NCF Nation: Colleges

3-point stance: Dressed for success

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
1. In 1997, Under Armour outfitted its first college football team, Georgia Tech, which opened the season at Notre Dame. Under Armour made $110,000 in sales that year, which is why its founder, Kevin Plank, spent the night before the game in the Yellow Jacket locker room -- he couldn’t afford a hotel. On Tuesday, Plank and Notre Dame announced a 10-year deal, worth a reported $90 million, for Under Armour to outfit all Fighting Irish teams. That’s the quintessential American success story.

2. A longtime reader emailed me to complain about the price of the $2,000-and-up premium tickets for the College Football Playoff final next year. He worried that the grab for cash will prevent the father-and-son bonding that takes place on fall Saturdays at campuses across America. I think that ship sailed some time ago. Iron Bowl tickets went for $300 each on StubHub last November. Face value for Texas-Oklahoma last season: $110.

3. Manny Diaz, looking for a chance to coach, and maybe redeem his reputation after the flame-out as Texas defensive coordinator, has been hired for the same gig at Louisiana Tech, where Skip Holtz landed last year, looking for a chance to coach, and maybe redeem his rep after South Florida, etc, etc. Ruston might be the place: After Tony Franklin fizzled as Auburn offensive coordinator, he spent three seasons in the same job with the Bulldogs. Franklin left a year ago with Sonny Dykes for the Cal Bears, back among the big boys.
It was a little too much like last season: Minnesota leading late in the Texas Bowl. Plenty of hope. Critical breakdowns. And an eventual loss. The only difference this year was the opponent -- Syracuse.

The Gophers led 17-14 with just more than two minutes remaining in the game, after having clawed back from a 14-3 fourth-quarter deficit. But a 70-yard punt return from Brisly Estime set the Orange up for a touchdown and a four-point lead with just more than a minute remaining.

Minnesota wasn’t able to respond, and like its previous 20 games under Jerry Kill when the Gophers trailed at halftime, Minnesota lost. Syracuse walked away with the win, 21-17.

It was over when: Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner’s Hail Mary fell incomplete out of bounds at the 1-yard line. It was just the second game this season that the redshirt freshman had attempted at least 20 passes, and his final two heaves toward the end zone both looked as though they might be good. But on the final play, Syracuse dropped most of its defense deep, ready for the prayer of a pass, and Minnesota just didn’t have enough luck left to pull off the win.

Game ball goes to: Syracuse QB Terrel Hunt. The sophomore put together one of his most impressive games this season, accounting for 262 yards (188 passing, 74 rushing) and two of the Orange’s three touchdowns. The Minnesota defense just couldn’t really find much of an answer to his dual-threat capabilities, and he looked like an even better version of the QB who led Syracuse impressively through November.

Stat of the game: 13 consecutive scoreless quarters or 195 minutes -- the streak of the Gophers being held out of the end zone. But against Syracuse early in the fourth quarter, Minnesota ended that drought, as Leidner first found Maxx Williams for a 20-yard TD and then connected with Drew Wolitarsky for a 55-yard score.

Back-and-forth affair: Syracuse's 7-3 halftime lead seemed solid. But when it took a two-score lead in the third quarter against a Minnesota offense that hadn't shown any signs of life, it seemed as though the game might as well be over. But the Gophers came back kicking only to eventually be kicked once more. It was a game worth watching until the end, because that's when most of the action really was worth watching.

What Syracuse learned: This offense could really develop in the next few seasons in the ACC. With two more years in this offense, Hunt could become quite the player. His arm and feet looked reliable, and with his athleticism, he seems like he isn’t close to his ceiling. On top of that, Syracuse’s top three receivers -- Estime, Ashton Broyld and Jarrod West -- will all return next year.

What Minnesota learned: The QB competition is (and should be) open at Minnesota. Philip Nelson has had the advantage with the more reliable arm, but Leidner stepped in and threw Minnesota’s first passing touchdowns in months. Both played against Syracuse, but the offense looked the best with Leidner, and that's what Kill chose to go with when the game was on the line.

Best moment of the game: Kill returning to the sideline for Minnesota. He came down during halftime and decided to stay for the second half. He hadn’t coached from the sideline since September and since he had taken a leave from coaching to focus on his health. But it was nice to see Kill enjoying himself on the sideline again.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Texas Bowl, click here.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Time and time again this season, Brady Hoke and his players have said “this is Michigan.”

They said that this team had the skill and potential to compete in the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeDevin Garnder
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner stood up to a pounding against Ohio State and threw four touchdown passes.
They said the fans and media didn’t see what they did, that they didn’t see the “Michigan” in this group because they weren’t in the practices and meeting rooms.

But the problem was, that was essentially where that mythical trait was kept -- behind closed doors.

That “Michigan” they spoke of was never on full display in games.

When it was, it was muddled in between the negative rushes and turnovers.

And it wasn’t seen or talked about then because there isn’t a consolation prize for coming within two downs of a win. The line is thick and clear. And when you play a game with a winner or a loser, you’re signing up for that kind of scrutiny. You’re signing up for the sounds of disappointment in a loss drowning out any sounds of positivity coming out of a team’s camp.

But on Saturday, in a 42-41 loss to No. 3 Ohio State -- for the first time this season -- Michigan football showed up. Michigan, in all its sayings and short-sleeved coaches and history, was on the field.

Michigan was actually a down away from a win, a two-point conversion away from taking down its biggest rival. But what makes this team a Michigan team in this game wasn’t that single fact.

It was everything around it. It was the 60 minutes of football. It was the players playing together. It was the fact that people will talk about this game and point to a freshman tight end picking up a clutch touchdown or another freshman from that kid’s rival high school sacking Braxton Miller. It was Taylor Lewan sitting in the postgame press conference and saying that he doesn’t regret passing up millions for the NFL, because he wanted to come back and play Michigan football.

“We’re Michigan, this is Michigan,” Lewan said. “Everyone wants to talk about how bad of a season we had. This is Michigan. There is really no other way to put it.”

