NCF Nation: Brady Hoke

The 43-yard touchdown connection between Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess in an 18-13 win over Penn State was a rare site for this year’s Michigan team.

The standout individual effort by Funchess gave the Wolverines their longest completion of the year and the longest play of any kind since a season-opening drubbing of Appalachian State. As much trouble as Michigan’s offense has had with turnovers and finding a steady run game this season, it’s had an equally difficult time coming up with the type of big plays that can mask those inconsistencies.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funchess
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan hopes to get more big plays from Devin Funchess and the offense.
 “There is no question we have to create more explosive plays,” head coach Brady Hoke said after an open week to mull over his team’s most glaring issues.

Michigan’s bye week after seven straight games provided Hoke and his 3-4 team with an overdue opportunity to get healthy and evaluate themselves. Beating Penn State the previous Saturday allowed him to go through that process with less pressure and fewer questions about his future.

With in-state rival Michigan State next on the schedule and Ohio State looming a month later, the recalibrations Hoke and his staff make this week have the potential to save their jobs in Ann Arbor or provide the final nail in the coffin of their Michigan coaching careers. This week Hoke is attempting to land on the right side of the fine line that separates making improvements and overwhelming your team by tinkering too much.

“At times you say, ‘We need to add this,’ and then you add too much. Then you have a real problem,” Hoke said. “For us, it’s going back to what we want to be identity-wise, and we want to run the football.”

The run, Michigan hopes, will set up its dynamic offensive players with more chances to produce game-changing plays. Through seven games, the Wolverines have picked up 30 or more yards on a single play six times, fewer than all but four teams in the bowl subdivision this season. The only offensive category where they’ve struggled more is in turnover margin, where they rank dead last.

Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said big chunk gains usually come from exploiting an opponent’s weakest points or putting your best playmakers in a position to excel. Three of those long plays came from sophomore running back Derrick Green, who is sidelined for the rest of the season with a broken collarbone. The onus in Green’s absence falls even more squarely on the shoulders of Funchess and Gardner, the senior quarterback who has looked like more of an offensive threat in his two most recent games.

“I get the ball every play so it’s pretty much all my responsibility,” Gardner said. “Even if it’s a big run play for our running backs, I’ve got to hand it to them. I feel like I’m a big part of that.”

Gardner has the potential to create a few of those plays with his feet, but his best bet is to connect with his favorite target, the 6-foot-5 Funchess. He leads the team with 36 receptions and four touchdowns, but three of those came against Appalachian State.

 Funchess battled a leg injury during most of September, making his highlight-reel return to the end zone against Penn State a beacon of hope that more spectacular efforts might be coming now that he’s healthy. Nussmeier knows Michigan has to find ways to get the ball in his hands.

“We’re always looking for ways to [create good match-ups],” he said. “Without giving away too much scheme stuff, we evaluated that very hard during the bye week and looked at ways to do that better.”

The Spartans, for all of their prowess on defense, have been burned by the long ball several times this season. They’ve surrendered at least 30 yards on 19 different plays this season, which ranks them 103rd in the nation in that category. The miscues have come against competition that ranges from Oregon to Eastern Michigan.

Michigan enters Saturday’s rivalry game as a double-digit underdog. The line against the Buckeyes later this season should be equally lopsided. The Wolverines likely need to win at least one of those games if Hoke is going to return in 2015. One tried-and-true way to pull off an upset -- especially with a defense that has held its own this season -- is with a few big plays.

B1G early look: Setting up Week 9

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Curse the double bye, as we have another week coming up with just five Big Ten games. But there are a few good ones on tap, including a couple intriguing rivalries. Here's your early look at the storylines for Week 9:

1. Can Michigan close the Bunyan-sized gap with Michigan State? Based simply on this year's performances, Saturday's game between Michigan and Michigan State could be one of the most lopsided in the history of the Paul Bunyan Trophy series. The Spartans are riding high, having won 13 straight Big Ten contests, while the Wolverines are just 3-4. Michigan State has won five of the past six in this rivalry, including three straight in East Lansing. The inability to beat his rivals is a big reason Brady Hoke is fighting for his job right now. Maybe the Wolverines can rally behind their embattled coach. If not, this has a chance to get ugly.

