Sept. 5, 2011
By Leah Howard
The Brady Hoke era began like a bolt of lightning; or several, more appropriately.
In a game that featured two weather delays, a stadium evacuation and, ultimately, an abbreviated ending with 1:27 remaining in the third quarter, the Wolverines emerged as the 34-10 victors over Western Michigan to begin their 2011 season with a 1-0 record.
"You can never anticipate what happened [with the weather]," said Hoke. "It was good to win the football game. I think we learned a lot team-wise when you look at where we need to really improve. It was good to get out and play someone else besides ourselves because we did that for four weeks. There is a lot we can learn from the film, there's a lot that we can continue to learn and improve on, and hopefully we can make a great improvement, because the test obviously gets much bigger this week."
With one game in the book, it's already on to the next one, and the next one is a big one. The Wolverines will host Notre Dame (0-1) at 8 p.m. on Saturday (Sept. 10) in the first-ever night game at Michigan Stadium. Both teams will don throwback uniforms and ESPN's College GameDay crew will broadcast from Ingalls Mall on campus earlier that morning. Hoke acknowledged the potential for distractions but said Michigan will take measures to block them out.
"The one thing we talked about as a team," said Hoke, "we can't get caught up and distracted in those things. That field is still going to be 120 yards long -- if you include the end zones -- and 53-point-something yards wide. That's not going to change, and that's where our focus needs to be this week with how we prepare to play our best football and make a lot of improvements."
While Hoke admits he isn't particularly fond of night games, he is quite familiar with them, playing in a good share while head coach at San Diego State and Ball State. The preparation throughout the week will be the same -- the Wolverines will continue to practice at their normal time -- but the later kickoff does require a reworking of the gameday protocol.
"As a coach or a player, it's a long day," Hoke said. "We all have a nervousness to us, so it's a long day. What you try to do is have enough involvement with them, so they're not just lying in their hotel room all day. You get them up, take walks, have walkthroughs, watch film and do all kinds of things to occupy them. At the same time, it's a thin line, giving them time to relax and getting their minds right."
The Wolverines should have no trouble getting their minds right for one of its three major rivalry contests. Michigan owns a 22-15-1 lead in the all-time series against Notre Dame, dating back to 1887, and claimed the last two contests on last-minute touchdown drives.
On Monday, fifth-year senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen shared the story of Notre Dame's football origins, when Wolverine players traveled to South Bend to teach them the game. One hundred and twenty five years later, he said, the relationship between the storied programs is still very much a big deal.
"We've been playing each other for a long time," said Van Bergen. "It goes backs so far, and there is so much history. We're always so competitive as far as the most wins in college football. I know they take it very seriously, and I know we take it very seriously. It's exciting to be able to play in it."
Like the Wolverines, Notre Dame experienced several weather delays in its season opener against South Florida last Saturday and despite a late fourth-quarter comeback, fell to the Bulls, 23-20. The Fighting Irish were largely doomed by five turnovers, including a 96-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown early in the game. But despite their struggles in week one, Hoke pointed to their offensive weapons and experience as their greatest strength.
"They've got personnel," said Hoke. "I think their three wide receivers and both quarterbacks are proven. Their offensive front has four out of five guys back and has played a ton of football for them. They're a physical front. Cierre Wood is a really good running back, and the guy behind him, [Jonas] Gray, is really good. They're a talented football team."
N O T E S
Michigan ran just 39 plays on offense in its shortened game against Western Michigan. According to Hoke, the Wolverines were able to accomplish some of their offensive plans but didn't have time to get to everything they would have liked to run in the first week.
He was pleased with what he did see, however, particularly in the play of junior quarterback Denard Robinson.
"I thought he made good decisions," said Hoke. "He threw the ball well. It was good to see some vertical runs by Fitz [Toussaint] and Michael [Shaw], when he was in there. Vince [Smith] also had a nice seven-yard run off the lead play. It was good to see that part of it. But I thought he felt comfortable. He did some things -- setting his feet, getting the ball off in time."
Of his eight carries, Robinson said he scrambled twice while the rest were designed plays. The bulk of the Wolverines' running game was handled by junior/sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint and senior Michael Shaw, who combined for 136 rushing yards on 15 carries and contributed three touchdowns.
"I felt fast and felt pretty good," said Robinson, "but I just didn't break a long run. It's alright. I got to see Shaw and Fitz get out and make plays. It was fun to watch everyone else have fun. That was great. I had fun with them."
Fifth-year senior linebacker Brandon Herron was named Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week on Sunday (Sept. 4) after recording two defensive touchdown returns, including a 94-yard return off his first interception, against Western Michigan. On Monday, he was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.
"I've gotten a lot of reactions from my family," said Herron. "A lot of people have been calling my mom and my dad. I've been getting a lot of friend requests [on Facebook] and congratulations. It's awesome. It's a blessing, and I just feel thankful."
While his two touchdown returns highlighted Michigan's defensive efforts against the Broncos, Herron was especially pleased with the Wolverines' improvements over the course of the contest.
"Obviously, the first drive was a little shaky for us as far as communication. After that, we just kind of sat down and slowed the game down. Once we started communicating as a whole, I felt like -- not just me --but the whole defense came together and just played.
"All 11 guys on the field, we work as one. If I'm doing my job right, somebody else is going to get free to make that play. I just thank all my teammates, because we did it together. We won together; we won as a team."
Hoke said the Wolverines will pay particular attention to the special teams play this week. They will look closely at kickoff coverage, from where they place the ball on the kick and to how they get off blocks down the field, as well as PAT/field goal protection, punt team and kick returns.
There might be some different faces on special teams this week, he said, but Hoke stressed that Michigan will continue to put the best players on the field.
"It's one third of the football game," said Hoke. "I think we're crazy if we don't have any segment of the game the guys who can perform what they're asked to do at the highest level. You hope to be able to find some of those guys, depending on what you're asking them to do, who can really perform on a high level. Maybe it's not a guy who's a starter for you, but it's a guy who's going to give you great production in the position."
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Fifth-year senior Brandon Herron on having seen Michigan Stadium under the lights ... "The lights were on, and we got a feel for it. It looks like heaven, if you ask me. All of the lights, all of the maize; I am proud to say I play football at the University of Michigan."