The Michigan defense played solidly. Yes, it gave up nearly 400 rushing yards to Ohio State, but it did what it needed to do and came up with crucial stops and turnovers against a team that usually does whatever it wants.

This Michigan offense created a run game. An offensive line, just in its second start as a unit, produced 152 rushing yards -- 104 of which were from true freshmen who played like Michigan running backs should.

And Devin Gardner played like a Michigan quarterback. Yes he threw an interception on a gutsy call, but he led a Michigan team into a position in which Brady Hoke -- with the backing of his senior class -- could make a gutsy call.

Gardner has been battered and bruised, sacked from here to California and back this season, and yet the most hurt he has looked all year was sitting in the postgame press conference after this loss.

Forget the walking boot on his left foot. Forget the fact that there are ailments that will be kept behind closed doors. Forget the knee brace and whether or not he wears it.

His pain on Saturday was for his teammates and his seniors. The tears he choked back were not because he was hurt, they were because his team was.

That is a Michigan leader, leading a Michigan team.

And the Wolverines will have to live with the fact that they showed up too late to the party. They know that if they had put that product on the field from Day 1, things would be very different right now.

They’ve got one game left. And it’s not the game they want. Next Saturday, when Michigan State and Ohio State take the field for the Big Ten title game, Michigan will be in Ann Arbor.

The Wolverines will watch that Ohio State game tape and wonder where that “Michigan” was in games against Akron. And Connecticut. And Iowa. And Michigan State. And know that if it had been at those game maybe Michigan would be playing Ohio State again for a chance to make another gutsy call or run away with a win.

And they’ll respond. Or they won’t.

One thing is certain. “Michigan” would respond.

So, we’ll see if this team is such a thing.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- What a game.

The saying goes that records and statistics can go out the window when Michigan and Ohio State get together at the end of November. But coming into this matchup with No. 3 Ohio State on a roll and Michigan skidding faster and faster on a downward slope, it seemed the cliche wouldn’t hold true. However, The Game lived up to its history and the Buckeyes won 42-41 in the teams' 110th meeting.

It was over when: Ohio State safety Tyvis Powell picked off Devin Gardner at the goal line on the Wolverines’ two-point conversion with 32 seconds remaining. The completion could have given the Michigan the victory and stopped Ohio State's perfect season, but Powell’s play sealed it for the Buckeyes (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten).

Game ball goes to: The Ohio State ground game. The Buckeyes rushed for 395 yards, breaking a team record for rushing yards against Michigan of 312 yards, set in 1961. The Wolverines just didn’t have an answer for Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. Miller rushed for three touchdowns and 153 yards on 16 carries (9.6 yards per carry) and Hyde rushed for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown and 226 yards on 27 carries (8.4 yards per carry).

Honorable mention goes to Gardner, who, despite being on the wrong side of the scoreboard, put together one heck of a game. He led the Wolverines from being down two touchdowns to start the fourth quarter and an impressive two-minute drill at the end of the game that could have brought Michigan (7-5, 3-5) a stunning upset.

Stat of the game: 1,129 total yards. Numbers don't always tell the whole story, but between the Buckeyes and the Wolverines, there was plenty of offense in a game that will be worth rewatching for years to come. It was exciting, emotional and full of big plays and momentum shifts.

Unsung heroes of the game: The Ohio State offensive line. With a run game that amasses 395 yards, clearly some big guys are doing the work to make those holes for Hyde and Miller. Even without starting offensive guard Marcus Hall, who was ejected after a first-half brawl, the Buckeyes didn’t miss a beat and handled Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s blitzes well all game, only allowing two sacks.

What it means: The Big Ten will look at the first-half scuffle, and because of it Ohio State could go into next weekend’s Big Ten title game against Michigan State without Hall or backup H-back and return specialist Dontre Wilson. The Buckeyes were still effective in the running game and Pat Elflein stepped in well for Hall. For Michigan, despite the loss, the game gives the Wolverines a bit of a boost of momentum and energy. They finished the regular season losing five of their final seven games, but they definitely peaked (and peaked much higher than anyone anticipated) in their biggest game of the regular season. It’s definitely something to build on as the Wolverines get ready for a bowl game.

Michigan-Ohio State roundtable

November, 29, 2013
Thanksgiving has come and gone which means one thing for many homes in the Midwest: Michigan-Ohio State is here.

Michigan reporter Chantel Jennings and Ohio State reporter Austin Ward got together to discuss a few key topics surrounding The Game this season.

1. Ohio State enters as a heavy favorite. What would need to happen in order for the Wolverines to pull off the upset?

[+] EnlargeMike Kwiatkowski, Ryan Shazier
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesOhio State linebacker Ryan Shazier figures to wreak havoc on a questionable Michigan offensive line.
Austin Ward: The turnover bug would have to bite the Buckeyes a lot of times, and typically they do a pretty good job swatting it away. Braxton Miller had some issues handling the football at Northwestern and was on the brink at one point of getting pulled in favor of Kenny Guiton with the game potentially slipping away from Ohio State, but since then, mistakes with the football have been few and far between. As long as the Buckeyes aren’t giving away free possessions, they’re probably going to be putting up a lot of points with the third-ranked scoring attack in the nation, and keeping pace will be a real chore for the Wolverines.

Chantel Jennings: The Wolverines have struggled to get 11 guys on the same page on every single play this season and they would not only have to have each guy on the same page but each guy would have to play up to his utmost potential on the same play. But even on top of that, the Buckeyes would have to have some guys underachieve or, like Austin said, have struggles with turnovers. Michigan hasn’t had each guy play up to his potential. And Ohio State hasn’t struggled with turnovers. So the chances of the stars aligning like that seem pretty unlikely.

