- Erin Kirkland/Daily
By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 19, 2011
It took the voters an extra week this season, but the Michigan football team is ranked in the AP top 25 once again.
After starting each of the last three seasons unranked, the Wolverines climbed onto the board after second-week victories over Notre Dame in 2009 and 2010.
Michigan jumped to No. 22 on the charts after a 31-3 win over Eastern Michigan on Saturday. And while the rank might be a confidence boost, the players feel like it pins a target on their backs.
“I think it’s a curse,” senior defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen said Monday. “I would rather not be ranked until the end of the season when it goes down to bowl games.
“When you’re ranked, all it does it is put something on a chalkboard for the other team. … That’s a big stat, if you can get a win against a top-25 team. People notice that.”
With a 3-0 record, the Wolverines now sit atop the Big Ten, tied with Nebraska in the Leaders division and Illinois and Wisconsin in the Legends division.
But the wins haven’t been so impressive. It took a 28-point fourth quarter to topple Notre Dame, 35-31, on Sept. 10. And Michigan still hasn’t scored a point in any first quarter.
“I think we're vastly overrated,” senior tight end Kevin Koger said. “I mean, that's just how it is. We have so much stuff to work on. We have a lot of time to get it fixed, but for us to be in the top 25 right now is kind of ridiculous.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke, whose all-time record reached 50-50 with Saturday’s victory, said he didn’t vote for his team in the USA Today poll — the Wolverines are No. 21 on that poll.
But did Hoke talk to the team about the ranking?
“Does it matter?” Hoke asked.
RED ZONE RULERS: While Michigan may spurn the No. 22 ranking, the Wolverines have to be pleased with what both the offense and defense have done inside the 20-yard lines this season.
The defense has struggled to slow opposing offenses down through three games. But once teams enter the red zone — inside the 20-yard lines — Michigan's defense has been a brick wall.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s corps have been world-beaters in defending against red-zone offenses. Opponents have emerged with points just six times in 10 red-zone trips — two of those scores being field goals — good for second in the Big Ten.
“Coach Mattison emphasizes the red zone as being one of the most important things,” Van Bergen said.
“Everybody thinks the offense gets better in the red zone — that’s not our perspective. The field gets shorter and there’s the same amount of guys out there. We think that we have better odds in the red zone, when it comes down to it.”
In addition, the Wolverines have come away with four takeaways in the red zone, with two fumble recoveries and two goal-line interceptions.
The team’s turnover margin of plus-six ranks fourth in the nation — Michigan was minus-32 over the past three years.
Van Bergen attributed the turnover turnaround to added emphasis in practice.
“We’re constantly going after the ball in practice against our own guys, regardless of if it’s tackle or not,” Van Bergen said. “The main emphasis is strip the ball no matter what. We jump on incomplete passes every time like it’s a fumble.”
Added Hoke: “Tight coverage, pressuring the QB, effort and guys getting to the football. Those four components usually turn into turnover opportunities.”
And on the offensive side of the ball, Michigan has feasted in the red zone.
The Wolverines have scored on each of their 10 trips inside the opposing 20-yard line — with only one field goal. Their near-perfect red-zone touchdown percentage sits at seventh in the nation and first in the Big Ten.
NO GOOD WAY TO LEAVE: Mass texts are rarely the answer to anything.
But that’s just how Hoke left San Diego State’s football program — Michigan’s opponent this Saturday.
Hoke, who coached the Aztecs for the past two seasons, was hired to replace former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez on Jan. 11 this year.
Since his transition occurred over San Diego State’s winter break, Hoke was stuck. He couldn’t gather his players to meet one final time like he did when he left Ball State, his alma mater.
The way he notified the Aztecs, though, was nothing short of unorthodox.
Hoke’s decision to leave the Aztecs created a buzz across the nation, but it also set off a buzz in each of his players’ pockets.
“I texted them all, just a mass text,” Hoke said.
“I don’t know how you tell people. We were on a little bit of a schedule, time-wise.”
Before leaving, Hoke was involved with scheduling the game between Michigan and San Diego State. He never thought he’d be coaching on the home sideline during that game at Michigan Stadium.
When he arrived at Michigan, Hoke stood just nine months away from playing the same players he’d recruited, made promises to and brought to the national platform. And the same players he’d texted his goodbyes to.
“I told Dave Brandon, ‘Let’s buy that (game) out,’ ” Hoke said, laughing. “The game’s scheduled, you’ve got to play it. It would have been way too hard for both teams to try and find new opponents.”
But that wasn’t sentimental.
“Because they're good,” Hoke said.
Hoke eventually tried to downplay the matchup.
“It’s San Diego State playing Michigan, that’s all it really is.”
But it’s so much more.