2. Will Ohio State keep it rolling? The Buckeyes have scored 50 or more points in each of their past four games to build their case for the College Football Playoff. This week brings their toughest road test of the season to date, a night game at Penn State. Beaver Stadium will be decked in white, and Nittany Lions fans will do their best to rattle young quarterback J.T. Barrett. Penn State's defense is probably the best one Ohio State has played in at least a month as well. Of course, the Lions have lost their first two Big Ten games and are having all sorts of issues with their offensive line, which they spent last week's bye week trying to solve. Don't be surprised if James Franklin and his staff throw out some new wrinkles this Saturday night.

3. Make-or-break game in Madison: Is Maryland for real? Is Wisconsin a serious contender? The season has failed to adequately answer these questions thus far. The Terrapins are 2-1 in their first year in the league and are coming off a solid win over Iowa. They've been up and down (the down includes a home blowout loss to Ohio State), but they also have a lot of explosive playmakers. Wisconsin has a Heisman Trophy candidate in Melvin Gordon but hasn't figured much else out on offense, especially in the passing game. The Badgers already have one conference loss and likely can't afford another one if they want to win the West Division. Can Wisconsin keep pace with Maryland's skill players like Stefon Diggs? Can the Terps' shaky defense slow down Gordon? One team will be left standing as a serious division contender after Saturday.

4. Beckman's last stand? Illinois coach Tim Beckman may well have to make a bowl game to save his job this season. That means the 3-4 Illini probably have to win this week at home against Minnesota, because the rest of the schedule isn't kind. The Gophers sit atop the West Division at 3-0 but looked vulnerable to a big-play passing offense on Saturday against Purdue. Illinois will have to follow the Boilermakers' game plan, though either Aaron Bailey or Reilly O'Toole must make a big jump at quarterback. Here's the best reason to predict that Minnesota will come away with the road win in Champaign: Beckman's defense is surrendering a Big Ten-worst 271.1 rushing yards per game. David Cobb could run all day.

5. Rutgers' mettle being tested: You really wanted to join the Big Ten, Rutgers. Well, here you go. After dealing with the piping-hot cauldron of the Horseshoe last week -- where the Scarlet Knights got scalded in a 56-17 loss to Ohio State -- Kyle Flood's team jumps back into the fire this week with a trip to Nebraska. It's harder to imagine many more difficult back-to-back road challenges than that in the Big Ten, and it highlights the difficulty of Rutgers' second-half schedule (a November trip to Michigan State still awaits). Nebraska looked terrific last week in the second half at Northwestern and must simply avoid complacency before the big West Division showdowns arrive the final three weeks (at Wisconsin, Minnesota, at Iowa). For the Scarlet Knights right now, this is mostly about survival and not letting a promising season go up in flames
Michigan commit Garrett Taylor will visit Ohio State, Penn State and Virginia Tech, but keep a close eye on the Buckeyes. Plus, LSU’s elite running back class is starting to fall apart.

Big Ten midseason overview

October, 14, 2014
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The Big Ten entered 2014 with a few high-profile opportunities to raise its flailing image.

Things started out well enough, as Wisconsin took a 24-7 lead on LSU in the third quarter on opening weekend. And it was pretty much all downhill from there for the Badgers, who wound up losing 28-24, and the rest of the league. Other early-season losses by Michigan State (at Oregon), Ohio State (Virginia Tech) and Iowa (Iowa State) relegated the Big Ten to its same old status as a middle-of-the-pack (at best) power conference.

As a result, the league needs some breaks just to get a team into the four-team College Football Playoff. Yes, conversation about the inaugural playoff has dominated the sport a little too much so far. Then again, when's the last time you heard anybody talking about who might play in this year's Orange Bowl?

The Big Ten might not place a team in the Rose Bowl -- site of a national semifinal this year -- unless Michigan State and Ohio State run the table the rest of the way, or if a team from the wide-open West Division like Nebraska or Minnesota really surprises.

Not everything, of course, revolves around the playoff, and there have been some good stories in the Big Ten during the first half. The conference boasts three of the top four rushers in the nation. The oft-mocked addition of Maryland and Rutgers doesn't look so bad as the two teams are a combined 9-3. Purdue has already tripled its win total from a year ago. The NCAA sanctions at Penn State were lifted -- though no relief was provided for the Nittany Lions' offensive line. Five teams sit at 5-1, setting up an interesting race toward ... wherever the league champion might wind up in the postseason. (Hey, how about that Orange Bowl?)