2. What's the mismatch to keep an eye out for?

Jennings: The Ohio State defensive line matched up against Michigan’s offensive front. The Wolverines have struggled to figure out which five belong on the field and the starting group that’s going up against the depth and talent of OSU’s D-line will be in only its second start as a full line this season. Specifically, the interior linemen, Erik Magnuson, Graham Glasgow and Kyle Kalis, against Ohio State’s tackles, Michael Bennett and Joel Hale, will be one of the biggest mismatches of the weekend.

Ward: Ryan Shazier has surely been licking his chops since he popped in tape of Michigan for the first time. The Ohio State linebacker has been unchained as a blitzer lately, and he has made life a nightmare for opposing offensive lines for the last month, making 11.5 of his Big Ten-leading 19.5 tackles for loss in the last four games. With the Wolverines struggling mightily to block anybody and giving up more tackles in the backfield than any team in the nation, Shazier is the last person they would want to see line up across from them.

3. What matchup will be the tightest?

Ward: Only four teams in the country have been more effective rushing the football this season than the Buckeyes, but if there’s one thing Michigan has been able to count on, it’s been a stout defense against the run. The Wolverines might well stack the box and try to force Miller to throw to beat them, a formula that worked for some defenses a year ago. But with a veteran offensive line with four senior starters and a dynamic combination in the backfield with Carlos Hyde partnering with Miller to run the spread option, nobody has really had an answer for Ohio State on the ground. Ranked No. 14 in the country defending the rush, perhaps the Wolverines will have a shot at making the Buckeyes try something else offensively.

Jennings: I’m with Austin on this one. I think Jake Ryan is due for a big game and if the Wolverines bring a lot of pressure and he plays up to his potential (as well as the other linebackers, who Brady Hoke said would return this weekend), then the Wolverines could produce a relatively solid defense against the running attack. Now, we’re talking about Hyde, who’s the best in the Big Ten, but I think Greg Mattison will have his defense coming in guns blazing, so we’ll see how this plays out.

4. What does a win do for the team you cover?

Jennings: Make no mistake, even if Michigan beats Ohio State on Saturday, Hoke will still call this season a failure because the Wolverines didn’t win the Big Ten title. However, a win over the Buckeyes would be a huge momentum and morale boost for the Wolverines and their fan base. And when it comes to bowl selection, a win over Ohio State and the fact the Wolverines would be riding that emotion definitely would make them a more attractive team (as opposed to a team that could head into the bowl selection process losing five of its last seven).

Ward: The stakes are already high for the Buckeyes every week considering the BCS implications as they currently sit third in the standings, waiting or hoping for Alabama or Florida State to slip up. Ohio State also has a second consecutive perfect regular season on the line, which gives them plenty to play for even before the rivalry is factored into the equation. But winning gold pants and establishing bragging rights remains as important to the Buckeyes as it always has been, with Urban Meyer going so far as to cover up the rest of the schedule in the team room this week to highlight the fact it’s a one-game season for his team. The postseason awaits, and Ohio State will play twice more. But beating “That Team Up North” has superseded even talk about the BCS or Big Ten title for the Buckeyes this week.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
Recognizing the best and the brightest around the Big Ten in week 12 …

Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said that Hyde made the difference for the Buckeyes in a 60-35 win. The senior rushed for four touchdowns and 246 yards on 24 carries and tallied another receiving touchdown (he had two catches totaling 26 yards). It was Hyde’s first 200-yard game of the season and more than double his previous season average of 117 yards per game.

Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons and holder Drew Dileo. Down three points with under 10 seconds remaining in regulation, the Michigan offense was sprinting off the field, the kicking team sprinting on the field and Dileo was sliding in to this holding position for Gibbons (yes, literally, sliding). Gibbons nailed a 44-yard field goal to send the game in to overtime, which the Wolverines eventually won after triple OT.

Wisconsin running backs. The Badgers accounted for 554 rushing yards against Indiana. James White (205 yards, 1 touchdown), Melvin Gordon (146 yards, 1 touchdown) and Corey Clement (108 yards, 2 touchdowns) became Wisconsin's third 100-yard rushing trio this season. Wisconsin tallied seven runs of 30 yards or more and White recorded a 93-yard touchdown run which set a program record for the longest run. The Badgers' 554 rush yards are the most by an FBS team this season.

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah. The Big Ten’s leading rusher had his seventh 100-yard game of the season (bringing his rushing total this season to 1,213) and he became the first running back to rush for more than 100 yards against the Spartans defense. He accounted for 123 yards on 22 carries and his one TD of the day was a 12-yard receiving touchdown (his only catch of the day). MSU came into the match up giving up just 43 rushing yards per game -- which Abdullah tripled.

Illinois DB V'Angelo Bentley. Coming into this weekend the Buckeyes had allowed just 1.5 yards per punt return and haven’t allowed any kind of a return on 92 percent of their punts. But with the Illini down 28-0 on Saturday Bentley managed to get past more than half of Ohio State’s punt coverage team and go 67 yards to the end zone. Not only did he become the first player to have success against this group, he also gave Illinois its first sign of life against the Buckeyes.

Honorable mention: Michigan State kicker Mike Sadler. With a six-point lead in the fourth quarter and the Spartans faced with a fourth-and-1 on the Cornhuskers 27 yard line, Mark Dantonio called for a fake field goal play. Sadler was supposed to go right, but the formation wasn’t quite what MSU expected, so instead of checking out of it and going for a field goal he rushed for three yards up the middle and a first down, setting up an MSU score.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 14, 2013
Storylines to watch in the Big Ten this weekend:

[+] EnlargePelini
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsNebraska is 7-0 against Michigan State, and Bo Pelini hopes to make that 8-0 and take a big step towards winning the Legends Division on Saturday.
1. The challenge at the top of the Legends Division: It’s going down in Lincoln, Neb. Michigan State travels south to try to close out the Legends race, while the Cornhuskers hope to crash that party. The Spartans are coming off a bye with an extra week to prep, but Nebraska has been the thorn in their side that they’ve just never been able to get out (Nebraska holds a 7-0 advantage over MSU). And expect the Huskers faithful to come out for this one, as a win could prove to be huge. If both teams win out, and it comes down to the head-to-head winner, the nod to face Ohio State would be given to Nebraska.

