Niyo: Loss to Spartans might put stake in Hoke's reign

John Niyo
The Detroit News

East Lansing — This is how you get dismissed.

As a team, and as a coach.

You do it by getting beaten by a rival, and then finding something to celebrate in a loss. You do it by staking claim to someone else's territory and then getting buried there on their terms. You do it by biting your tongue, and then finishing with a whimper.

This is what Michigan did again Saturday, bringing a knife to a gunfight and then heading home with their coach, in what would be a fitting epitaph for Brady Hoke's tenure at Michigan, saying, "I think I was aware that something happened, but I'm not fully aware."

He was, in the proper context, trying to explain just what had happened before Saturday's 35-11 loss to Michigan State, when one of his players – "I think it was Joe (Bolden)," Hoke went on to say – inexplicably decided to throw a stake into the turf inside Spartan Stadium.

If it was intended to be a rallying point, it obviously backfired. The Spartans marched 75 yards in eight plays on the game's opening drive to take a 7-0 lead, with Connor Cook delivering arguably the game's biggest hit, bowling over Michigan safety Delano Hill on a quarterback keeper. And Michigan State punctuated the rout with a last-minute touchdown rather than taking a knee, because as coach Mark Dantonio later explained, "Just felt I needed to put a stake in them at some point."

Spartans' approval

Dantonio later added that "all the disrespect" he's protesting has nothing to do with Hoke. ("It doesn't come from the coach," he said, "it comes from the program.")

But the failures of this Michigan team certainly do, and Saturday's showing — Hoke's still winless on the road against ranked opponents in his four years at the helm — only drove that point home.

Because this is what it has come to for Michigan fans, watching Sparty dressed up as Paul Bunyan strolling behind the Wolverines' bench, then all but begging for mercy as the clock ticked down on a sixth loss in seven years to their in-state rivals.

"Well, you want to win more," Hoke said, after Michigan's most-lopsided loss in the series since 1967. "So is that frustrating? Yeah, you want to win more."

And no, he said, he didn't hear the "Keep Brady!" chants from the partisan Michigan State crowd, or see the 13 shirtless fans spelling it out — last name included — in the front row of the student section.

His players said the same, but as fifth-year senior linebacker Jake Ryan admitted, they've been tuning out that noise "every single day" for what seems like forever now.

"You've just got to let it go and ignore it," Ryan said. "That's what you've got to do."

Job? Well ... done

What the administration has to do now seems impossible to ignore as well, with fan discontent reaching new lows with every humiliating loss. Hoke has to be gone at season's end, because there's no tangible sign of progress with his teams and no cogent explanation as to why.

"I think we've had opportunities to do better, play better," Hoke said. "And we've got to do that."

The defense they've been touting this season couldn't tackle Saturday — Jeremy Langford rushed for a career-high 177 yards — and the offense looked as anemic as ever for most of the afternoon, finishing with 186 yards and three turnovers.

When running back De'Veon Smith finally scored a touchdown with 3:40 left, his offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier celebrated on the sideline like he'd clinched the Big Ten title. But really all he'd done was end a three-year TD drought against the Spartans that covered 12 full quarters and 40 offensive possessions. (The fact that backup Shane Morris took the first snap of the drive, only to have Hoke reinsert Devin Gardner after one play, was never fully explained.)

Asked who was to blame for this, Hoke pointed to himself, just as he had in the postgame locker room, telling his players he hadn't prepared them well enough.

"See, I'm accountable," he said.

And angry about what his team has done. Or undone, as it were.

"Always," Hoke said. "Because I gotta do a better job. And that's how I feel."

That feeling is mutual, of course. And it can't end soon enough.