Redshirt junior safety Thomas Gordon answered as he was supposed to, as he’d learned through osmosis from Michigan coach Brady Hoke. With two losses already this season, has Michigan taken a step back from last year?

“We still can smell roses at the end of the season,” Gordon said. “That’s our focus.”

The start of the Big Ten season signals the start of the march toward Hoke’s stated goal each year: a conference championship. But to those outside of the conference who view Michigan as a part of the Big Ten’s swoon this year, it might be too late to change the sense that the Wolverines are moving backward.

At this time last year, Michigan was 4-0, and it would win another two games before losing its first. There was no Alabama on the schedule last season, but fair or not, with a second loss early in the season comes the perception of regression.

Hoke repeatedly asserts that he judges teams by conference championships. He said last year’s 11-2 campaign was unsuccessful because the Wolverines fell short of a Big Ten title. Michigan could lose more games this season but by Hoke’s metrics it would be more successful as long as it comes with a conference championship.

Perceptions and benchmarks matter, but, simply, Michigan has not progressed as fast as it did in Hoke’s first year at the helm. The Wolverines have scored less (by 14 points through four games) and given up more (41 points in that span).

This year, Michigan’s marked decline in two areas have been glaring. The line on both sides of the ball has not controlled the game. Last year, Michigan rushed for 376 more yards than its opponents through the first four games. This year, it has rushed for just 10 more yards.

Aside from senior quarterback Denard Robinson, Michigan has yet to have a 100-yard rusher. Redshirt junior Fitzgerald Toussaint hasn’t found the running lanes he had last year.

In turnovers, this year’s minus-seven margin lags well behind last year’s pace of plus-five. That’s partially due to Robinson’s struggles in the pocket, partially due to a defensive that hasn’t swarmed to the ball as aggressively and, also, due to luck. Hoke has said that the coaches have amplified their emphasis on turnovers.

The positive news for Michigan is that because of the Big Ten’s downswing, Michigan, oddly enough, should have an easier time once conference play starts. Minnesota is one of just three unbeaten teams remaining, joining Northwestern and postseason-ineligible Ohio State. That’s never a good thing.

“You have high expectations,” Gordon said, referencing last year’s success. “We already lost two games, but still that doesn’t define our season. We still haven’t lost (any) Big Ten games.”

Yet this year, success in the Big Ten could do little to help Michigan’s reputation outside of Schembechler Hall if on-field performance continues to lag behind last year’s output.

For Hoke, though, the target remains the same as it ever was. As he puts it, “Nothing’s changed.”

BYE WEEK TOO SOON?: Given that Michigan has plenty to improve upon, the bye week comes at an opportune time. Or does it?

“Bye weeks are so tricky,” Hoke said. He noted that each year is different. One year, an earlier bye week may be more beneficial to help correct mistakes or to adjust game plans. Other years, that earlier bye week can hurt when players get banged up during the conference season.

This year, Hoke said he thinks the timing is good for the team to “re-evaluate where we’re at.”

Fifth-year senior lineman Patrick Omameh said this year’s bye week serves as a barrier between non-conference and Big Ten play.

“This sort of serves as a marker,” Omameh said “It’s all guns blazing, and you’re looking ahead to the Big Ten season.”

INJURY UPDATE: Hoke said junior receiver Devin Gardner shouldn’t miss any significant practice time this wek. Gardner sustained injuries after barreling into the stands in the fourth quarter at Notre Dame.

“Devin is in always pretty mentally tough, you know,” Hoke said.

Junior safety Marvin Robinson didn’t travel to South Bend, but Hoke said he will likely play in two weeks against Purdue. Robinson sustained an unspecified injury against Massachusetts.

Of course, it’s important to take injury reports with a grain of salt. Hoke was asked on Tuesday whether he would support mandatory injury reports in collge football.

“I don’t know,” Hoke said. “Are you trying to help the gamblers?

“That’s basically nobody’s business but ours.”

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