2. The challenge at the bottom of the Legends Division: And on the opposite end of that spectrum there’s the Northwestern-Michigan game. Two teams that were once thought of as top-25 teams are now fighting to find any kind of an identity while dwelling near the bottom/lower half of the Big Ten. The Wolverines have dropped three of their past four and the Wildcats have yet to win a conference game. This is a game for pride. This is a game featuring two teams desperate for a win. And the good news is -- one of these teams has to win. Northwestern had a week to heal its bodies (which it needed badly) and the Wolverines haven’t traveled well under Brady Hoke, which creates an interesting matchup.

3. Northwestern making a final push: Even with their Big Ten breakdown, the Wildcats are still just two wins away from being bowl eligible. They face Michigan and Michigan State at home and Illinois on the road. If there’s a time for Northwestern, it is now. Pulling wins out over Michigan and Illinois wouldn’t be too far-fetched in the Big Ten reality, and if Pat Fitzgerald can rally his troops, it could happen. Look for the possibility of a rejuvenated Wildcats team fighting for their postseason life -- that’s dangerous.

4. Teams running wild: Several games this weekend feature intriguing matchups in the run game. There are two games that have lopsided advantages for the run game. Penn State’s Bill Belton will have the chance to find holes in Purdue’s (very holey) defense. The Boilermakers have the second-worst rushing defense in the Big Ten, allowing 224 yards per game. Their rushing defense is only better than Illinois’. Which, speaking of that, the Illini’s conference-worst run defense will face the conference-best rushing attack in Ohio State, which averages 301 yards per game.

Also keep an eye on the running backs in Nebraska-Michigan State. The Spartans will attempt to keep Ameer Abdullah quiet, but the Big Ten’s leading rusher -- 135 yards per game -- will do his best to make sure that doesn’t happen. And on the opposite side, MSU running back Jeremy Langford will try to keep his breakout season on the upswing against a Cornhuskers defense that allowed minus-21 rushing yards to Michigan last weekend. And finally, Wisconsin and its exciting run game will face Indiana -- the No. 10 rushing defense in the conference.

5. Ohio State looks to make statements: The Buckeyes don’t have the best strength of schedule from here on out, so if they want to find themselves in the national title game, they need to make big statements in their remaining games. And the players have finally begun acknowledging that publicly. Ohio State has won its past three games by a combined score of 153-38. And with Illinois, Indiana and Michigan as its last three opponents, they could look to repeat those kind of performances.

6. Defenses maintaining momentum: Obviously, the Michigan State-Nebraska game will be one to watch (notice a trend here?). The Spartans’ top-ranked defense will look to contain the Cornhuskers, while Nebraska -- fresh off an impressive showing in which they delivered Hoke his first loss as head coach in Michigan Stadium -- will look to do the same. Ohio State will continue its rally cry that it’s not just an offensive team and the Badgers, the Big Ten’s No. 2 defense, will have the chance to face Indiana, which features an impressive offense of its own (at times).

7. Teams looking for crucial wins heading into dangerous territory: Road wins are key for every team. However, there are a few Big Ten teams hitting the road this weekend that need to find those road wins in volatile opposing stadiums. Indiana, which is two wins away from bowl eligibility with three games remaining, travels to Madison to play Wisconsin, which is never a friendly atmosphere. The Wolverines, who’ve struggled mightily on the road and haven’t looked like a complete team for more than a month, travel to Northwestern. Generally, NU features a heavy Michigan feel during that game but with the Wildcats’ recent push to be Chicago’s Big Ten team, this year could feature a different atmosphere. And the Spartans will attempt to seal up the Legends race in front of the “Sea of Red” in Memorial Stadium.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- So this is where the buck stops. Here, with Brady Hoke.

Every problem, every failure, every struggle of this Michigan football team ... it lies with him.

That’s what he made perfectly clear Saturday night following the Wolverines’ 17-13 loss to Nebraska, as he professed nine times in a 10-minute news conference that he needs to coach better.

It was Michigan’s third loss in four games, and the defeat has taken from the Wolverines what little hope they had to contend for a Big Ten title -- what Hoke has set as his standard of success at Michigan.

His third year in maize and blue. His third season failed. And this game showed all of the struggles the Wolverines have had over that period.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingBrady Hoke suffered the first home loss of his three-year tenure on Saturday against Nebraska.
The offensive line continued its poor play, yielding seven sacks for the second week in a row.

That’s not on the six guys who filtered through the offensive line. Or the All-America left tackle. Or offensive-line coach Darrell Funk.

I’ve got to do a better job coaching, it looks like.

And then there was the fact it seemed like whatever game-to-game or in-game adjustments the Wolverines had made were failing miserably, as the offensive game plan never really gained momentum.

I thought there were a number of things I've got to do a better job coaching the kids on.

Even with that, the Wolverines had one last drive to win the game. And on fourth-and-5, quarterback Devin Gardner threw a pass that slid through Drew Dileo’s hands and hit the Michigan Stadium turf.

It was a chance to make something happen. And just as quickly, it was over.

Gardner stood on the 35-yard line in shock. Less than a minute remaining, and he’d have to watch the game from the sidelines knowing that he and the rest of his teammates had lost for the first time at Michigan Stadium during Hoke’s tenure.

But no, that loss wasn’t on Gardner and his teammates, was it?

Guys were working, guys were fighting, guys were doing things -- did we do them well enough? No. That goes on me.

And then there was the run game, which finished with minus-21 yards. That’s not just Michigan bad, not just Big Ten bad. That’s historically bad.

From 2000-12, Michigan had just one game with negative rushing yardage (minus-5 against Oregon in 2003). And in the past five seasons, the only FBS team to go consecutive games with negative rushing yardage was Washington State, which did it last year en route to a 3-9 record.

Michigan’s minus-48 rushing yards last weekend against Michigan State and its minus-21 against Nebraska make the Wolverines the only FBS team in the past decade to record consecutive minus-20-yard games.

