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Fans’ restlessness is valid, Hoke says, but players have noticed

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 11, 2013

As soon as the Michigan football team walked into the locker room for halftime of Saturday’s game against Nebraska, fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan decided it was time to talk.

The Wolverines were getting pummeled in the trenches again. The Cornhuskers led, 10-3, and after Michigan took a knee to end the half, the Michigan Stadium crowd booed as the team headed to the tunnel.

For players like sophomore linebacker James Ross III, it was a moment of clarity. For the others, Lewan would soon provide the lesson.

Hearing the fans’ displeasure while exiting the field, Ross said, “We realized that it’s all about us in this locker room, and that’s the only ones who’s gonna have each other’s backs through the worst times and through the best times.”

When the team reached the locker room, “Lewan definitely stuck that point home,” Ross said.

Right after halftime, the Wolverines executed their best drive in the past two games. For one drive, Michigan’s offense marched methodically, using mostly passes to go 75 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown. Then, Michigan failed to score for the rest of the 17-13 loss.

The defeat was noteworthy for several reasons. It knocked Michigan out of Big Ten title contention. It marked Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s first back-to-back regular-season losses, and his first home loss. And, also for the first time under Hoke, the Michigan fans openly voiced their displeasure during a game.

On Monday, Hoke acknowledged that the faithful have grown ornery, “and they should be,” he said. But any boos directed at the players, he said, disappoint him.

“If they’re booing the kids, then yeah,” Hoke said. “They can boo us coaches all they want.”

Asked if he thought the fans were upset with the coaching, Hoke said, “that’s what I’d be disappointed in.”

Few fundamental changes are in store. Hoke said again on Monday that he had to do a better job coaching. Still, he expressed support for offensive coordinator Al Borges’s game plan. He dismissed claims by two Nebraska defenders who insisted they could predict Michigan’s plays. And the offensive line, he said, was far from the only issue facing the team.

And so, at least until this weekend’s game at Northwestern, the grumbling will likely continue. The seniors have experienced struggles like this before. But for the younger players, the atmosphere can have an effect.

“What happens above the neck is more important than anything,” Hoke said. “Period.”

Fifth-year senior right tackle Michael Schofield says he tells the underclassmen to ignore the outside voices.

“I mean, they’re gonna boo,” he said. “We just gotta stick together as a team and just fight together.”

Ross said the halftime jeers provided motivation. He suggested it could galvanize the team.

As for Hoke, he can look back to his third season as the Ball State coach as an example. That 2005 team lost six of its first seven, including to No. 11 Iowa, Auburn and No. 21 Boston College by a combined 154 points. But a strong finish helped Ball State salvage a 4-4 finish in conference play, including wins against both Mid-American Conference division winners.

The key there, Hoke said, was staying consistent. That team, he explained, didn’t stray from who it was.

Now, he hopes to do the same at Michigan. The pressure here is different, of course. Even at home, Hoke can’t escape it.

“Look, I’ve got a harder time at home than I do there,” Hoke said. “Believe me. I mean, my daughter and wife, man. (The media is) easy compared to them.”