Nov. 21, 2011
By Leah Howard, MGoBlue.com
Borrowing a familiar expression from Michigan head coach Brady Hoke, the Wolverines are down to just one more guaranteed game this season.
And it's a big one.
Saturday's meeting between Michigan and Ohio State will be the108th in the long-time rivalry. The Wolverines hold a 57-44-6 advantage in the all-time series but have lost nine of the last 10, including seven in a row.
Hoke doesn't need to remind his players that it's been a while since a Michigan win. To do so, he says, would be an insult to their intelligence. He also doesn't need to remind his team of the significance of this game, its history and tradition or that records go straight out the window every time these two teams meet.
"That's what makes it such a great game," said Hoke, "because of how both teams will come in prepared, how both teams will play. It's a hard-hitting, clean football game. Always has been. You can be the favorite and the underdog, but none of that matters in this football game. It never does. It's special because of the pride that both teams have."
Michigan played its most complete football game of the season last Saturday (Nov. 19) against Nebraska, dominating time of possession while excelling in all three phases. But depending on which Wolverines player or coach you talk to, the victory celebration lasted mere minutes or hours before the focus moved on to the Buckeyes.
"We have goals in front of us that we want to accomplish," said fifth-year senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen, "that we set out to accomplish a long time ago at the beginning of the season back in January, and in the offseason we set goals. We're just trying to get there and that's what we're focused on."
"We had a great day yesterday as far as putting that game to bed and moving forward," said Hoke. "This is a special week, because you play in the greatest rivalry there is in sport. When you get the chance to play or coach in this game, it's always a fun week. So, we've got a lot of work to do, because we're not where we need to be in any sense as far as the team that we envision ourselves being and we expect to be."
The coaches have made a point to be consistent in their approach this week. Regardless of the opponent, they will always preach the same expectations in practice, in film study and in the Wolverines' preparation. The week has gotten off to a strong start, said Hoke, who feels that Michigan has done a good job of staying grounded and focused on "things that matter."
He credits the senior class for setting the tone.
"The seniors always are out in the forefront," said Hoke. "This is a group of guys who have been through a lot. They've hung together well and done a nice job of preparing weekly. Not just preparing themselves, but they're preparing their teammates. So, they've got to keep that up and be consistent in what we do and how we prepare.
"We've been intense pretty much all year in how we practice. I know one thing from being here before for eight years: You don't have to do a whole lot of coaching this week. You don't have to do a whole lot of butt chewing and getting a guy to run to the ball or take on a block. Not this week. "
N O T E S
The Wolverines enter this season's Ohio State contest with a 9-2 record. It's a stark contrast to the last few years when U-M entered the matchup in the underdog role. Hoke was reflective when asked about how quickly things can change in college football.
"I think that's life," said Hoke. "Our teams are different every year. We'll be a different team next year than we are this year. But I just think there are things, and when you're in athletics and the competitiveness and the chemistry and everything that's part of successful teams, it just changes, changes a lot for one reason or another.
"The one thing I do know though: This game is a game that's played by people who care about their institutions, the guys that are out there, the guys who played before them, and they'll care about either school in the future. That's what this game represents, because of the respect."
Hoke continues to praise the improvement of the Wolverines' defense, who held Nebraska to 260 yards of total offense, including 138 yards rushing, and a 3-of-13 third-down conversions.
"I'll tell you what they have done," said Hoke. "There are four coaches over there doing a great job at teaching. There are seniors like [Mike] Martin and [Ryan] Van Bergen and [Troy] Woolfolk, J.B. Fitzgerald, that have done a tremendous job of understanding that you start with the fundamentals, you start with the technique and start with your discipline that you're going to play each one of those things with, with your eyes. Then the ability to get 11 hands to the ball and the demeanor that they're going to play with in that way."
Hoke can't quite remember how old he was when the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry first took hold of him. But for as long as he can remember, he has watched that annual game, with its noon start, on a late-November Saturday. He can remember the highs and lows of the rivalry as a member of Lloyd Carr's coaching staff, from the 1997 national championship year to Maurice Clarett's standout performance in the 2002 game.
The meaning of 'The Game' to Hoke is not lost on his players.
"It's obviously something really important to him," said fifth-year senior center David Molk. "He's been here a long time; he knows a lot about Michigan history, this is something that is a big part of his season, a big part of who he is."