November 26, 2013 at 9:58 am

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan coach Brady Hoke deals with heat

This season has been the most trying of Michigan coach Brady Hoke's tenure, but he's not wavering or getting defensive ahead of Saturday's showdown with Ohio State. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)

Ann Arbor — If he feels the heat or hears the noise, he doesn’t show it. Brady Hoke still talks about resolve and progress, and does it with disarming confidence.

Now if only he could get his team to play that way. This is the gap that must be filled, and it’s as significant as the gaping one between Michigan and Ohio State. It’s the gap between the program Hoke wants to build, and the one we’re seeing.

Hoke isn’t wavering or getting defensive, and that’s a good thing. Because this season — and Saturday’s game against the unbeaten Buckeyes — might be the biggest football tests he’ll ever face. The Wolverines (7-4) have crumbled in astonishing ways on offense, and head into the rivalry game as two-touchdown underdogs at home.

This is the worst possible scenario for Michigan, regressing in a season that features Urban Meyer leading Ohio State to another perfect mark, and Mark Dantonio leading Michigan State to the Big Ten championship game. Michigan fans are angst-ridden, which is understandable. But as the leader of the program, Hoke can’t show weakness, can’t make excuses, and definitely can’t concede anything.

Asked what he’d say to those who suggest the Wolverines have no shot against the Buckeyes, he stuck to the script.

“No. 1, I’d say we’re gonna play the game on Saturday, and this game has always been different in some ways,” Hoke said Monday. “Are they a good football team? Yeah, they’re a very good football team. Do we have to play better than we’ve played? I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”

The Wolverines would have to play much, much better, and it likely would come from their slowly improving defense. If they’re not careful, they could get shellacked, which would ratchet the noise. Keeping the game close would buy breathing room, and a stunning upset would buy a whole lot more. So, is Hoke confident the upset could happen?

“I’m confident it could happen, or we wouldn’t play,” he said. “I’d call down to Columbus and say we won’t do it.”

Develop an edge

There it is again, the easy charm that makes Hoke a fine leader and renowned recruiter. But the disconnect between the words and deeds is apparent, and to compete with his biggest rivals, Hoke must show he can develop a hard edge, and instill it in his team.

I still think he can, as his young offensive line develops and his defense keeps growing. But in his third season, with a 26-11 record (15-8 Big Ten), the task is getting tougher. The primary competitors, Ohio State and Michigan State, have dug in fiercely, and the Wolverines have dug themselves a disadvantage with coaching changes.

Hoke has much more support than Rich Rodriguez ever got, and showed a willingness to adapt to the roster he inherited. But all the talk of toughness in the trenches hasn’t produced nearly enough, and quarterback Devin Gardner has played like a shell. He’s afraid to make mistakes, and doesn’t get much time to make decisions behind the weak offensive line.

Michigan is next to last in the nation in tackles-for-loss with 102. That’s the very definition of going backward, and at some point soon, the Wolverines will have to plant their feet and start pushing forward. The offensive line should improve with experience, and if it doesn’t, Hoke has to make changes on his staff, from coordinator Al Borges to line coach Darrell Funk. Stability is nice but next season will be hugely important, and progress is mandatory.

Some of the Wolverines’ struggles are rooted in simple truths. Switching from a spread offense under Rodriguez to a pro-style system, they got caught with smaller players, fewer linemen and little experienced depth. Denard Robinson hid some defects and so did Gardner, for a while.

Now it’s all out there, and Hoke has to hear it, right?

“Not really, because I don’t listen very well,” he said. “I had a problem growing up because of that. No one knows but the guys in (Schembechler Hall) how they’ve practiced every day, how they’ve come out and worked. … No matter what I say, (people) are gonna have their own opinion. I know this is going in the right direction, but what am I gonna say? It’s going backwards? I feel very confident in what we’re doing and how our kids are responding.”

Paying for youth

From 11-2 to 8-5 to 7-4, progress is not reflected in the record, although it could leap up with another year of experience. More young players, from tackle Willie Henry to end Chris Wormley to linebacker James Ross III, are contributing, and the defense could be good next season. The problem is, to avoid another pounding, it will have to be good in five days, and the offense can’t be completely awful.

There is a slight precedent for this. In 2009, Rodriguez’s second season, the 5-6 Wolverines were outmatched by the ninth-ranked Buckeyes, but hung in before falling 21-10 in Michigan Stadium. This Ohio State offense, led by Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde, leads the Big Ten with 530 yards per game. Defense usually is where upstarts hang in, and guys like Jake Ryan and Frank Clark have been increasingly disruptive for the Wolverines.

“They’re playing very hard, they have excellent players,” Meyer said Monday. “So whatever issues the rival has, it has nothing to do with their defense.”

All U-M’s issues won’t be fixed in a week and won’t be fixed easily, as gaps widen. But with a storied rival coming to town, there’s no better place — and no more urgent time — to start.

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