Sept. 20, 2011
By Leah Howard
It's been a story of two halves for the University of Michigan football team this season, or more appropriately, a story of the first quarter and the three that follow. After giving up the early lead for the third straight week, the Wolverines cruised past Eastern Michigan, 31-3, last Saturday (Sept. 18) to improve to 3-0 on the season.
"It's good to win the football game," said head coach Brady Hoke to open Monday's weekly press conference. "I thought we started a little slower than we would like to. I don't know if there is a magic answer for that. We talked about that as a team. The first six possessions offensively I think we were three and out three times, and then we were driving the ball and we throw an interception. That hurts you when you look at your tempo and the fluidness you want to have offensively, and obviously your defense is back on the field. I thought early we struggled a little bit with some of (the) jet series plays that come from that series. But after that, I think our guys made some good adjustments on both sides of the ball."
Adjustments have played a major role in Michigan's success this season. The Wolverines have surrendered the initial lead in all three games this season and have yet to score a point in the first quarter. In the remaining three quarters, however, they have commanded play, outscoring their 2011 opposition 100-23, including a 31-3 differential against Eastern Michigan.
A week after using a passing attack to edge rival Notre Dame (35-31, Sept. 10), Michigan defeated the Eagles on the ground, boasting a season-high 376 rushing yards behind 100-yard performances from junior quarterback Denard Robinson (198 yards) and junior running back Vincent Smith (118).
Hoke was particularly pleased with the emergence of Smith, who averaged 13.1 yards per carry against the Eagles and surpassed 1,000 career rushing yards through his 25 games in the Maize and Blue.
"I think he played good with his vision on where to go and listening to Fred [Jackson] as we go through the game about pressing the ball more in the line of scrimmage and then reacting off the center's tail end and where you would cut and those kind of things," said Hoke. "Vince has been a tremendous pass protector. He does a lot of things very well, and he's doing a lot of things well."
Michigan's defensive adjustments have followed a similar script. The Wolverines have allowed 21 first-quarter points this season. Hoke identified Michigan's front seven as the area he'd like to see the most improvement as U-M nears Big Ten Conference play, but he liked the progress it showed in the EMU game.
"We felt our defensive front throughout the game a little more," said Hoke. "Craig Roh played his best football of the year so far. Jibreel [Black] played a pretty productive football game. You could feel Mike [Martin] a little more in there. I thought Will Campbell, again, gave us some really good snaps."
After facing familiar foes in its opening three games, Michigan will face San Diego State this weekend for just the second time in program history. But the Aztecs are a team that Hoke is uniquely familiar with. He was head coach at SDSU from 2009-10, guiding the Aztecs, who finished 2-10 in 2008, to a 13-12 record in two seasons, including a 9-4 mark last year.
"There are always different guys," Hoke, "but there are a lot of returning guys. Four of the offensive linemen are returning starters; three tight ends; (a) quarterback who's a daggone good player and a great kid. The running back, Ronnie Hillman, is a tremendous player. There are a lot of those same guys that were there, so we're going to see a lot of good football players."
N O T E S
Michigan opens with a 3-0 record for the third consecutive season. In the previous two seasons, however, the Wolverines went just a combined 9-13 after similar strong starts. Michigan players said Monday they hope to learn from the previous seasons.
"We just have to stay focused," said senior tight end Kevin Koger. "In the past couple of years we've had strong starts, ranked in the top 25 and all that good stuff. It doesn't matter how you start, it's how you finish."
"I think 3-0 in the last couple of years has felt like a bigger accomplishment," said fifth-year defensive end Ryan Van Bergen. "We felt much better about ourselves; we kind of had more confidence, undeserved confidence, we did not play very well. Right now we are at the stage where we recognize we have not played very well and we are 3-0. We have not put together a full game offensively and defensively, yet we found a way to win in our three games. That is something I do not think we had in the past, that awareness to the fact that we have not played well yet and we still have that urgency to get better and to improve. I think that is something that the coaches instill and the senior leadership has righted the ship that we need to keep improving; 3-0 has not really satisfied us at all."
After passing for 338 yards against Notre Dame, Robinson completed 7-of-18 passes for 95 yards last Saturday against the Eagles. After the game, Robinson stressed his need for improvement in the passing game.
"He does that all the time," said Koger. "I feel like sometimes he's too hard on himself. I know you're a great player, but you're expecting a lot of yourself, which you should, but a lot of that stuff is on us. Every pass isn't going to be perfect, so as receivers, we have to help him complete those passes.
"It'll come. We've done well rushing the ball. If that's what we have to do to win, that's what we're going to do. We aren't going to deter from what got us here. If Denard has to run the ball 15 times, he's a tough guy and he can take the beating. So we just do what we have to do to win and the passing game will come with that."
"It is something he will find in himself and when he figures it out, he figures it out," said fifth-year senior center David Molk. "Right now what he does is working. He is an incredible player, we all know that. We all know that he is a winner."
Junior/sophomore kicker Brendan Gibbons hit a 21-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to wrap up the Wolverines' scoring against Eastern Michigan. It was Gibbons' second career field goal and first since last season's opener against Connecticut (Sept. 4, 2010).
"He's been great all fall," said Hoke. "He worked hard over the summer. I think mentally he has himself in a good place; very consistent all fall camp, and then to this part during the season. I like the mechanics to everything from the snap to the hold."
Hoke also has been impressed with freshman kicker/punter Matt Wile.
"I think for a young guy coming in here and doing the punting and the kickoffs and long field goals, for a young freshman, he's hanging in there," he said. "He had a couple kickoffs and had the one punt that was not what he wanted, but I think he's done a nice job."