So reasons for hope remain in the Big Ten for the second half. Though maybe not so much in Ann Arbor and Champaign.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Mary Langenfeld/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has already topped 1,000 yards and has 13 touchdowns halfway through the season.
Offensive MVP: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon. It's so hard to choose between the fantastic running backs in this league, as Indiana's Tevin Coleman leads the FBS in rushing and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah has been a warrior. Gordon has received very little help from his team's passing game, yet he has piled up 1,046 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, including four straight games of at least 175 yards.

Defensive MVP: Ohio State DE Joey Bosa. There's no runaway winner of this award yet, but Bosa has built on his impressive freshman campaign of a year ago to become one of the most disruptive pass-rushing forces around. He has seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

Biggest surprise: Few people gave Rutgers much of a chance to contend in the school's first year in the Big Ten, especially given the Scarlet Knights' murderous schedule. But with an improved Gary Nova at quarterback and a stout defense, Rutgers sits at 5-1 at the halfway point. The back half is still treacherous, including games against Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State, but Kyle Flood's team has shown it can't be taken lightly.

Biggest disappointment: Michigan, naturally. The Wolverines (3-4) beat Penn State last week at home, finally ending a streak of seven straight losses against Power 5 teams. Blowout losses against Notre Dame, Utah and Minnesota, and the Shane Morris concussion controversy have put Brady Hoke squarely on the hot seat.

Newcomer of the year: Losing Braxton Miller did not end Ohio State's playoff chances, largely because of the rapid growth of freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. After struggling in a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, Barrett has blossomed into one of the top players in the Big Ten. He leads the league in total offense, pass efficiency and passing touchdowns (17).

Best coach: Jerry Kill, Minnesota. With apologies to Flood, no coach has maximized his talent more than the head Gopher. Minnesota is 5-1 and tied atop the Big Ten West Division, with its only loss coming at TCU. Kill's team finds ways to win without an overpowering offensive attack.

Best game: Indiana 31, Missouri 27. This game had a little bit of everything, with both teams combining for nearly 1,000 yards of offense and the Hoosiers scoring the winning touchdown with 22 seconds left after Missouri had hit what looked like the game-winning field goal. The road win in SEC country was also one of the league's few bright spots in nonconference play. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, they haven't been able to duplicate that performance.

Biggest games of the second half: Armageddon arrives on Nov. 8 in East Lansing, Michigan, when Ohio State travels to Michigan State in a possible playoff eliminator. Other big B1G games are mostly in the wide-open West, including: Iowa at Minnesota (Nov. 8), Northwestern at Notre Dame (Nov. 15), Nebraska at Wisconsin (Nov. 15), Wisconsin at Iowa (Nov. 22) and Nebraska at Iowa (Nov. 28).

Michigan lights up the Big House

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- An electric crowd, a stifling defense, modern-day trappings blended in proper proportion with an old-school Big Ten result. This was the vision that has danced in the heads of Michigan coach Brady Hoke and athletic director Dave Brandon for the better part of the past four years. For at least one night, they got to watch it play out.

Michigan (3-4) pounded its way to an 18-13 win Saturday over visiting Penn State (4-2) in front of the biggest crowd the Big House has seen this season. The 113,085 onlookers witnessed a dominant Michigan defensive line and a gutsy performance by its hobbled quarterback to seal the victory. Senior Devin Gardner returned from an ankle injury in the fourth quarter to push his offense just far enough for a game-winning field goal, ending the night’s drama in enough time to allow for a celebration and a collective sigh of relief.

“The environment, the crowd, there’s no place better in this country when you have a game like this than Michigan Stadium,” Hoke said.

Games like this have been hard to come by for Hoke and Brandon. Their Wolverines entered Saturday’s prime time matchup in a state of disarray. On the field, the team had lost four of its past five games and gave few reasons to be optimistic about a turnaround. Controversy and attempts to manufacture hype away from the field put the embattled coach and his boss on equally shaky ground in terms of job security.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funchess
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Funchess helped spark Michigan with this first-quarter catch against Penn State's Ryan Keiser.
Hoke heaped praise on his players after the game for their resilience during the past month, but acknowledged the team was in desperate need of some validation.

“It certainly helps,” he said. “There’s no question about it.”

Michigan’s fortunes started to turn on its first possession. Gardner (16-for-24, 192 yards) lofted a pass down the middle of the field that looked destined to land in the arms of Penn State safety Ryan Keiser. Gardner was benched two weeks earlier largely because of turnover issues. Instead of another deflating mistake, though, wide receiver Devin Funchess stepped in front of Keiser and yanked the ball away to complete a 43-yard scoring play.