But that’s not on the offensive line. Not on Fitzgerald Toussaint. Not on Derrick Green. Not on running-backs coach Fred Jackson.

I’ve got to do a better job coaching those guys.

Someone needs to call bluff. Because it just doesn’t seem right. Several times this year, these coaches and players have professed that this is the greatest team sport on earth. Team sport.

So how then can all the blame from a 21-year-old quarterback and a rehabilitated running back and a defensive line that allowed 128 rushing yards and dozens of coaches and trainers fall completely on Hoke? Isn’t the blame collective?

At different points during the game, boos came from the fans. And they weren’t aimed toward Nebraska. For the first time during Hoke’s tenure, the Michigan fans booed Michigan.

Maybe some were aimed at Hoke in particular and others at Al Borges’ play calling. But in general, they were aimed at it all -- at the game plan, the failure of the players to execute, the un-Michigan-ness of it all, and maybe, yes, the coaching, too.

Did Hoke hear that?

“That’s the way things are,” he said.

No, the way things are is that this Michigan team -- which has preached about Big Ten championships and dreamed of bigger things -- is realizing how bad its youth and depth issues really are.

Fans are discovering that maybe that national title they dreamed of is still (very optimistically) a few years off. And everyone is discerning that all of the talk of these championships and toughness can only heal the wounds of losses for so long -- and Michigan has reached that point.

With three games to go in the regular season, the Wolverines have failed.

They've failed by taking themselves out of the Big Ten title race. That is not on Gardner or the offensive line or the defensive line. They weren’t the ones who made that the standard. That is on Hoke.

But the loss, put it on the team. Lose as a team, win as a team. The buck stops with Michigan, not its coach.

It is the team, the team, the team ... right?

Happy Halloween in the Big Ten

October, 31, 2013
McKayla Maroney, Brady HokeAP PhotoBrady Hoke, like McKayla Maroney, is not impressed.
The Big Ten doesn't have as many teams in the top 10 as the SEC. Or the Pac-12. Or the ACC. But shoot, the Big Ten can have just as much fun when it comes to Halloween.

Freddy Krueger (team not to sleep on): Minnesota. After the Gophers' unimpressive 0-2 start to the Big Ten season, it seemed Minnesota was frozen at the bottom of the conference (or maybe, just frozen in Minneapolis). But after solid wins over Northwestern and Nebraska, it now seems the Gophers have found their way back from the dead and could somehow manage to put together a pretty decent record by season's end. Goldy Gopher might look nice, but don't turn your back...

Boo (boo): Taylor Martinez’s toe injury. Whether it's turf toe or not, it's been serious and painful for Nebraska. The Cornhuskers were definitely a different team with Martinez, but even when he returned last week in a loss to Minnesota, it still seemed like a pretty terrifying ordeal.

Graveyard: Purdue. At least they have the Big Bass Drum. And Drew Brees. Because outside of that, there really doesn't seem to be a lot of noise or life coming out of West Lafayette, Ind. The Boilermakers have one victory this season (over Indiana State). That doesn't make them dead, but it does make them dead last.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesKain Colter and Northwestern showed such promise early in the season.
The Halloween-themed Oreo: How many times have you bought the Oreo with the orange stuffing simply because you think to yourself that it will be different, new and exciting? Instead, it tastes the same. Well, hello Indiana. You’ve looked different, new and exciting this season. But still, the Hoosiers have only three wins, and looking at the rest of their season (and how they play defense), there’s a decent chance they end up only matching last year’s victory total of four. Different look, same result.

Trick: Northwestern. Remember when the Wildcats were a team that __________? A: Could contend for the Big Ten title? B: Was exciting to watch? C: Was changing the identity of the program and gaining national respect? Yeah. Not anymore. Trick's on us.

Treat: Wisconsin. With all that happened in the offseason and a brand new coach and system coming to the program, there would've been plenty of excuses if this team hadn't done well this year. But surprise: The Badgers have been one of the most consistent teams in the Big Ten, and that's a huge treat. Go ahead, be excited, jump around. Even Bo Ryan did it.

Big Ten Halloween costume ideas

One of the most popular costumes this year (and forever) will likely be McKayla Maroney and her “Not Impressed” meme.

And while there’s plenty to not be impressed about in Big Ten football this season, there are also some Big Ten coaches, and coaches who've faced Big Ten teams, who could seriously consider going as McKayla, such as: Michigan coach Brady Hoke, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, Urban Meyer (circa 2010) and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.

But there are also plenty of costumes outside of McKayla. Because in a league full of wild animal mascots (literally) and nuts (literally and figuratively), there should be plenty of creativity for costumes.
However, Ryan isn't the only Big Ten selection fighting for the role of Sunshine. Ryan has the added benefit of having Jackson to make it a group outfit, which is always worth bonus points. But Ryan cut his hair this summer, which is a detriment to the costume as a whole.

After two games this season, Michigan fans were ready to name Devin Gardner the Heisman favorite and redeemer of Michigan quarterbacking.

But after four? They wanted him on the bench.

Now -- given the down or the series -- he's somewhere in between.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarDevin Gardner led Michigan in rushing against Penn State, but he threw two interceptions.
Gardner is a hazard and an interception waiting to happen, some said. He wasn’t the right fit at quarterback, others replied. Give youth a chance and build the offense around true freshman backup Shane Morris, they proclaimed.

In his 26 years in the game, offensive coordinator Al Borges has heard it all.

“The backup’s the best player until the backup plays,” Borges said, “and then they don’t want him to play anymore.”

What most people don’t remember is that Gardner is still young by quarterback standards. Yes, he’s a redshirt junior, but he is just 10 starts into his career. He spent most of last year studying as a wide receiver. He was recruited into a spread offense by Rich Rodriguez, one that most likely better suits his talents.

That amount of transition that Gardner has gone through in his Michigan career reminded Borges a bit of 2004, when he became the Auburn offensive coordinator and quarterback coach for Jason Campbell.

