Michigan’s three captains and fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen, the leader of the stingy Michigan defense, rushed across the field toward the student section, holding the Little Brown Jug in the air.
Those seniors holding the Jug had carried the weight of a 6-18 Big Ten record the past three seasons.
It was the first Big Ten game of Michigan’s new regime — the coaching trifecta of head coach Brady Hoke, offensive coordinator Al Borges and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.
And they put on quite the opening act.
The newcomers spared the pleasantries and imposed their will on Minnesota on Saturday, trouncing the Gophers, 58-0.
If it were the early 1900s, when Fielding Yost prowled the sidelines with his menacing glare, the Gophers would have pleaded with the Wolverines to end this game early.
But Michigan had something to prove.
The goal wasn’t to pick on Minnesota, the conference’s basement-dweller and its freshman quarterback, but to remind the Big Ten that Michigan is still Michigan.
The offense’s greeting for the Gophers was 58 points. The defense pitched a shutout. Michigan is an unbeaten 5-0 again. But this team isn’t the same as last season.
Hoke, Borges and Mattison did exactly what Rich Rodriguez couldn’t — they relentlessly pounded an inferior Big Ten foe.
Hoke, Mattison and Borges can and will do what it takes to win in the Big Ten.
Al Borges has brought a new flavor to Michigan.
On the second play of the game, backup quarterback Devin Gardner settled under center. Behind him was a diamond set with three running backs.
Gardner took the snap, turned and handed the ball to Denard Robinson, bolting left to right along the line of scrimmage.
Before half the student section had settled into its seats, Borges had done the unthinkable — he had used Denard Robinson as a running back.
It couldn’t be. The shoelaces, the dreadlocks, the smile — those belonged at quarterback.
It was the kind of thing that doesn’t happen at Michigan. It doesn’t happen in the Big Ten. It’s unorthodox.
But it was no mistake; Borges ran the same set four times against Minnesota. He had Minnesota off-balance from the second snap — all the scouting the Gophers did was out the window already.
He turned the playbook on its head to welcome in the Big Ten slate. A double pass, a running back pass, a three-back set.
Under Borges, Michigan is unpredictable. It’s not a one-dimensional offense. It’s dangerous.
Greg Mattison has restored the tenacious Wolverine defense of old.
Mattison has proven his defensive genius by taking the same players defensive coordinator Greg Robinson had and transforming them into the most opportunistic corps in the nation.
The turnover margin was minus-10 in 2010 — it’s plus-eight now.
Allowing eight first downs to Michigan’s 32 — 117 total yards to the Wolverines’ 580.
He’s given the defense all the bullets they need, and the players have finished the job. The defense has allowed just 10 points in the past three games combined.
That’s the Michigan standard.
Brady Hoke has brought championship expectations.
It’s been Hoke’s mantra all along: win the Big Ten Championship. It’s why he gave the orders to keep the player numbers on the Wolverines’ sacred winged helmets.
“We want to honor the guys who wore those numbers before,” Hoke said. “The 42 (Big Ten) championship teams and the guys who have represented Michigan.”
A conference title is Hoke’s final goal, and that journey has just begun.
“This was a first step toward the expectations of what this program is, and that’s a Big Ten championship,” Hoke said.
Hoke passed the first test with flying colors — he and the Wolverines retained the Little Brown Jug — but the real adversity lies ahead.
With the heart of the Big Ten schedule just ahead, his expectations haven’t budged. It’s no longer unrealistic — his team will compete for the Big Ten crown.
Michigan’s staff has coached a group of spread-option and 3-3-5 defense misfits into a contender. The offense, often unorthodox, is explosive. The defense has looked elite.
Dominance is dominance, just ask the Gophers. Thanks to Hoke, Borges and Mattison, Michigan isn’t a down-the-road team.
— Nesbitt can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.