That would be Michigan's final trip to the end zone, but a fire blanket of a defense took the baton from there. Michigan’s front seven abused Penn State’s inexperienced offensive line and its star quarterback, Christian Hackenberg. The Wolverines sacked Hackenberg six times and pressured him into several other poor decisions.

Jourdan Lewis intercepted an ill-advised throw in the third quarter that set up a game-tying field goal. A three-and-out and shanked punt in the fourth quarter gave Michigan’s offense the ball in good position again. Gardner completed two passes to get place-kicker Matt Wile in range to give his team a 16-13 lead. More pressure backed Hackenberg up to his goal line in the final minutes and forced Penn State to snap a ball out of the back of its end zone for a safety. A defensive line missing its most effective interior rusher (tackle Willie Henry) played a major role in creating Michigan's final eight unanswered points.

The near sell-out crowd roared in approval. The week started with threats of a student boycott to show their disapproval with the direction of the program. The lure of a night game brought them out in full force, waving yellow pompoms and creating an atmosphere that Michigan Stadium hasn’t seen since its previous two “Under The Lights” affairs -- both wins against Notre Dame.

“That was awesome tonight,” center Jack Miller said. “We feed off that kind of stuff. We love it.”

The buzz inside the Big House continued during halftime with a well-orchestrated light show from the Michigan marching band. Former players lined the team's walk to its locker room earlier in a show of support. Brandon’s attempts to add new life to the storied old stadium finally struck the right chord with a student body and alumni that has grown tired with his previous gimmicks.

“We try to create a spectacle,” Brandon said following the game. “It’s a great stadium and when you light it up, that’s what it is -- a spectacle.”

When the sun rises Sunday morning, Michigan will still have a losing record. The prospects of a bowl game will still be dim. Its team will still be plagued with the same problems that have caused it to stumble more often that not this season. The offense still struggled to run the ball consistently against Penn State. Gardner still threw an interception. Hoke and Brandon will still be climbing a steep, uphill battle to restore their reputations and save their jobs.

Two weeks from now, after a bye, the Wolverines face in-state rival Michigan State -- a Big Ten power with the potential to wipe clean the memories of this weekend’s spectacle.

Still, Hoke and Brandon should savor the moment. Both men might not be around for more nights like this in Ann Arbor. If this is indeed their final season as Michigan men, at least they got a taste of what they expected at the start of a promising relationship. They showcased a tough team on a glitzy stage Saturday -- a vision realized if only for one night.
Tim Beckman is 1-17 in Big Ten games and questions about his future has hindered the Illini's recruiting efforts. Plus, Georgia Tech has surprised both on the field and on the recruiting trial.


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With Brandon Wimbush switching to Notre Dame, where does Penn State turn to fill its need at quarterback? Plus, why should Washington State feel like it has a shot with an ESPN 300 prospect from Washington, D.C.?


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If you spent Sunday looking at your spouse, your kids or your dog with raised eyebrows, you're not alone. Blame college football. After weeks like this past one, everyone is reassessing everything.

That's what happens when five of the top eight teams lose on the same week for the first time in the history of the AP poll.

Rather than bolting to the divorce lawyer, the adoption agency or the pound, realize this is probably just a football issue. In that spirit, let's reassess the Big Ten teams six weeks into the season.

Illinois (3-3): Unfortunately for embattled coach Tim Beckman, the Illini are what we thought they were. It's bad but somewhat understandable to allow 458 rush yards to Nebraska on the road. It's inexcusable to allow 349 to Purdue at home. The offense is fun, but top quarterback Wes Lunt is out 4-6 weeks with a fractured leg. Beckman Watch has begun.

Indiana (3-2): We've seen what Indiana can be (road upset of Missouri) and what Indiana still is (disappointing losses to Bowling Green and Maryland). Kevin Wilson's team is halfway to bowl eligibility but must pull off an upset or two to get there. Running back Tevin Coleman (841 rush yards, 8 TDs) might be the nation's best-kept secret. It will remain that way unless Indiana starts winning more.

Iowa (4-1): The record is nice, but Iowa has played well for about six quarters this season. The defense is fine, but an inconsistent run game remains baflfling. The two-quarterback system will be fascinating theater. C.J. Beathard makes Iowa's offense more interesting, but does he make it better? The West Division is wide open, and Iowa has an advantageous home slate (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska).