Campbell had been through three coordinators in three years, and the fan base had turned against him.

“Everybody wanted to replace him -- they said, ‘This kid, he’s not confident, he makes bad decisions, let the other kid play,’ ” Borges said. “Same old deal.”

So Borges did with Campbell in 2004 what he’s doing with Gardner now. From a mechanical and technical standpoint, he returned to the basics -- the footwork, the nuance, the angles, the inches.

From a mental standpoint -- which in both Campbell’s and Gardner’s cases might be the more important element -- Borges simply told them he believed they could be the quarterbacks of their respective offenses.

“I don’t think it was any earth-shattering coaching deal,” Borges said. “It was just making the kid believe that he was still the answer when a lot of people didn’t think that.”

For Campbell, it worked. That season he was named the SEC Player of the Year, MVP of the SEC Championship Game and MVP of the 2005 Sugar Bowl. He threw for 2,700 yards and 20 touchdowns and completed 69.6 percent of his passes, good enough for second-best on the all-time Auburn completion list (just barely behind Ben Leard’s 70.7 percent).

It wasn’t that Borges came in and changed how Campbell played the game. He just instilled a mental framework that helped him to be at ease on the field.

“He’s a confidence builder,” Campbell said. “From the day he walked in he said, ‘You already have the ability to do anything you want to do as a quarterback.’ ”

And that’s what Borges did after Gardner struggled against Akron and UConn. He spent the bye week returning to fundamentals, but also reminding Gardner that he was in fact the answer for the Michigan offense.

“The worst thing for a quarterback is to be looking over his shoulder and things like that,” Gardner said during the bye week. “For [Borges] to have that kind of confidence in me after I played so bad was pretty refreshing for me.”

Against Minnesota, Gardner’s confidence shone. He didn’t turn the ball over at all, and he threw for 235 yards and one touchdown. He looked solid. He smiled. He was loved by the fan base once more.

Then the first half against Penn State struck, and Gardner, once again, looked out of place. And again, fans wanted to know why Morris wouldn’t be given a chance.

Even though he hadn’t played since the Central Michigan blowout. Even though the Wolverines were playing in front of a raucous crowd. Even though Michigan’s best offensive lineman was out of the game.

[+] EnlargeShane Morris
AP Photo/Tony DingThough freshman Shane Morris has thrown only six collegiate passes, some fans think he's the answer.
“People always say the guy behind should be the starting quarterback, no matter what level it is,” Campbell said. “Doesn’t matter if you’re playing in college or in the pros. The guy that’s playing behind the starter is always going to be the most popular guy in town.”

But Gardner calmed down and managed to put together a solid game overall. He even gave the Wolverines a chance to win. If Michigan had been able to produce a run game outside of Gardner, maybe that would’ve happened.

And by some standards, what showed real growth was that when he struggled on the field against Penn State, he still seemed relaxed on the sideline.

During the Akron and Connecticut games, Gardner spent time by himself in silence or speaking with Borges on the headset while his defense was on the field. He said he wanted to be inside his own head and try to block everything else out.

But during the Penn State game he spoke with teammates. It was a suggestion by Michigan’s director of athletic counseling Greg Harden, a man who helped Tom Brady and Desmond Howard, among others during their Michigan tenures.

In reality though, it seems as if Gardner has little to worry about. His offensive coordinator and head coach are confident in him, and on Monday Hoke said “there is no short leash” when it comes to Gardner.

But the fear is always there, and Gardner is a perfectionist.

There is no such thing as a perfect game, Campbell explained. But playing with confidence rather than fear will help a quarterback get closer to that standard. And knowing that Borges and Hoke are in his corner will only help as the season goes on.

“It gives you free reign to go out and play, because you know you have someone who has your back, and you know there’s someone who believes in you and that helps you to believe in yourself and believe in what you can do and your ability,” Campbell said. “For Gardner, that’s the thing he needs to know. He just needs to go out there and play, cut it loose.”

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 7

October, 14, 2013
There’s nothing quite like the road to really show the identity of a team. The best teams know how to turn it all internal, block out the distractions and silence the crowd with a win.

Unfortunately for the Big Ten, that’s not really happening.

Of the four conference games this weekend, the only team to pick up a road win was Nebraska, over Purdue. Michigan State and Wisconsin manhandled Indiana and Northwestern, respectively. And Penn State took Michigan into four overtimes before sending the Wolverines out of Beaver Stadium with their tail between their legs.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMichigan hit a bump in the road at Penn State.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he was disappointed with the loss but happy with how his guys responded on the road. He said his team needed to “make the punches count a little more."

The Wolverines -- like every other team in the Big Ten -- are going to need to figure out how to make those punches count more on the road. In their only other road trip this season, Michigan snuck by UConn, and it still has upcoming trips to Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa.

Indiana gets no break as it goes to Michigan Stadium, where Hoke is undefeated. And after its trip to Ann Arbor, the Hoosiers hit the road for Wisconsin and Ohio State.

The Wildcats will still travel to Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois, which at one point seemed like a favorable road to the Big Ten title game, but currently Northwestern is sharing last place with Minnesota in the Legends Division.

Take that and rewind.

Team of the week: Northwestern entered Saturday’s game against Wisconsin having scored at least 30 points in the previous seven games. Enter the Badger defense, highly motivated and ready to play. Not only did the Badgers hold the Wildcats to zero touchdowns, they also held Northwestern scoreless in the second half, en route to a 35-6 win. Melvin Gordon carried the ball 22 times for 172 yards, including one huge 71-yard TD run, continuing his argument for best RB in the Big Ten. And Jared Abbrederis picked up another big play for the Badgers, a 63-yard touchdown pass.

Worst hangover: Northwestern seems to be on the opposite trend of the Spartans. A week after Northwestern put up a great showing against Ohio State, the Wildcats managed to look like the Northwestern of the past against Wisconsin. The Wildcats' offense couldn’t get its run game going and accounted for its fewest rushing yards since 2007 when NU rushed for 0 yards against Ohio State. Defensively, a week after making Braxton Miller look very human, the Northwestern defense gave up three passing touchdowns and 241 passing yards to Joel Stave.

