Outside Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., last Saturday night, amid hundreds of joyous Michigan fans waiting for their team to come out of the locker room, secondary coach Ron English said all that needed to be said about the 2005 Wolverines. "We're not a typical Michigan team with a whole bunch of talent, a can-do-whatever-we-want-to-do type of outfit," English declared. "We're a scrappy bunch. We're trying to win by playing great defense and special teams and running the ball."
It may be tantamount to treason in Ann Arbor for a Michigan coach to describe the usually omnipotent Wolverines as scrappy, but offensively the 2005 edition is a shell of the juggernaut of a year ago. That team moved the ball seemingly at will, and when it didn't it could always rely on receiver Braylon Edwards to bail it out. In Saturday's 33-17 victory over upstart Northwestern--the first time since 1959 that the teams played when the Wildcats (No. 21) were ranked higher than the Wolverines (No. 25)--Michigan (6-3 overall, 4-2 in the Big Ten) won its third straight game by using staunch defense and a grind-it-out attack. After an up-and-down first two months of the season, the Wolverines may have finally discovered an identity: In Ann Arbor old-school football is new again.
Boasting a pair of sophomore sensations, running back Mike Hart and quarterback Chad Henne, Michigan was picked fourth in the AP preseason poll. But Hart strained his left hamstring in the Wolverines' second game (a 17-10 loss to Notre Dame) and later twisted his right ankle; he's missed three games entirely and parts of two others. Meanwhile, Henne has struggled without Edwards as his primary target (his completion percentage and yards per game are both down from '04). Michigan split its first six games, losing heartbreakers to Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Minnesota. "We were reeling," says offensive coordinator Terry Malone. "Every minute we were searching for answers on how to climb back up off the mat."
Malone admits that the absence of Edwards, Hart and right tackle Jake Long, who returned to action two weeks ago after suffering a broken ankle in August, forced him to be a bit more conservative in his play-calling. Michigan is 37th nationally in rushing offense (173.4 yards per game) and 65th in passing (218.9), marking the first time since 2001 that the team has ranked higher on the ground than in the air. On Saturday the Wolverines threw 30 passes and ran the ball a season-high 58 times while maintaining possession for more than 38 minutes. Junior Jerome Jackson rushed 24 times for a career-high 105 yards, while freshman Kevin Grady added 64 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
On the other side of the ball, the Wildcats' high-powered spread unit entered the game averaging 37.1 points and 529.3 yards (fourth best in the nation), but Michigan limited Northwestern to 415 yards, with only 94 coming in the second half, when the Wildcats were held scoreless. The Wolverines' front seven hounded Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez, who was third in the country in total offense before the game. Basanez had 326 yards passing but just 62 after intermission; he also threw two interceptions, double his previous total. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr called his defense's performance its best of the year.
The Wolverines remain alive for the Big Ten's automatic BCS berth, though it is a decided long shot. "We're starting to come together as a team," said senior defensive tackle Gabe Watson. "It's kinda sad that it took us this long."
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Following a 16-15 home defeat to South Carolina last Saturday, Tennessee (3-4 overall, 2-4 in the SEC) has lost four conference games for the first time since 1988. The most obvious reason for the Vols' nosedive is their woeful offense, which ranks in the bottom 10 nationally in scoring (16.1 points per game); offensive coordinator Randy Sanders was demoted on Monday and will share play-calling duties with coach Phil Fulmer. But the program's recent spate of off-the-field problems also may have finally taken its toll. Eleven Tennessee players ran afoul of the law over a 13-month period beginning in March 2004, resulting in numerous dismissals, suspensions and transfers, including the departure of two former standouts who surely could have helped the struggling offense this season: quarterback Brent Schaeffer and receiver James Banks. The Vols' undisciplined ways seem to have carried over to the field, where dropped passes, penalties and fumbles--including a turnover inside the opponent's five-yard line in each of the last two games--have hounded them. "Do I feel off-the-field problems and on-field discipline are correlated? Yes," says Fulmer (above). "We had some fairly unique things go on here that we should all be accountable for."
UNDER THE RADAR
No. 20 TCU Horned Frogs
Each night in August, to familiarize his players with their new conference, the Mountain West, TCU coach Gary Patterson showed his team highlight tapes of the MWC's star players. "The problem with coming into a new league is you don't know who to hate," says Patterson, whose team had spent the previous four seasons in Conference USA. So far the Horned Frogs have been equal-opportunity haters, beating all six of their conference opponents on their way to an 8-1 record. With a win over second-place Colorado State on Saturday, TCU would clinch its first outright league title since winning the Southwest Conference in 1958. After opening the season with a shocking upset at Oklahoma followed by a shocking loss to SMU, the Horned Frogs have sailed through the Mountain West despite losing starting quarterback Tye Gunn and No. 1 tailback Lonta Hobbs to injury. Their replacements have flourished: On Oct. 1 junior quarterback Jeff Ballard (above) tied LaDainian Tomlinson's school record by accounting for six touchdowns in a 49-28 win over New Mexico, and last Saturday running backs Robert Merrill and Aaron Brown combined for 253 yards on 44 carries in a come-from-behind 23-20 victory at San Diego State.
THREE AND OUT
1 Just seven games into his tenure at Notre Dame, during which his team has gone 5-2, coach Charlie Weis was rewarded with a new 10-year contract. Weis's predecessor, Tyrone Willingham, who began his debut season 8-0, was never given an extension on his five-year deal and was fired after three seasons. The difference? School officials were eager to preempt Weis's potential NFL suitors.
2 No. 1 USC's maligned defense played its most impressive game of the season in the Trojans' 55-13 win over Washington State, holding a Cougars offense that came in averaging 39.1 points and 518.6 yards to 13 and 284, respectively. Coach Pete Carroll's decision to move sophomore Josh Pinkard from safety to cornerback paid immediate dividends when Pinkard made a team-high 10 tackles.
3 Texas A&M, expected to be much improved in its third season under coach Dennis Franchione, instead has regressed on both sides of the ball. Following a 42-14 home loss to Iowa State, the Aggies (5-3, 3-2 in the Big 12) rank 98th nationally in total defense, and senior quarterback Reggie McNeal's completion percentage is down 4.3% from '04.
Wolverine Brandent Englemon was hard-nosed, and Grady (3) ran for a touchdown.