Michigan prepares for Nebraska with ‘championship week’ mentality

Erin Kirkland/Daily
Fifth-year senior center Elliott Mealer and the Wolverines are taking every Big Ten game as if it were a championship game. Buy this photo

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 22, 2012

Every time the No. 20 Michigan football team walks into the meeting room in Schembechler Hall, it sees the same thing.

An image of the Stagg Championship Trophy, given to the victor of the Big Ten, has been plastered on the screen before every team meeting since the start of conference play in early October.

The trophy isn’t easily earned, and Michigan coach Brady Hoke has emphasizes its importance every chance he gets: in team meetings, in the locker room, on the practice field.

There isn’t a single game on the Big Ten schedule that you can overlook, Hoke has preached. Every week is a “championship week.”

Somehow, the mantra hasn’t felt redundant for the Wolverines.

“We want to hear about the Big Ten trophy and Indianapolis and all those things, because we know that last year we didn't get that accomplished,” said fifth-year senior center Elliott Mealer on Monday.

“You need a reminder, need a reminder every week what you’re playing for. We accept it and it's not redundant. We need to hear about it.”

Mealer doesn’t remember the constant “championship week” reminders happening last season, a year in which the Wolverines slipped up against underdog Iowa and lost to Michigan State.

Those two losses effectively put Michigan out of contention for the program’s 43rd Big Ten title, something Hoke has designated as the team’s ultimate goal each season since the day he stepped on campus as head coach.

Despite a 10-2 regular-season record and a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech in 2011-12, Hoke and the players still deem the season a “failure” because they failed to win the conference championship.

So, to ensure that the Wolverines (3-0 Big Ten, 5-2 overall) don’t overlook any Big Ten opponent, Hoke has emphasized each week as pivotal on the road to Indianapolis. During Monday’s press conference, Hoke and the three players who spoke must have combined to say “championship week” a few dozen times.

And the players aren’t just repeating coachspeak — they really believe it.

“I think we picked up (the phrase) the first week Coach Hoke said it,” said senior defensive lineman Will Campbell. “Because every week is a championship week and we have to win out.”

Each victory is another step forward. A month into the conference slate, Michigan is 3-0. Nebraska, its next opponent on the chopping block, is 3-1 and is the Wolverines’ top competition for the Big Ten Legends division crown.

As far as regular-season games go, this one will have a championship feel to it.

“It’s a ‘Who's next’ mentality,” Hoke added. “Who are you playing next? As you know, November and October is when you win championships.

“We’ll have to play our best football that we’ve played this year.”

Though Michigan has roses painted throughout Schembechler Hall and Michigan Stadium, the team hasn’t made the trip to Pasedena, Calif. for the Rose Bowl since 2007 — the program hasn’t endured a longer Rose Bowl drought since 1957-64.

A win against Nebraska (2-1, 5-2) would vault the Wolverines into a two-game lead over the Cornhuskers with four games remaining. Barring an unforeseen collapse, a date with Iowa (2-1, 4-3) on Nov. 17 would likely be Michigan’s final challenge before the Big Ten title game.

But that might be diving into the future a little bit too quickly. The Wolverines have a primetime matchup with Nebraska in Lincoln on Saturday, and that’s the only thing on their minds.

“It's a championship game for us,” Mealer said. “Last week was a championship game and the week before that was.

“We’re playing for the trophy, and we control our own destiny.”