Big man on campus (offense): Langford accounted for four touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving) in the Spartans’ win over Indiana on Saturday. It was the first 100-yard rushing game of his career and the first time since 2010 that a Spartan has accounted for four touchdowns in one game. His performance spurred the offensive attack as his rushing threat opened up passing lanes for Cook.

[+] EnlargeStephen Buckley
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin held Northwestern to just 44 rushing yards in a rout of the Wildcats.
Big man on campus (defense): In a 35-6 dismantling of Northwestern, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland set the tone for the Badgers during a pregame speech. He had 10 tackles and one sack and proved himself as the crucial emotional leader for a Wisconsin defense that held Northwestern to just 44 rushing yards and 10 first downs.

Big man on campus (special teams): Michigan State punter Mike Sadler averaged 59.3 yards with his four punts against Indiana. His longest of the day (which also is his longest this season) came on a second chance after IU chose to accept an illegal formation penalty. Sadler responded with a 69-yarder.

Best play: With just under a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Penn State’s defense came up with a huge stop, forcing the Wolverines to punt. And when Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg walked on to the field with 50 seconds remaining, chances looked bleak as the Nittany Lions trailed 34-27. But in just four plays the freshman signal-caller had marched Penn State 80 yards into the end zone. There are two plays in this drive that will be co-winners of this week’s best play and both were completions from Hackenberg to Michigan native and PSU wide receiver Allen Robinson. The first was a 14-yard pass that Robinson caught while flying out of bounds, but somehow he managed to get a foot in to give the Nittany Lions some momentum. And the second came just two plays later, when Hackenberg hoisted a 36-yard prayer to the corner and found Robinson, who elevated over Michigan defensive back Channing Stribling and came down just 1 yard from the end zone.

A spot of bother: The lows of the lows were quite apparent for Michigan and Northwestern this weekend, two teams that -- at their bests -- could/could've contended for the Big Ten title. But this weekend the Wolverines showed relapses to their Akron/UConn former selves and the Wildcats, who are now 0-2 in conference play, couldn’t seem to get anything going in a huge loss to Wisconsin on the road. For teams like Michigan State, this is good news, as it means the hunt for the Big Ten title is wide open. But as far as conference perceptions go, it does nothing to have two teams that have recently been ranked in the top 25 look as disjointed as Michigan and Northwestern did at times.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- With the number of memorable moments Michigan and Penn State have given fans over the years, it seems odd that the series is one that has largely been played only during the lifetimes of those who are currently playing in it.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingThe future is bright for the rivalry between Brady Hoke's Wolverines and Penn State.
The series only reaches back to the Clinton presidency, but because they are two traditional national powerhouses in college football, it seems like one that should’ve started before 1993.

Instead, it’s a game that Bo Schembechler never coached in. A game that has only been in each stadium eight times. A game that -- by rivalry standards -- gets overshadowed on both schedules, every season.

But what it has provided is rivalry-like highlights. It has been a series of inches and seconds, of legends and tales.

In the first-ever meet between these two teams, a Beaver Stadium record-setting attendance saw a goal- line stand from the Michigan defense, just six inches from the Penn State end zone. The next year, Penn State avenged that loss and walked away with a 31-24 win, one that showed the nation that the Nittany Lions belonged in the Big Ten.

The 1995 game was preceded by 18 inches of snow in mid-November.

In 1997, Brady Hoke was on the sidelines as an assistant coach to Lloyd Carr when Michigan handed Joe Paterno the worst loss of his career in Happy Valley, 34-8.

And when that game seemed as though it’d never be topped, 2005 rolled around, and with it, a come-from-behind, 54-yard drive and then-freshman Mario Manningham making a last-second snag to keep Michigan from falling to four losses.

And it kept Penn State from the national title conversation. That season, the Nittany Lions went 12 and one second, not 11-1.

Through this matchup, that game seems to be the highlight -- a memorable high point (or low point) in a relatively short-lived series. It accentuated the toughness this game usually holds, strong linemen and big plays -- themes of each program.

On Monday, during his weekly press conference, Hoke spoke of why Penn State would be a tough team this season.


“They’re Penn State.”

Which they are.

And Michigan will be tough because Michigan is Michigan.

They are two traditional national powerhouses. Two schools that have held to their traditions, their chants, their songs, their uniforms for so long. They emphasize education and no matter what, they seem to be two schools whose history puts them in Big Ten title conversations.

But this season doesn’t quite hit any of the benchmarks that the previous games set. It feels as though there are still far too many question marks on both sides for this to truly be anything too special.

Even in 2010, which was the first time the game featured two unranked teams, there was Denard Robinson -- a player who beckoned attention on any field in which he stepped. Where he was, there would be plays. Or at least the possibility of plays.

But instead, a former walk-on, and nearly unknown Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin, stole the show and the game for the Nittany Lions in his first career start.

This season's matchup seems devoid of those kinds of huge play-makers. It seems devoid of great defenses. It seems devoid of the ingredients that have made those great moments and memorable games.

It’s like the coffee that has been in the pot for too long or the cookies left out overnight. It’s still good. Just not the same.

But what this game does seem to be brimming with is potential. These two sides -- and it will be evident on Saturday -- have the elements to have 1997-like or 2005-like games in the near future.

It has two coaches that became prominent on the college scene at similar times, two coaches who have gained major respect from their contemporaries. It has two programs that have recently gone through facelifts (though for very different reasons), two schools fighting for relevancy on the national stage.

It has recruiting classes that show there will be talent on the field in the years to come. It has two of the biggest, loudest and best stadiums in the country, and fan bases that would travel to either.

It has a pro-style quarterback in Christian Hackenberg who will continue to grow, and one at Michigan waiting in the wings.

And with the Big Ten realignment coming, these two programs will both fall under the East Division, and, as a result, they’ll face each other year in and year out.

