It’s not the kind of experience you want to boast about — finishing the 2009 season 1-7 and the 2010 season 2-6 — but the horror of those conclusions still lingers with the leaders of this 6-1, No. 17 Michigan football team.
With those nightmares fresh in their minds, this year’s seniors gathered for their weekly meeting last Thursday, searching for a cure for the collapse.
“One of the things we talked about was, ‘How are we going to make this different than the last couple of years?’ ” said fifth-year senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen. “Where do we stand as a team in comparison to last year, and how can we build upon what we saw not work for us last year?
“We have so many veterans that have been in this situation — this exact situation before. You would think guys who have been through the same situation would know how to correct it.”
Just as in the previous two seasons, it took a loss to Michigan State to shake the Wolverines’ world. For the first time all season, Michigan’s defense didn’t play with the physical intensity Michigan coach Brady Hoke wanted. And the offensive line couldn’t slow down a relentless Spartan rush.
In the past two years, Michigan State provided a blueprint the rest of the Big Ten could use — Michigan was prone to make mistakes and was easily bullied.
Talent-wise, there were plenty of problems with those 2009 and 2010 teams, but the mental weight of losing dragged them deeper into the abyss.
“It’s losing faith,” said fifth-year senior center Dave Molk. “And that’s happened in the past. But that’s not going to happen anymore. I won’t allow it.
“You’ve got to keep them motivated. You’ve got to keep them away from the dark side of, ‘Oh we lost one, we’re going to lose the rest.’ You have to keep that away. And if you do, we’re going to be a successful team and that one loss won’t affect us.”
The seniors talked about how it’s up to them to lead everyone by example — in practice with effort and intensity. Hoke spoke to them about that: If they continue to do things the right way, the underclassmen will follow.
When Molk said he “won’t allow it” this time around, he was serious. Last year, he said he “did everything (he) could” to keep the offense’s psyche in tact. A case could be made that the offense wasn’t entirely to blame for the team’s 2-6 finish. There’s a belief among this group of seniors that their leadership will make a difference.
“There’s a sense of ‘will not’ — there’s not going to be a sense of crash and burn,” Van Bergen said. “This one stumble isn’t going to lead to stopping. We’ve got to lean forward and take a step. That’s been our attitude throughout this bye week in practices.”
All of the “will not” and this-year-will-be-different speak emerged last year at the same time, with the same result as before. Van Bergen understands the skepticism, but Hoke has created a different environment than the one that fostered previous collapses.
“I can understand what you’re saying, but you’ve got to be around the building,” Van Bergen said. “You’ve got to be around and feel the energy and the hunger that the kids have.
“Last year, there might’ve been a lack of confidence. The same words were coming out, but the actual confidence and presence in the locker room and in practice and the intensity wasn’t where it was now.”
Hoke’s calm and confident demeanor ripples throughout the team, said senior tight end Kevin Koger. When Hoke was asked whether he said anything different to his team after the Michigan State game, considering the meltdown that ensued the previous two years, Hoke pointed to his own unflappable consistency.
“We have a very honest office, whether it’s good or bad we’ll talk about it,” Hoke said.
In recent weeks, players have praised coordinators Greg Mattison and Al Borges and their gameplans and in-game adjustments. If Michigan starts sliding again, the mere presence of Hoke, Mattison and Borges — and the players’ unrelenting confidence in their coaches — could make all the difference.
The first sign of change came last week: the players were eager to come into Schembechler Hall on their days off during the bye week and work on preparing for Purdue on their own. Koger joked he might need to pick up a hobby because he had nothing to do without football.
Washing out the bad taste of the 28-14 loss to Michigan State will be the first step towards finishing strong. Van Bergen referenced one of former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr’s favorite slogans when the senior said they just had to “control the controllables” and worry about fixing themselves first — physically and mentally.
“I’d be lying to you if I said we weren’t down for a while (after the Michigan State loss),” Van Bergen said. “We had a good thing going. The big thing is — it’s not done yet. Yeah we lost a game, but that was just a bump in the road. If you let it affect you in the weeks following, then you’re going to get beat twice. And we’re not going to let that happen as a team.”