Ann Arbor — Brady Hoke isn't flinching. He disagrees that his program is in crisis but doesn't get defensive about it, and doesn't change his cordial demeanor.
A leader can't show cracks in confidence, so that's an appropriate response. But something has to change, because staying the course only works if the course is on track. That's why Hoke and his staff are considering a switch at quarterback, a move that makes sense.
Sophomore Shane Morris hasn't had a chance to show much, thrown into tough spots and starting only the bowl loss to Kansas State. Devin Gardner was injured then and looks broken now, mentally not physically. It's foolish to think Morris can single-handedly save Michigan's season, but it's also foolish to keep losing the exact same way.
Gardner needs a break — maybe not a permanent one — and Hoke needs to create a break before the 2-2 Wolverines plummet farther. Hoke said he'd name his starting quarterback today for the Big Ten opener against Minnesota, and contemplating a change often foreshadows a change. Gardner threw two more interceptions in the 26-10 loss to Utah, and Michigan ranks last in the nation in turnover margin at minus-10.
There's something to salvage here, whether it seems that way or not. It's too early in the season to write anybody off, but too late to assume the offense will naturally improve. Hoke rightly wants criticism of the program directed at him, not the players, so it's probably time to take some heat off Gardner.
Hoke isn't the type to fret about job security or try to appease fans, so it's no guarantee he'll bench Gardner. He has tried to fix the offense, replacing coordinator Al Borges with Doug Nussmeier, but the results are getting worse and Gardner seems lost and frustrated. The Wolverines defense is good enough to keep them in most Big Ten games, and their offense is sloppy enough to lose any Big Ten game.
Sticking to the script
Hoke and his staff feel the pressure but aren't lashing back, which is commendable. It would be more encouraging to see on-field progress. In his fourth season, we're still looking for signs of an edge, a position of strength, a fiery response.
Is this a crisis stage?
"No," Hoke said Monday.
Did you think the program would be farther along by now?
"I don't know," he said. "I don't know if you can judge anything like that. Who thought we'd go to the Sugar Bowl the first year? … The point is, we're building a program with a great foundation, and that's important from the academic side to the athletic side. We got some older guys on defense. On offense, we got one scholarship senior starting (Gardner)."
That's as close as Hoke will get to discussing the program's transition and defending the slide, from 11-2 to 8-5 to 7-6 to a 4-8 record the past 12 games. It doesn't fully explain how Michigan could fail to register an offensive touchdown — or a single foray into the red zone — in losses to Notre Dame and Utah. But it might help explain why Greg Mattison's defense looks better, perhaps even capable of carrying Michigan through tough times.
Mattison was feisty and emotional Monday, two days after TV cameras caught him in a sideline spat-argument-discussion with Hoke. Both brushed it off as the competitiveness of friends who have engaged in all sorts of spirited clashes, from Euchre to wrestling, over 30 years. If not for the game's outcome, it would've been easily dismissed.
But everything is scrutinized when a once-powerful program staggers, and Mattison's voice trembled as he described the exchange.
"Let me just say this — I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for Brady Hoke," Mattison said, before stepping from the podium briefly to compose himself. "When he said something to me (on the field), I should've never said a word. He was being a head football coach, which he does a phenomenal job of. So I snapped at him, and I shouldn't have. Good thing it was him — maybe somebody else would've fired me right there."
Mattison was in a better mood Monday, and so was Hoke. Is that a fatalistic approach with a flawed team, or legitimate confidence it can get better?
Not backing down
Hoke simply declines to buckle, and give him credit for composure.
"Obviously, with social media and everything else, (pressure) is out there," Hoke said. "It's what you choose and what you believe. And we've got great belief in our locker room."
There doesn't appear to be a divide over the quarterback situation either. The coaches have stuck with Gardner not out of blind loyalty, but because he could dazzle at times, such as in the 42-41 loss to Ohio State last season. Before that, they stuck with Denard Robinson because he was uniquely talented.
Hoke hasn't yet started a Big Ten game with a quarterback he recruited. Morris played decently in the 31-14 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Kansas State, finishing 24-for-38 for 196 yards and running for 43 more. He's a left-hander with an extremely strong arm, but nobody knows if he's ready to direct the offense.
He can run a bit too, important behind the spotty offensive line.
Whoever starts Saturday in the Big House, the challenge doesn't change, not for the players or the coaches. The Wolverines have to perform as if they belong, and compete as if they plan to stay.
Minnesota at Michigan
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Line: Michigan by 10
Records: Minnesota 3-1, Michigan 2-2
Series: Michigan leads 72-24-3 (Michigan 42-13, Oct. 5, 2013)
Did you know? Michigan and Minnesota are playing for the Little Brown Jug, which has been on the line since 1909, and the Wolverines have 22 of the last 23, including the last six.