This game has the potential to grow to the level of hated rivals. But it’s not there yet.

Give O’Brien and Hoke time, give time some time, and this game could be one that makes even the 2005 game seem stale.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It’s the kind of routine the Gophers never wanted to establish.

But after Minnesota coach Jerry Kill missed the Gophers’ 42-13 loss to Michigan on Saturday due to a seizure, it seems as though Minnesota has found a way to strike a new normal without Kill on the sideline.

[+] EnlargeTracy Claeys, Brady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingTracy Claeys (left) said the Gophers did everything they could against Brady Hoke and Michigan despite the absence of head coach Jerry Kill.
“We went through so much over these last two seasons. … Thanks to our coaching staff being able to adapt to any kind of scenario," Minnesota safety Brock Vereen said. "I don’t think a lot of things phase us anymore as far as situations like that."

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys served as the Gophers’ head coach on Saturday, coaching from the press box.

This was the fifth time Kill has missed game time, and the second game-day seizure this season. However, it is the first time that he had missed an entire game due to a seizure.

While the team has adjusted in the past to mid-game changes, this was the first time the Gophers went in to a game knowing that their coach wouldn’t be there at all. But according to Claeys and players, that didn’t affect the team.

“We know Coach’s situation,” tight end Maxx Williams said. “We know we have to be ready. All the coaches are prepared. We felt like we were really ready for this game, and I don’t think this changed anything. We know Coach goes through some things and we all know about it so it doesn’t really affect us. We just go on a business trip here and try to win the game.”

Claeys thought that the team and coaches responded as well as they could. Kill was diagnosed with epilepsy more than a decade ago and seven of his assistant coaches have been around him through that entire time.

“We’ve been through a lot of battles together,” Claeys said.

Kill didn’t make the trip with the team Friday night and was expected to fly in Saturday morning, but when he suffered a seizure Saturday morning, he chose to stay in Minnesota.

Claeys found out shortly after Kill made his decision and informed the Gophers during their team walk-through at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.

“We’re all trained very well in what our job is and what our responsibilities are, and I thought we did a good job handling the kids,” Claeys said. “I thought the kids had a great attitude, fought hard. We miss him as a friend not being here. But as far as the way the game operates or anything like that, we’re all pretty used to it and the kids are too.”

Rebecca Kill, Jerry’s wife, did reach out to Claeys, offering support as Minnesota began its game-day preparations.

“She loves the game and she’s as much a part of the team as anybody,” Claeys said. “She just texted me and said that she and Jerry missed being here and missed being around us, and for the kids to compete hard and do their best and bring the jug back to Minnesota.”

But Claeys said he didn’t speak with Jerry or Rebecca on the phone before the game as Jerry would’ve felt as though that wasn’t advantageous to the Gophers at all.

Minnesota now has a bye week for Kill and his team to get better before they continue conference play with a trip to Northwestern on Oct. 19.

“Even not being here, he inspires us so much,” Vereen said. “He’s going through so much and we know deep down he wants to be here more than anything and it’s hurting him not to be here. And that’s motivation to play harder. Unfortunately we don’t get to bring that jug back to him. We know he’ll be all right.”

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 5

September, 26, 2013
A few nuggets to keep track of this weekend in Big Ten action:

1. The quarterback quandary in Columbus: Braxton Miller returns to Ohio State’s depth chart not as the starter but as a co-starter, listed alongside Kenny Guiton. There’s probably not too much of a QB controversy as Miller is the Buckeyes’ three-year starter, but it will be interesting to watch how much Guiton sees the field.

2. Big run potential in The Horseshoe: Wisconsin and Ohio State lead the Big Ten in rushing yards per game with 350 and 311 yards, respectively. They also field two pretty stout rushing defenses. The Badgers have only given up 76 rushing yards per game while the Buckeyes have only given up 80 yards per game. This head-to-head matchup should be an interesting one to watch as both teams try to break through for a few big runs, allowing their QBs to relax a little bit.

3. Hog heaven: Nothing like two Midwestern teams playing for a statue of a pig named Floyd. Or there’s nothing more Midwestern than two teams playing for a statue of a pig named Floyd. Like Wisconsin-Ohio State, the Iowa-Minnesota game should feature the run plenty. Look for both teams to try and break down the other’s defensive line, really looking to get after it. And with that statue on the line, how could they not?

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesNathan Scheelhaase leads Illinois' impressive air attack.
4. Illinois continuing its stellar pass game: The Illini are averaging 306 yards of passing per game so far this season, second only to Indiana in the Big Ten. This weekend Illinois faces Miami (Ohio), which has given up 290 yards per game this year while playing Marshall, Kentucky and Cincinnati. It’s a good opportunity for Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase to air it out against the RedHawk defense and continue building chemistry with receivers.

5. Well-timed bye weeks: For a few Big Ten teams this weekend, sitting at home watching other teams play might be the best possible way to get better. The Wolverines -- following two poor outings -- are using this bye week to prepare themselves to enter Big Ten play next weekend against Minnesota. Michigan State, which had two QBs see action last weekend, can use this week to continue figuring out its quarterback situation. And Penn State gets another week to rehab and gain confidence with the relief of having a few scholarships returned to next season’s team.

6. MACtion in West Lafayette: When NIU and Purdue hit the field this weekend, it’ll be the best offense in the MAC (NIU, 516 yards per game) against the worst in the Big Ten (Purdue, 246 yards per game). Northern Illinois leads the MAC in rushing offense (295 yards per game), while the Boilermakers have the second worst rushing defense in the Big Ten, giving up 184 yards a game. So, keep your eyes on the Big Ten-MACtion matchup, because the Huskies might put on a show.

This is Michigan? Really?

September, 22, 2013

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?

Towson’s Terrance West in Week 1. He rushed for 156 yards and two touchdowns against UConn. And in week two Maryland’s C.J. Brown rushed for 122 yards last weekend (though he only scored one TD).

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.