The defense allowed Christian Hackenberg to have his way in the first half, starting the game a near perfect 9-for-10 with 85-yards.
But for a Michigan program engulfed in a hurricane of criticism off the field, right here, as things currently stand at 3-4, the word perfect means victory, and that’s exactly what the Wolverines got in the third night game in Michigan Stadium history.
“It wasn’t pretty at times but I don’t know if anything is pretty all the time,” Hoke said. “What they did though is they played together, they stuck together.
“We had some guys who were banged up obviously but that’s just (a) part of football, if you’re not banged up then you’re really not playing.
“But we’ve got guys who are tough, we’ve got guys who understand what it is to play as a team and play for each other; and play for Michigan. I’m excited about, for them, as much as anything, for how they stuck together.”
For Gardner, who briefly exited the game in the third quarter dealing with an apparent leg injury, No. 98 once again became a fan favorite; fighting through pain and showing what center Jack Miller called “really intense” leadership on the sideline in the second half.
The No. 2 quarterback Russell Bellomy entered the game in the third quarter in place of Gardner as the offense came to a crashing halt filled with conservative play calls and a near disastrous pick six thrown right into the arms of Mike Hull, only to be dropped.
And then it happened, after two failed series offensively, Gardner forced his way back onto the field as the crowd gave him a nice ovation, fully aware of how much they now need the fifth-year senior.
Limping and really not even sharp all night, Gardner got the job done.
“Devin’s leadership has been outstanding,” Hoke said. “He played a game a year ago with a broken toe for half the game so you know he’s got a toughness to him. He is turning in, through his maturation process and everything else, into a tremendous leader.
“He was cheering the defense on when they were out there and he just was, he wants to compete and play. The trainers said, ‘yeah, he can go.’”
After Hackenberg’s hot start, he would finish the game completing 12-of-22 attempts for 75-yards along with a critical Jourdan Lewis interception.
Frank Clark, clearly frustrated after being unable to bring down Nova a week ago after coming free right through the heart of the Rutgers offensive line, made the play this week, sacking Hackenberg at the Penn State one-yard line to setup a safety.
Senior middle linebacker Jake Ryan looked like No. 47 again, leading the team with 10 tackles, a sack that resulted in a 12-yard loss and three total tackles for loss.
Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison was adamant that his group was looking forward to Saturday’s match-up with future NFL signal caller Christian Hackenberg and the Wolverines showed up, making enough plays to win the game.
“Penn State had a week off and as most teams do you have a week off, you start looking at tendencies, you start looking at things that maybe have patterns to it,” Hoke said. “In the first half they broke some tendencies that they had had.
“So, I think Greg and the staff defensively did a great job at halftime, I think our kids had a will and they willed themselves to keep going and it was pressure on the quarterback with four-man, three-man rush that really worked out pretty well.
“And maximum coverage, and part of that is he’s got to hold the ball a little longer and we got off the field on third downs which, in the first half we really didn’t as much.”
But perhaps the biggest of moments came via an announcement.
Stadium attendance is given at every Michigan home game and after a week involving loud talk of a student boycott and fans noticeably frustrated, the number read: 113,085.
“The environment, the crowd; there’s no place better in the country when you have a game like this, than Michigan Stadium,” Hoke said. “And I can tell you, our kids, they feel it.
“They feel it when those people are there cheering for them and the students that were there, the former players, them coming back and supporting those kids -- you don’t get that at a lot of institutions or maybe any institutions like you do at Michigan.”
A full stadium, a light filled halftime performance by the band, more of a raucous atmosphere than any other game this season, hundreds of former players roaming the sideline, even some demonstrative dance moves out of record return man Dennis Norfleet, everything helped.
Heading into the bye week before traveling to Michigan State in two weeks, Michigan’s program is anything but perfect on and off the field but in that stadium Saturday night against Penn State, the Wolverines got what they so desperately needed.
“The way our guys have handled the last two weeks, I don’t know if many football teams could do that and persevere like they have and stay together like they have,” Hoke said. “I give those kids a lot of credit in that locker room.”
“(Winning) certainly helps, there’s no doubt about it,” Hoke added.