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Sugar Bowl victory means Hoke, Michigan headed in right direction

NEW ORLEANS -- Maize and blue confetti littered the Superdome floor Tuesday night when Michigan receiver Junior Hemingway verbalized the prevailing thought within college football's winningest program. "We're back!" Hemingway said. "Michigan's back!"

Michigan did cap an 11-win season with a 23-20 overtime victory in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech. Of course, those Hokies got blown out twice by the only team they played that finished the season in the BCS top 25 (Clemson). Monday's victory certainly will not make Alabama -- next year's season-opening opponent for the Wolverines -- cower in fear.

Still, let's not sweep up that confetti just yet. Sure, Michigan might have left 2011 with a sour taste had Sugar Bowl officials decided to match the Wolverines against Boise State or Kansas State instead of cutting a sweetheart deal for the Hokies that drew an announced crowd 12,000 under capacity. But before we get too cynical, let's consider where this program was 367 days ago. Michigan had just gotten crushed by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. The Wolverines had once again tanked in the season's second half. Coach Rich Rodriguez was on his way out after three seasons and a 15-22 record.

Michigan's 132nd football team won 11 games. It did not swoon down the stretch. It stayed in the hunt for the Big Ten Legends Division title into November. It beat Ohio State. (Albeit an Ohio State weakened by scandal, but given the Wolverines' recent record in that series, a win is a win.) By nearly every quantitative and qualitative measure, the first year under coach Brady Hoke was a roaring success.

Greg Mattison, hired away from the Baltimore Ravens to repair what looked like a flag-football defense in 2010, worked miracles with essentially the same personnel. Entering Tuesday, Michigan was 17th in the nation in total defense and seventh in scoring defense. Last year, the Wolverines finished 110th in total defense and 108th in scoring defense. Meanwhile, Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges managed to build an offense that mixed some of their beloved power concepts with the unscripted playmaking brilliance of quarterback Denard Robinson. So many offensive coaches follow their egos and try to force their system on the players they inherit. Hoke and Borges adapted the system to the players.

After the win, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon ran down the checklist of factors he wanted Michigan's new staff to improve. The new coaches had succeeded in every aspect.

Better defense. Check.

Get better as the season progressed. Check.

Better special teams. Check.

Special teams played a critical role Tuesday. Virginia Tech used kickoff specialist Justin Myer -- the third-string placekicker -- for field goals and extra points. Why? Because starter Cody Journell was arrested Dec. 21 in connection with a home invasion. Last week, backup kicker Tyler Weiss was sent home for missing curfew. That left Myer, whose only two field-goal attempts this season had come from beyond 50 yards.

Myer had an excellent night, making four of five field goals. But he picked the worst possible time for his first miss. Moments after officials overturned an apparent diving touchdown catch by Danny Coale (more on that later) in overtime, Myer missed a 37-yarder. At first, Hokies fans seated behind the left upright cheered as the ball floated toward the posts. Then Michigan fans, seated behind the right upright, began to cheer as the ball faded to the right. "I just didn't get through the ball, and I pushed it," Myer said.

Those who watched Monday's Fiesta Bowl and expect another edition of Sad Kicker Theatre shouldn't worry. No one at Virginia Tech blames Myer for the loss. He was the reason the Hokies made it to overtime in the first place. "He did a wonderful job," tailback David Wilson said. "He kicked some key field goals to keep us close."

The most clutch kick came from Michigan's Brendan Gibbons, who made his 37-yarder in overtime. And what did Gibbons think about during the timeout the Hokies called to ice him? "Brunette girls," Gibbons said. "Every time we were struggling in kicking, coach tells me to think about girls on a beach or brunette girls. So that's what we did. Made the kick."

The Wolverines also may have gotten an assist from the officials, who missed an apparent false start by Gibbons on a bizarre second-quarter play that ended with Michigan offensive lineman Jareth Glanda catching a deflected pass and converting a fourth down. That conversion led to an eventual Michigan field goal. Later, Virginia Tech cornerback Jayron Hosley was flagged for pass interference on a 50/50 ball thrown by Robinson. That call led to a Michigan touchdown.

Then there was the call on Coale's catch in overtime. Judging by their chants of "Dan-ny Coale!" as he ran off the field, the clutch of Virginia Tech fans seated nearest the play will go to their graves believing Coale caught the ball. He made a spectacular one-handed catch on the left side of the end zone, and the official nearest the play ruled it a touchdown. After a short review, referee Jay Stricherz announced that a video review showed Coale did not have control of the ball before he slid out of bounds.

The various parties will agree to disagree.

Said Coale: "I thought it was in. They called it a touchdown. I thought it would be hard to reverse. But they obviously saw something I didn't see."

Said Wilson: "Saying that Danny Coale's catch wasn't a touchdown, that was questionable."

Said Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin: "The ball rolled in our favor that time. We didn't really get a lot of those year. If I had to choose a time to get one, I'd pick this game."

Martin couldn't hide his smile as he pondered just how much the outlook on the program has changed in the past year. He'll move on to the NFL, but he sees bright days ahead in Ann Arbor. "This program is in the best hands that it can be with coach Mattison and coach Hoke," Martin said. "I can't wait to see these guys next year and see what they do. They're going to be special."

If they adopt the proper attitude, the Wolverines could be special in the coming years. They can't be satisfied with what they accomplished this year. They'll have to figure out how to beat Michigan State, which has a four-game win streak against the Wolverines. And they'll have to get over the hump in the Big Ten title race. "Our expectations are to win the Big Ten championship," athletic director Brandon said. "That's what we're about, and that's what we set out to do at the beginning of every season. We didn't do that this year. We came close. Had a great season. Had a BCS bowl championship. That's terrific. But we're here to win the Big Ten championship. We have other goals out there to achieve."

The pursuit of those goals will begin soon. But after a dramatic turnaround, the Wolverines are entitled to a few days to savor what they accomplished in the season that just ended.

"We've had a bumpy three years, but we're Michigan," Brandon said. "We're supposed to be playing on the big stage. We're supposed to be playing against formidable competition. We're supposed to be in the national hunt. For years and years and years, that was Michigan. That's what we want Michigan to be in the future."

Then Brandon echoed Hemingway. "I feel very, very comfortable," Brandon said, "in telling you that Michigan football is back where we need to be and where we want to be."

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