needed it. On its own, that play was beautiful.
But the surroundings of that play will spoil it for those who remember.
Because the greatest plays in Michigan football history, the ones that are replayed for a long time, aren’t supposed to come against UConn.
Charles Woodson’s famous interception was against Michigan State. Desmond Howard’s pose came in the Ohio State game and “The Catch” came against Notre Dame. Braylon Edwards' famous grab was in a Michigan State game in triple OT.
That’s when great Michigan men are made. Not in East Hartford, Conn. Not against Akron. Not when so many holes are evident.
At some point, the Wolverines will need to look complete. At some point, they need to find an identity. At some point, they need to be this “Michigan” that is preached about if they want to be relevant.
And Hoke believes they can get there, he believes they can be who they want to be.
“I know our team, we know our team,” he said. “They realize the things that they need to do better and we’ve got to give them the tools to do those things better, that’s our job and we’ll do that.”
That, apparently, is Michigan. At least for right now.