Maryland (4-2): The most recent performance notwithstanding, Maryland's first half exceeded expectations. The Terrapins delivered big plays, which covered up some general sloppiness (12 giveaways, 53.7 penalty yards per game). We are finally seeing what a relatively healthy Maryland team can do. The Terrapins are 3-0 on the road, so if they can take care of business at home, they'll secure a nice bowl trip.

Michigan (2-4): Most of us, if not all of us, were wrong to varying degrees about this team. Doug Nussmeier hasn't fixed the offense. The defense remains unremarkable. Brady Hoke's days as coach seem numbered. Whether it's the talent evaluation, the talent development or the schematic vision, something went dreadfully wrong. It looks like a lost season.

Michigan State (4-1): The Spartans remain the class of the Big Ten. If they had held a lead at Oregon, they would be in the thick of the playoff discussion. They still can get to the final four but must run the table in Big Ten play for the second straight year. Quarterback Connor Cook is better and so is an offense that leads the Big Ten in scoring (45.6 ppg). The Spartan Dawgs aren't quite as dominant but showed against Nebraska that they can still stifle good offenses.

Minnesota (4-1): This is a similar, potentially better version of recent Minnesota teams. Tracy Claeys' defense once again looks very solid. The offense is extremely run-heavy (67 percent of yards), although quarterback Mitch Leidner provides a small passing threat. Minnesota has a real chance to make some noise in the West Division, although its closing schedule will tell a lot about the state of the program.

Nebraska (5-1): We knew Ameer Abdullah was great. but he's still exceeding expectations. The offense can light up the scoreboard against soft defenses but struggled for most of the Michigan State game. Nebraska has the most overall talent in the West Division, but the road schedule (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa) could prevent a trip to Indy.

Northwestern (3-2): Woeful the first two weeks, wonderful the past two, these Wildcats are hard to identify. Pat Fitzgerald's tough talk seems to be hitting its mark, and the emergence of young defenders like Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike is encouraging. The offense still struggles to score. A win Saturday at Minnesota validates Northwestern as a threat in the West.

Ohio State (4-1): The forecast looks a lot brighter now than after a stunning Week 2 home loss to Virginia Tech. J.T. Barrett development at quarterback is the biggest reason for optimism, and Ohio State is generating first downs and points at a dizzying pace. The defense's development remains the big question mark. The Nov. 8 showdown at Michigan State looms.

Penn State (4-1): The Lions have found ways to win despite obvious flaws exposed in their lone loss. If the offensive line doesn't make strides, it could be a tough second half for James Franklin's team. A solid defense should win PSU some games, and the pass game has potential with young wideouts Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. The next two games (Michigan, Ohio State) will be telling.

Purdue (3-3): Improvement was expected as Purdue couldn't get much worse than last season. The Boilers finally found a spark on offense last week thanks to speed backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert and new quarterback Austin Appleby. Wins could be scarce the rest of the way, but Purdue is on the uptick.

Rutgers (5-1): The biggest surprise in the B1G, at least outside the Garden State. Rutgers is a play or two away from being undefeated. Kyle Flood's staff changes have paid off, quarterback Gary Nova has made obvious strides, and the defense is holding its own, especially up front. Rutgers is more than holding its own in its new league.

Wisconsin (3-2): I'm not as surprised as some, as Wisconsin never looked like a top-15 team, not with its problems at quarterback and receiver. Melvin Gordon has been as good as advertised, but teams still need some semblance of a passing attack to win consistently, especially away from home. Wisconsin isn't out of the West race but likely can't afford another slip-up.
Five observations from Saturday in the Big Ten:

