Michigan coach Brady Hoke has talked about his team’s resiliency this season, and he’s talked about the Wolverines’ inconsistent play as its identity.
No one is questioning the resiliency of the team.
No one is questioning whether this team plays hard.
But a 29-6 loss at Michigan State, the program’s fifth loss to its rival in the last six years, does magnify the team’s inconsistent play, its tendency to be out-muscled and pushed around, its lack of toughness and grit, a nonexistent run game, an offensive line with protection so porous that Devin Gardner was sacked seven times, a defense that can give up the killer big play and a staff that after a two-week break could not find a way to get the players to poke even a small hole in the Spartans’ top-ranked defense.
Michigan is now 6-2 (2-2 Big Ten) and out of the national rankings with a four-game stretch ahead that includes Nebraska at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, back-to-back games at Northwestern and Iowa before returning home for the regular-season finale against Ohio State, currently ranked No. 4.
The Wolverines have struggled on the road the last three years, going 2-2 in 2011, 2-4 in 2012 and, so far, 1-2 this season, including a slim victory at UConn.
During Michigan’s week off, Hoke told The News that the team’s identity is “inconsistent.”
“We do take a couple steps forward in whatever phase it might be and a step back,” he said.
Hoke is in his third season as the Wolverines’ head coach, and it’s clear the Wolverines took an enormous leap backward against Michigan State, which clearly lived up to the defensive accolades it had received heading into the game.
“It’s who’s tougher, that’s what it comes down to,” Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan, a co-captain, said after the game. “We played a tough game. It came down to who wanted it more, who played their technique better. That’s something we definitely have to do better. We didn’t play the game we wanted to play. We need to go 100 percent every single play and some plays we didn’t do that, and they came out with the win.”
The Wolverines didn’t have a chance to go 100 percent on most plays because the Spartans wouldn’t let them. Talk about setting the tone and imposing the will of a team.
Taylor Lewan, Michigan’s All-America left tackle, who earlier last week said Michigan State had “bullied” the Wolverines two years ago, pushed and shoved and frequently was involved in the jawing that goes along with a rivalry game.
He drew a drive-ending personal foul in the second quarter — two plays after Michigan had lost 20 yards on an errant snap over the head of Gardner — after he grabbed and twisted the face mask of Isaiah Lewis while Lewis was on the ground.
That kind of stuff rarely helps a team. Clearly, in that instance, it hurt the Wolverines. It reeked more of frustration than attempting to change the tone and flow of the game.
But when a team lacks a certain toughness, evident in the fact the Wolverines had a program-worst minus-48 yards, that behavior doesn’t help.
The Wolverines offensive statistics read like a football horror story.
Certainly, the rushing yardage was damaged by the seven sacks Gardner took and the 20-yard bad snap. Michigan had 168 total yards for an average of 2.8 yards a play against the nation’s top defense, which entered the game allowing an average of 215.5 total yards, 54.9 rushing.
Michigan was a shoddy 2-of-13 on third-down conversions.
“I think this game absolutely falls on the offensive line,” Lewan said. “A lot of the same, exact blitzes they ran in 2011. When it came down to it, we couldn’t pick it up.”
Michigan started its fourth different offensive line of the season, this time with freshman Kyle Bosch at left guard. Two weeks ago in Michigan’s last game, Bosch filled in for starter Joey Burzynski, who suffered a season-ending knee injury. Backup tackle Erik Magnuson started for a second straight game at right tackle.
Clearly, the youth of the interior — redshirt sophomore Graham Glasgow has started all season, first at left guard and then center — has been an issue.
But Lewan said the finger could not be pointed exclusively at the interior.
“Absolutely not,” Lewan said. “This is a team effort. A lot of it falls on the offensive line, and that’s not just three guys.”
Gardner took a beating and was on the sideline at the end of the game being looked at by the head medical trainer and doctor. Hoke said Gardner was not injured.
“He got pounded a little bit,” Hoke said. “He was a warrior out there. He took a lot of shots earlier in the game. A little bit worn out. If that’s an injury, that’s an injury.”
Michigan managed only two field goals, and the second, kicked by Brendan Gibbons, hit the goal post before falling in.
The Wolverines simply couldn’t move forward. There were a number of examples, but one that was glaring was the Wolverines’ series after Raymon Taylor intercepted MSU’s Connor Cook. Michigan got the ball at the MSU 41 with just more than two minutes left in the third quarter, but then proceeded to be pushed back and back.
Gardner rushed for a 5-yard loss the first play, and then followed that with back-to-back sacks — both by Denicos Allen — for a total of 16 more yards.
“We didn’t execute as well as they did,” Hoke said when asked why so many negative yards.
Simple as that?
“Pretty much,” he said.
Hoke and his players mentioned “lack of execution” multiple times during the postgame news conference. Yes, it was about lack of execution, but it was more than that.
Mostly, it was about being dominated by a better team.