Oct. 31, 2011
By Leah Howard, MGoBlue.com
The Wolverines moved into a three-way tie atop the Big Ten Conference Legends Division after their 36-14 homecoming victory over Purdue last Saturday (Oct. 29). With four games remaining in the regular season, Michigan is 3-1 in league play and still in the hunt to make the inaugural championship game.
Head coach Brady Hoke made it clear during his weekly Monday press conference -- on Halloween, the eve of November -- Big Ten championships are dictated by how teams play in the final month of the season.
"It's going to a great challenge for us," said Hoke. "You play these last four, and when you get into November, you play for championships in the Big Ten Conference. That's kind of how it's been for many years. So, we look forward to it. We're going to have a great week of preparation, and it's going to be fun."
Fundamentals and strategy don't change, according to Hoke. Success in November has more to do with the intangibles, like mindset, perseverance and preparation.
"I don't know if our blueprint is ever going to be different," he said. "We want to run the football. We want to be able to possess the football. We want to take care of the football. Defensively, we want to stop the run and get bodies to the ball, create opportunities for our offense, and be sound in our special teams and try and gain some field position because of special teams. I can't tell you that's any different, but it's how you have to improve on a daily basis so that you can play your best football through the month."
"This is the time when people start getting beat up," said fifth-year senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen. "No team is the same team that they were in their opener. There are guys who have stepped into roles that maybe they weren't in during the beginning of the season, and there are guys who have dropped down as well. All the teams finally know who they are, they know where they are, and now it comes down to if you win all your games in November you have a good shot at being in the Big Ten Championship game in December. So that's what we're focused on, winning all of our games in November. It's been a point of emphasis since the coaches got here in January."
Michigan's remaining opponents have totaled a combined 23-10 record, while three of Michigan's final four games are against teams .500 or better in Big Ten play, so winning in November won't be a small task.
The Wolverines head to Iowa City this weekend, where the Hawkeyes are undefeated at home this season. Hoke identifies Iowa as the most physical team in the Big Ten, and as the former defensive line coach, he can't wait for the matchup.
"I've always loved, as a coach, watching Iowa on defense and watching Iowa on offense," said Hoke. "When we get breakdowns, if they're similar opponents and we're getting ready to play somebody that they've played, that's the first film, since I was here before that, I'll put on because of how they play defense and the physicalness they play with, the fundamentals and the techniques. It's the same way offensively. It's a great challenge. Being a defensive line coach, you watch your offensive line and how they're coached and the fundamentals and the techniques, the attitude they play with. I mean, that's awesome, gets you excited."
"Iowa has always been a physical team," said fifth-year senior center David Molk. "They have always had that aura around them of old school football. It's hit them, bang them, smash-mouth football that they play and always have."
N O T E S
The Wolverines have three freshmen starting on defense -- sophomore/freshman linebacker Jake Ryan, linebacker Desmond Morgan and cornerback Blake Countess. According to Hoke, the upperclassmen have done a great job in mentoring the newcomers.
"You're hoping they've done that since day one," he said. "That's the whole deal. They've done a good job since the day the kids got here in the summer with that relationship. A lot of freshmen hit the wall sometimes. So far, these guys have been able to persevere and keep learning and getting better from a fundamental and technique standpoint."
Junior/sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint posted a career day against Purdue, recording career highs in carries (20) and rushing yards (170) and matched a career best with two rushing touchdowns. Hoke confirmed on Monday that Toussaint is the Wolverines' No. 1 running back.
"I think he played tremendously," said Hoke. "I think he had great vision, balance, and the most exciting thing was his burst out of holes. The 59-yarder -- he separates the safeties and has a tremendous burst as he does it. So, he's a guy that will start the football game for us. They're so interchangeable. Vince [Smith] was a little beat up, so he didn't get as many opportunities. Mike [Shaw] comes in and gives you a different gear, to some degree. But right now, Fitz would definitely be the guy."
Purdue's 48-yard touchdown pass on its opening drive was the first play of more than 40 yards allowed by the Wolverines defense this season. Hoke credits his team's ability to keep everything in front of them.
"If you can keep the ball inside and in front," said Hoke, "then you're going to have a chance. If you do that, whether you're the guy who's supporting it either way, keeping it inside and in front and getting the pursuit from the rest of your teammates you can limit that. They caught us in a blitz. I mean, it was a good call by them. Not a great total reaction by us, but I think it's something we'll learn from."
Hoke also credits secondary coach Curt Mallory.
"I think Curt is a tremendous football coach," Hoke said, "and he's done a great job with the fundamentals of playing a coverage, whether it's three deep, two deep, your man free stuff. And talk about angles and support, your pursuit on the back side of the football, whether it be a cutback responsibility or a chase-contain responsibility or your arc support, the last man knocking a guy out of bounds, I think the guys have done a nice job of really understanding the concepts that you have from a defensive standpoint."