1. Michigan State and Ohio State are sharpening their teeth. So much for Nebraska as the Big Ten’s lone unbeaten. The Spartans, despite turning the ball over three times in their own territory in the first half, built a 27-3 lead through three quarters and held off a furious late Nebraska rally for a 27-22 victory. The MSU defense looked salty as ever through 45 minutes and neutralized Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes continued their offensive resurgence. Since their Sept. 6 loss to Virginia Tech, freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett has led OSU to three straight showings of 50-plus points and more than 500 yards. On Saturday, it was 52-24 at Maryland as Barrett accumulated 338 yards of total offense. Considering the chaos that unfolded elsewhere in college football on Saturday, the Spartans and Buckeyes are moving back toward contention for the College Football Playoff. Their meeting on Nov. 8 in East Lansing is a de facto elimination game.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Alex Goodlett/Getty ImagesWith their loss to Rutgers, Brady Hoke's Wolverines fell to 0-2 in the Big Ten.
 2. Things are getting worse for Michigan coach Brady Hoke. Rutgers and quarterback Gary Nova became the latest to celebrate at the expense of the Wolverines after the Scarlet Knights beat Michigan 26-24 in Piscataway for the school’s first Big Ten win. Kemoko Turay blocked a long field goal with three minutes to play, and Nova threw for 404 yards and three scores. The big story here, though, is Michigan, which dropped to 0-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1967. Hoke, after this third straight loss, appears incapable of turning this around.

3. It’s time to take Northwestern seriously. Be honest: Who had given up on the Wildcats after opening losses to Cal and Northern Illinois? Coach Pat Fitzgerald got tough with his team, and it worked. Maybe all NU needed was a taste of Big Ten football. It drilled Penn State last week and capitalized on four interceptions Saturday to beat Wisconsin 20-14. Freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike collected three picks, including two in the end zone. These guys play defense, despite surrendering a career-high 259 yards to Melvin Gordon. At 2-0, Northwestern is alone atop the West Division with opportunities to take control of the division in the next two weeks at Minnesota and against Nebraska in Evanston. After Saturday, it’s as realistic as any other scenario.

4. Wisconsin has a situation at quarterback. It’s not a great one, either. Junior Joel Stave made his return at Northwestern. In difficult circumstances as the Badgers trailed 10-0, Stave competed admirably after overcoming a mental hurdle just to get back on the field. He finished 8-of-19 for 114 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. He was picked off twice late in the fourth quarter. Senior Tanner McEvoy, who did not play in the second half, finished 4-of-10 for 24 yards. So what now? Presumably, if Stave lost the job only because he was incapable of operating -- and now he’s fine -- then perhaps it’s his position. Likely, the decision is more difficult. McEvoy and Stave possess different strengths, so maybe they’ll both fit into the offense. Regardless, the Badgers need better play at QB than they received against Northwestern.

5. Austin Appleby’s time has come. The Purdue sophomore completed 15 of 20 throws for 202 yards and a score in his first career start as the Boilermakers won a Big Ten game for the first time under coach Darrell Hazell, 38-27 at Illinois. Appleby rushed seven times for 76 yards and two scores to lead a big-play attack. Where has this been for the past year and a half? It came against Illinois, yes, but any league win is cause for celebration for Purdue.

Early Offer: Why MSU going big in 2015 

September, 30, 2014
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What happens when you have a large senior class about to graduate? You target a large recruiting class like Mississippi State is in 2015. Michigan’s recruiting remains in chaos, as another Wolverine commit is having second thoughts.


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Auburn hasn’t been given too much of a chance to land coveted receiver Christian Kirk, but the Tigers’ chances are better than most think. Plus, Michigan lost a key defensive recruit, and don’t be surprised if more are to follow.


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At his core, Brady Hoke is a defensive line coach. Looks like one. Talks like one. Acts like one.

Ask him about defensive line play, or watch him work with the defensive tackles at Michigan, as I have, and you can feel the enthusiasm he has for the job. He's in his happy place, his comfort zone.

At times during Hoke's Michigan tenure, particularly in recent weeks, he has looked a lot less comfortable being the CEO of a big-deal program. We knew Monday's news conference would be a difficult one for Hoke, as the Shane Morris incident in Saturday's loss to Minnesota had gained national traction, not just in the sports media but on "Good Morning America" and "Today."

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsThe pressure is mounting on Michigan coach Brady Hoke after getting routed at home by Minnesota.
So the D-line coach played defense, responding to criticism that the sophomore QB should have been removed from the game immediately after absorbing a helmet-to-helmet hit from Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. Hoke did not see the hit, but after reviewing it, he believes it to be targeting and submitted the play to the Big Ten for review.

Hoke said he would never compromise a player's health, especially when the player had potential head trauma. He said Michigan's medical staff is the only group that determines whether a player can re-enter a game, as Morris did. He said that Morris was not concussed, and the only health issue that hampered the quarterback was a high ankle sprain.

