"It's easy to say this is the same Michigan team," safety Jordan Kovacs said on Oct. 15 in East Lansing. "But I have no doubt in my mind that we're not."
Kovacs and his teammates were absolutely correct. Saturday, Michigan rudely welcomed Nebraska to the Big House for its first visit as a Big Ten rival. The Wolverines dominated in all three phases. They hogged the ball on offense, holding it for 41 minutes, 13 seconds. Michigan's defense stifled Nebraska's option attack, limiting star I-back Rex Burkhead to four first-half yards. On special teams, the Wolverines forced and recovered two fumbles on kickoffs. The team that went 3-8 in November in three seasons under Rich Rodriguez rolled to a 45-17 annhiliation of an opponent that entered the day at 8-2 and had designs on a BCS at-large berth.
Now, the Wolverines are the ones who can dream of a BCS bowl, provided they can close the regular season by beating the hated rival they haven't beaten since 2003. Since coach Brady Hoke arrived in January, he has stressed that his team must "beat Ohio." Hoke refuses to grant Ohio State the common courtesy of using its proper name, and his players have followed suit. Saturday, quarterback Denard Robinson said the Wolverines couldn't worry about the Big Ten Legends Division title that they helped hand to Michigan State by beating Nebraska. Why? Because they "play Ohio next week," Robinson said. Defensive tackle Mike Martin said Michigan players would celebrate the Nebraska win on Saturday night before they "get focused on Ohio."
That's an awfully bold statement from a team that has been dominated recently in the rivalry, but anyone who watched Big Ten games on Saturday couldn't help but grasp the obvious: For the first time in years, Michigan appears to be better than Ohio State.
Hoke tried Saturday to temper the superlatives being tossed around after such a thorough beating of Nebraska. Hoke wisely realizes such three-phase excellence is rare. But the Wolverines do appear to have accepted Hoke's challenge to get better each week. After getting physically whipped by Michigan State and Iowa, Michigan players gathered themselves and beat up one of the Big Ten's most physical teams. The Wolverines' offensive line hammered the Cornhuskers at the point of attack, and tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint blasted through arm tackles while rolling up 138 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, defensive ends Craig Roh and Ryan Van Bergen contained Taylor Martinez, who finished with just 122 passing yards and 49 rushing yards.
The defensive improvement is perhaps the most shocking element of Michigan's renaissance. The Wolverines did not sign a bunch of five-star freshmen who raised the talent level. They have succeeded largely with the same players who finished 2010 ranked 110th in the nation in total defense (450.8 yards per game) and 108th in the nation in scoring defense (35.2 points per game). We knew coordinator Greg Mattison could coach, but we didn't know he could work miracles. Through 11 games, the 2011 Wolverines have allowed 312.6 yards per game and 15.6 points per game. "Fundamentally and technically, they're playing what they're coached to do, and they're playing together," Hoke said of his defense. "It's been fun to watch."
If the Wolverines can beat the Buckeyes, they'll have to watch the national scoreboard. A loss by undefeated Houston to either Tulsa (on Friday) or in the Conference USA title game likely would open up a BCS at-large spot. The team that loses the Big Ten title game won't want to hear this, but a big-time bowl will want a 10-2 Michigan team instead of a team coming off a defeat in Indianapolis.
If Michigan can come close to matching Saturday's production, it will snap its losing streak to Ohio State. The win was a complete team effort. Truly, everyone chipped in. Even the fans. With power knocked out to all but one scoreboard during Saturday's first quarter, Michigan's offense could not see the play clock. So, to ensure Robinson knew how much time he had to call for the snap, Michigan fans counted down for him. Five, four, three. "I appreciate the fans helping us out," said Robinson, who threw for 180 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 83 yards and two touchdowns. "Because we really needed it."
The Wolverines really didn't need much help, though. They have grown so much since last season that they barely resemble the chuck-and-duck group that stumbled to the finish. The most telling play came during Saturday's third quarter with Michigan leading 24-10. Facing fourth-and-one from the Nebraska five-yard line, Hoke sent out his field goal unit. But the Wolverines wouldn't kick. Holder Drew Dileo took the snap and raced for four yards. Toussaint scored a touchdown on the next play, giving the Wolverines a nearly insurmountable lead. Instead of taking the safe points, Hoke went for the throat. Hoke said he picked up the play when Penn State used it against the Wolverines in the mid-'90s. "You've got it," Hoke said. "You may as well use it."
As the Wolverines rolled, former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr -- who was honored Saturday for his election to the College Football Hall of Fame -- watched and smiled. Carr was one of the string pullers who made Rodriguez's job more difficult in Ann Arbor, but Carr adores Hoke. He said the transformation in Hoke's first year has exceeded all expectations. "I don't think you could ask a coaching staff and a team to do a better job than this team has done," Carr said. "It's just wonderful to see it."
With Carr grinning on the sidelines, the Wolverines celebrated their victory by racing to the student section. As Martin and several teammates sat atop the brick wall that rings the field, students chanted "Beat O-hi-o!"
For the first time in years, Michigan players walked off the field truly believing they can.