It’s easy. Or at least that’s what Devin Gardner says. The fifth-year Michigan quarterback and his teammates found little difficulty ignoring the criticisms and outrage directed at them during — and following — last year’s dreary 7–6 performance.
“We know what goes on in our building and on the field, and the outside noise is something we ignore,” Gardner says. “(Critics) know nothing. It’s not hard to ignore people who know nothing.”
Fans and media are indeed unaware of the inner machinations of a football program. They only know what they see, and last year the optical evidence against Michigan was pretty damning. The Wolverines lost to both Michigan State — the Spartans punched them in the mouth — and Ohio State. They finished 102nd nationally running the football and 105th in sacks allowed, slaps to the face of a program that has boasted about its toughness since Bo Schembechler first growled on an Ann Arbor sideline in 1969. Their bowl meltdown against Kansas State was partially due to the foot injury Gardner suffered against OSU (although freshman Shane Morris acquitted himself well) but mostly the responsibility of a munificent defense that allowed the Wildcats to pile up 420 total yards. And the first month of 2014 featured a groggy end to the recruiting season that dawned with so much promise in the summer of ’13.
Last year at this time, many — this magazine included — were heralding a return to the old days of the Big Ten, in which ancestral rivals Michigan and Ohio State would rise above the rabble and stage yet another Ten Year War. Now, some are wondering whether the Wolverines will catch up to the Buckeyes and the Spartans, both of whom played in BCS bowls last year. And now there is reason to fear Penn State. The Nittany Lions have remained competitive despite crippling NCAA sanctions and are beginning to recruit at an elite level under new head coach James Franklin. Michigan, meanwhile, dropped the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, 31–14. “Whatever happened last year has nothing to do with this year,” U-M head coach Brady Hoke says. “(Michigan State’s and Ohio State’s bowl games) are achievements you want, and expectations you have. Is it incentive? I think so. It always is.”
By the end of last season, his third in Ann Arbor, Hoke was hearing dissatisfaction among Wolverine fans, a first since he arrived promising Big Ten titles and a definitive move away from Rich Rodriguez’s disastrous tenure. Perhaps most galling was the team’s inability to match up when rivals used roughneck tactics against it. It’s one thing to lose six games, and another to get pushed around doing it.
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Hoke counters that four of Michigan’s losses came by a combined 11 points, and that the team wasn’t far from a double-figure win season. That’s true, but he also refers to “the toughness you need to have from a mental perspective” as a prerequisite for reversing that trend of close defeats. That’s not a poke at the 2013 team’s ability to handle the tough times, but it does illuminate one of the program’s missions for this campaign — specifically, to prohibit rivals from bullying it.
“As much as anything else, that’s the identity we’re striving for,” Hoke says. The most apt barometer for that personality is the running game. Michigan averaged a feeble 3.3 yards per carry last year, an embarrassment for a program that has sold itself — except for the forgettable Rodriguez interregnum — as a rugged Rust Belt offense. Then-offensive coordinator Al Borges used five different starting combinations on the line, to no avail, and the backs lacked the necessary horsepower to burst through whatever holes did materialize.
Borges is out. And whether his removal was the doing of hands-on AD Dave Brandon or Hoke, who insists it was his decision, a new era has dawned under former Alabama OC Doug Nussmeier, who has simplified some of the team’s schemes and promises that the Wolverines will run the ball better this year. “The offensive line is nastier,” senior middle linebacker Jake Ryan says. “You can definitely tell that.”
Whether U-M can replicate Bama’s success without Bama’s personnel is another question. Gardner, however, is convinced. “We’re going to be able to run the football. I promise you that,” he says.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, whose salary will approach $1 million per year by 2016, has some work to do also. Though the 2013 numbers on his side of the ball aren’t as gloomy as the offense’s, Michigan did surrender 97 points in its final three games and must get stouter along the front seven. That has been a priority in the spring.
“I think we’ll be more physical,” says Ryan, a playmaker who moved to the inside this year. “We’ll be a tough-nosed, downhill team.”
Michigan will also be a more veteran squad. Hoke won’t say it, but Rodriguez’s recruiting efforts have hurt the program. Rich Rod pursued smaller, faster players, the better to fit his system. He succeeded in making U-M a less robust team, and that has hurt Hoke’s efforts to play a more physical brand of football. There are only 12 scholarship seniors and 18 juniors on the roster, so underclassmen comprise the vast majority of the Michigan personnel. In a way, last year could have been predicted, since 25 members of the 44-man offensive and defensive depth chart for the KSU game had either freshman or sophomore eligibility.
“We’re still a young program in a lot of ways,” Hoke says. “We’re really backloaded. That’s a positive thing. A lot of them played last year, too. Are they going to be like someone who started 35 games? No. But they are getting a lot of reps in spring ball.”
Filling the pipeline with more talent is vital to the Wolverines, especially since the Buckeyes continue to dazzle recruiting experts with their classes. Michigan could sign only 16 newcomers in February, because of its crowded roster. And though 11 of them were rated four stars or higher (five-star cornerback Jabrill Peppers leads the pack) by ESPN, there were some setbacks, like when defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand startled many by choosing Alabama over U-M, and in-state five-star defensive tackle Malik McDowell chose MSU. Two commitments for the 2015 class backed out of their pledges as well, although both continue to list Michigan among their finalists. The Wolverines still had a great class, but the defections created a sense of lost momentum.
Hoke pledges to get it back. The 2014 schedule is tough and features road games at Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State. But Gardner is a fifth-year senior with plenty of experience, the depth chart is dotted with talent and growing experience, and the young depth is of a Michigan quality. Nussmeier is expected to make the offense more productive, and Mattison vows an angrier defense.
“Everybody sees how close we were to a 10-win season last year,” Gardner says. “Losing (four games) by 11 points combined is pretty good and also bad. We had the opportunity and didn’t take advantage of it. That makes it worse. You feel horrible. Eleven points more. We have to give that effort.”
And produce results that anybody can see.
Written by Michael Bradley (@DailyHombre) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 Big Ten Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.