"There should be some criticism when we talk about the performance, and that's me and coaching and I understand that," Hoke said. "But when your integrity and character is attacked, I think that is really unwarranted."

Hoke's character shouldn't be attacked here. Anyone who knows the coach -- inside or outside Schembechler Hall -- will vouch for him. He loves his players. He loves Michigan. None of that should be in doubt.

But his performance, not only with wins and losses but with an ability to oversee a high-profile program and all that comes with it, including handling a crisis, should be scrutinized. Several folks around the college football world I corresponded with Monday said the same thing about Hoke: good coach, great guy, tough guy, but the Michigan job might be too big for him.

Every FBS head coach must project an image of complete control, but it's even more important to do so at programs like Michigan that are constantly under the microscope. It takes a certain personality, usually a flashy one and an unflappable one, to handle the toughest of situations. Hoke doesn't exactly fit the profile.

It's fine that Hoke was watching the ball during the play in question, but someone on Michigan's sideline should have seen the hit and Morris' subsequent stumble. Even if it was just the ankle giving out, someone needed to intervene and ensure Morris didn't take the next snap.

Hoke said those people are there and would step in if they saw a problem.

"I would assume yes," he said, "because they do every other time."

Well, this time they didn't. That's a problem.

That brings us to the headset question. You knew it was coming on Monday.

Unlike most head coaches, Hoke doesn't wear a headset for the majority of games. He's often mocked for it, as some say he's not fully plugged in. Hoke thinks it's just the opposite; he can teach more and be more engaged without a headset.

But he was asked Monday if he would wear a headset in the future to be more clued-in about potential injuries.

"No, thank you," he said, clearly annoyed.

Whether the headset matters or not, the image does. So does the image of Morris stumbling into offensive lineman Ben Braden after taking a blow to the head. And so does the image of Hoke going on the defensive with the media.

All these images form a bigger picture and a question: Should Hoke be the face of Michigan football?

If things don't improve quickly, it's hard to see him moving forward as CEO.

This happens in college football. Some coaches are better-suited to different roles. Charlie Weis, twice fired as a head coach at major programs, surely will have opportunities as an offensive playcaller. If Will Muschamp doesn't make it at Florida, he'll likely have his pick of defensive coordinator jobs.

It could be the same thing with Hoke.

There were a million things he'd rather be doing Monday than responding to reporters' questions under the glare of the national spotlight.

Like coaching defensive linemen.
Welcome to the Big Ten time machine. Watch your step and hop aboard. Sorry, Mr. Slive, no standby today. Every seat is taken.

Passenger Delany in seat 1A, please stop ringing your call button. I told you we can't go back to Nov. 18, 2006. Yes, yes, I realize that is when the Big Ten sat atop the college football world with its two most recognizable programs ranked 1 and 2. I know you would give it all up -- the money, BTN's success, the expansion moves -- to relive that magical day in Columbus. Not happening, pal. Here is another bag of peanuts.

Our destination is the more recent past, although for some it feels like a long time ago. We are rewinding exactly one year to Sept. 29, 2013. Here we go!

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke, Mark Dantonio
AP Photo/Paul SancyaMichigan coach Brady Hoke, left, and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio have seen their programs head in different directions since last September.
Meet the Michigan State Spartans. They are 3-1 and unranked after a 17-13 loss to Notre Dame. The defeat reaffirmed that the offense, which sputtered throughout 2012, isn't getting better. Quarterback Connor Cook, replaced late in the Notre Dame game, tells reporters, "I would have wished that the coaches had faith in me to keep me in there." The Spartans are preparing for their Big Ten opener at Iowa, and few expect much to change with the quarterback situation or the passing game.

Now meet the Michigan Wolverines. They are 4-0 and ranked No. 19. They have just had two shaky wins against inferior opponents (Akron and Connecticut), but they previously beat Notre Dame 41-30 behind quarterback Devin Gardner, who put up the ninth-best single-game yards total (376) in team history. They are a rising program under third-year coach Brady Hoke with tremendous momentum on the recruiting trail. The growing feeling is that the Big Ten soon will revert to the Big Two (Ohio State and Michigan) and everyone else.

Speaking of those Buckeyes, they have yet to lose a game under second-year coach Urban Meyer. Yesterday, quarterback Braxton Miller returned from injury to spark Ohio State to a 31-24 win against Wisconsin. The fourth-ranked Buckeyes are loaded at quarterback with Miller and beloved backup Kenny Guiton. Their first Big Ten title since 2009 seems likely, and they could be headed for the BCS title game.

