ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It was 10 months ago that Brady Hoke offered a proclamation that seems totally incongruent with the current happenings of Michigan's football program.
At his welcoming press conference in January after being named head coach, Hoke expressed that anything short of a Big Ten championship would mean he and his staff "have failed these kids." Well, the Wolverines on Saturday were eliminated from the championship hunt, as Michigan State secured the Legends title and will play in the inaugural title game. But labeling this season a failure, by all accounts, would be preposterous.
The 20th-ranked Wolverines can still win 10 games, can still beat Ohio State, and they're playing their best football with their most important game next on the docket. In Saturday's 45-17 clobbering of No. 17 Nebraska, UM (9-2, 5-2) dominated offensively, defensively, and -- for the first time this year -- on special teams.
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Denard Robinson broke free from a relative slump, passing for two touchdowns and rushing for two others, the defense held Nebraska's two distinguished runners to just 85 yards combined, and the special teams forced three turnovers and executed a fake field goal that former coach Lloyd Carr described as a "big, big play."
"It's probably as well as we've played in all three phases," Hoke said, before bemoaning areas he'd like to see his team get better.
Next up is Ohio State, or "Ohio," as Hoke says. Hoke has made a point from day one to emphasize the importance of this rivalry, which UM hasn't won since 2003 -- a string of seven straight losses. This one seems to favor UM, based on its continued improvement, the fact it is 7-0 at home, and because OSU is just 6-5.
"We've won two in a row, right? Hoke said. "There's another one to go win."
Saturday's win was written in the third quarter, when three big plays by the special teams led to 14 points and a 17-10 halftime lead ballooned to 31-10. The first came on the opening kickoff of the second half when UM reserve receiver Terrence Robinson raced down the field and crushed return man Kenny Bell, forcing the ball to come loose and recovering it at the 33. A pass interference call in the end zone against Nebraska's Lance Thorell extended the drive, and Robinson followed three plays later with a one-yard TD run. It was the second TD run of the day for Robinson, who totaled 83 yards and is seven shy of 1000.
UM's special teams have been merely so-so this year, but they were spectacular in the second half. On the drive after Robinson's TD run, Josh Furman blocked a punt when Brett Maher mishandled the snap. It appeared a field goal would be the end result, but then holder Drew Dileo took off, gaining four yards and setting up a first-and-goal at the 1. Hoke said Penn State used similar trickery in 1995 against UM in Carr's first season. Speaking of Carr, he was disappointed when it appeared UM would try a 22-yard field goal -- and excited when Dileo didn't follow through with it.
"I was hoping on fourth down they would go for it," said Carr, who was honored before the game for his upcoming induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. "They sent their field goal team in and ran that fake. I thought that was a big, big play in the game."
Fitzgerald Toussaint (138 yards, two TDs) bounced outside on the next play to put UM ahead 31-10. He added another score in the fourth quarter, completing his third highly productive performance in four games. In all, UM totaled 238 rushing yards -- seven more than its season average -- and held the ball for a staggering 41:13. Hoke joked that the best defensive play call is the one the coaching staff never has to make.
"I know for a fact our defense plays better when they have a limited amount of time on the field," offensive tackle Mark Huyge said. "I didn't know we held the ball for 40 minutes. That's a good deal."
The fourth quarter was much of the same. Robinson delivered to Martavious Odoms in the back of the end zone on a 38-yard strike that Hoke called Robinson's best throw of the year, and Toussaint busted a TD run of 31 yards for his ninth of the year. On defense the emphasis was no longer trying to stop the dual-threat running of Taylor Martinez (16 carries, 49 yards) and Rex Burkhead (10 for 36) and instead not getting beat deep. Heck, there was even another fumble recovered on a kickoff.
With about six minutes to go, fans began chanting "Beat Ohio, Beat Ohio" and sounded confident UM will carry out those orders in seven days.
"I knew it was coming," Odoms said. "I was prepared for it."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @RyanAutullo.