PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Brady Hoke turned and left the defensive backs meeting room in Rutgers’ Hale Center, a facility connected to HighPoint Solutions Stadium, late on Saturday night. As he descended down the stairs, he let out a sigh.
He was drained. Who could blame him? His Michigan squad had just dropped a heartbreaking 26-24 decision to the Scarlet Knights, a defeat -- the Wolverines’ fourth of the season and third in a row -- that was sealed by a blocked field goal. Hoke had just finished answering nearly nine minutes of questions about the loss, the easiest ones about the game itself, and the fourth-year coach addressed his paper-thin job security in stride. Still, he offered little of substance to indicate he has a plan to turn things around. The Wolverines are 3-9 dating back to last fall, 0-4 against power-conference foes and Notre Dame this year and 0-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1967.
"We're going to go out and work,” Hoke said of what Michigan must do to avoid another loss on Saturday against Penn State. “And we're going to work real hard."
His players offered little more encouragement as to how the Wolverines hope to snap their recent swoon, but they’ve refused to give up on their team or coach in spite of the mounting defeats and booming calls for Hoke’s head, an uproar that became deafening after Hoke egregiously mishandled quarterback Shane Morris’ concussion in a 30-14 loss to Minnesota on Sept. 27. Michigan showed it still has some fight in its loss to Rutgers, rallying from a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit to give kicker Matt Wile a chance to win the game with just more than three minutes remaining. That the defeat came despite maximum effort is either comforting or wildly discouraging, depending on one’s perspective.
"I love this team and I love these coaches,” senior linebacker Jake Ryan said. “We'd do anything for each other." For the players, anything now means fielding daily questions about Hoke’s uncertain future that won’t cease until that future is settled with success or, far more likely, with a pink slip. Immediately after another defeat, those questions seemed to be most frustrating.
Asked about Hoke’s status in Ann Arbor, quarterback Devin Gardner responded: "What does that have to do with anything?" He used to a similar phrase when asked if he felt he was playing for Hoke’s job.
|Aug. 30||Appalachian State||W, 52-14|
|Sept. 6||at Notre Dame||L, 31-0|
|Sept. 13||Miami (Ohio)||W, 34-10|
|Sept. 20||Utah||L, 26-10|
|Sept. 27||Minnesota||L, 30-14|
|Oct. 4||at Rutgers||L, 26-24|
|Oct. 11||Penn State||?|
|Oct. 25||at Michigan State||?|
|Nov. 8||at Northwestern||?|
|Nov. 29||at Ohio State||?|
The Wolverines’ dismal start draws a comparison their 2008 campaign, when the program opened 2-4 in its first year under coach Rich Rodriguez. After 13 years with Lloyd Carr at the helm, the transition to Rodriguez and his offense was bound to be bumpy. That’s why Rodriguez stayed two more years after his 3-9 debut.
It’s much more difficult to explain Michigan’s current woes without pinning blame on Hoke. In his fourth season in Ann Arbor, he is coaching a team filled almost entirely with players he recruited who have had plenty of time to learn his system. These should be prime years. Instead, Michigan operates with a porous offensive line, a veteran quarterback who still has mechanical breakdowns and a defense that got picked apart by turnover-prone Rutgers passer Gary Nova last Saturday.
Although his track record before Michigan seemed persuasive, Hoke has not displayed the ability to put a talented product of his own design on the field at Michigan Stadium. It’s never a good sign when a coach’s best years are his first, when he is trotting out the prior regime’s players. Ask Charlie Weis.
At this point in Hoke's tenure, one of two things seems evident. Either he can’t develop the top talent he brings to campus or he can’t identify the talent he needs. The first two recruiting classes he fully oversaw at Michigan were ranked seventh and fifth, respectively, according to Rivals.com. If it’s an inability to cultivate talent that plagues Hoke, then he has failed to capitalize on two respected hauls.
According to Deadspin’s analysis of how every FBS program’s recruiting rankings compared to its on-field rankings over the past five seasons, the Wolverines had the 10th-largest negative margin. Of the bottom 10, only Michigan, Maryland and Virginia have not changed coaches since Hoke took over the Wolverines in 2011.
After Wile’s kick was blocked on Saturday, the home crowd roared in celebration of the Scarlet Knight’s impending first Big Ten victory. Meanwhile, most Michigan fans in attendance simply stared at the field blankly, disappointed though not overtly surprised. A man in the third row hoisted a sign. Inked on a maize background was the message: “This Is Not Michigan.”
That much is clear. The question facing athletic director Dave Brandon -- and one that many fans and pundits have seemingly determined -- is whether Hoke can ever restore this once-proud program to what was previously known as Michigan. With Penn State coming to town on Saturday, Hoke’s chances to have a say in the matter are rapidly slipping away -- and may be already gone.