And here we have Maryland and Rutgers. They are still nine months away from becoming official Big Ten members, but most Big Ten fans wish their arrival date could be pushed to, you know, never. Maryland is 4-0 and ranked No. 25 and Rutgers is 3-1 after a win against Bret Bielema's Arkansas Razorbacks, but few expect either team to truly boost the Big Ten. Legends and Leaders had a stronger approval rating than these two.

OK, now we're heading back to the present. Aaaand ... we're back.

It's only been a year, but the Big Ten landscape has dramatically shifted, particularly in the state of Michigan.

Since Sept. 29, 2013, Michigan State is 13-1 with a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl championship. The Spartans have outscored their opponents 497-223. Cook has thrown 26 touchdowns against eight interceptions. MSU's lone loss came in a place (Oregon's Autzen Stadium) where most suffer the same fate. Mark Dantonio is considered one of the nation's premier coaches, and his team remains alive for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Fifty miles away, the Michigan program is in utter disarray. The Wolverines are 2-3. They ended the Notre Dame series by suffering their first shutout since 1984. They failed to score an offensive touchdown against Utah. They suffered their largest home loss to Minnesota (30-14) since 1962. Hoke has lost eight of his past 11 games but said after the Minnesota game that he still thinks Michigan can win the Big Ten. Um ...

(Just a reminder: there's no smoking of anything in the Big Ten time machine.)

If losing isn't bad enough, Hoke faces more heat for leaving quarterback Shane Morris in the game despite Morris wobbling after absorbing a helmet-to-helmet hit. Perhaps the only Michigan employee less popular than Hoke right now is his boss, athletic director Dave Brandon, whose department was mocked following last week's Coca-Cola/free tickets fiasco.

Things aren't nearly as bleak in Columbus, but Ohio State isn't the juggernaut it was a year ago. The Buckeyes haven't beaten a Power 5 team since Michigan in The Game last November. Miller is out for the season with a shoulder injury. The secondary remains vulnerable. Young quarterback J.T. Barrett is improving, but struggled against the only top-90 defense he has faced so far (Virginia Tech).

Maryland and Rutgers, meanwhile, are a combined 8-2, each with a 3-point loss as the lone setback. The Terrapins lead the East Division, and Rutgers looks much improved on both sides of the ball. The Big Ten hasn't had many bright spots this season, but Maryland and Rutgers are two of them.

"College football," Dantonio said, "is such a changing landscape."

Expect the unexpected, especially in the Big Ten. The past year in this league shows that the only guarantee is that the future won't resemble the present.

Perhaps there is hope for Michigan. Michigan State, meanwhile, can't get complacent. No one knows what the coming weeks will bring.

"We still have things to prove," Dantonio said. "Our reputation right now is built off of last year's success. It starts here.

"We have to play in the present."
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Michigan’s efforts on the recruiting trail aren’t going anywhere until something changes. Plus, whoever ends up getting the Kansas job must do whatever he can to keep quarterback Ryan Willis on board.


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Big Ten bowl projections: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
8:00
PM ET
How far will Michigan fall?

We'll find out during the next two months, but for now, the Wolverines have fallen out of the bowl projections. Brady Hoke's team sits at 2-3, and the offense has shown no signs of a turnaround. It's hard to envision Michigan winning one Big Ten game right now, much less the four it will need in its final seven to qualify for a bowl berth.

Indiana also falls out of the projections after a 37-15 home loss to Maryland. After seemingly turning a corner the week before at Missouri, the Hoosiers struggled to build on the victory as a normally potent offense did next to nothing against the Terrapins. Kevin Wilson's team has the talent to go bowling but must show it can handle success better going forward.

Penn State tumbles a bit in the projections after being exposed in a 29-6 home loss to Northwestern. We're not quite ready to put Northwestern back in the projections, but another big win would change that.

Nebraska and Maryland are among this week's risers. We still have both Michigan State and Ohio State heading to top bowls. Minnesota is another team to watch as the Gophers try to build on a strong performance at the Big House.

Without further ado ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Ohio State
Capital One: Nebraska
Outback: Wisconsin
National University Holiday: Iowa
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Maryland
San Francisco: Penn State
New Era Pinstripe: Rutgers
Quick Lane: Minnesota
Heart of Dallas: Indiana

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