When the Michigan Wolverines walked off of the field at Ohio Stadium last month, the disappointment felt by the team was palpable. While they acknowledged the excellent effort turned in by their opponent, there was also an overriding feeling of frustration. Not just because they lost (there is always a lack of fulfillment in defeat), but because they felt that they didn’t put their best foot forward. As much as that loss hurt, it offered very valuable lessons as the team moves forward.
“You get real mad after the game, but then again, you move on to the next game,” Mike Hart said yesterday. “You can’t do anything about that. You can’t do anything about the past. You can do something about the future and what’s going to happen Saturday. So I think it just makes us work that much harder. No loss is ever a good loss, but in a way, it opens up your eyes. We were on a winning streak and no one could touch us. Then we lose and it’s like, 'wow...we are touchable' and 'we CAN lose if we don’t execute what the coaches tell us to.' I just think it gets us more focused for this game. No on wants to lose this game.”
Hart’s comments represent the eagerness that the Wolverines have to get back on the field and get the bad taste out of their mouths. His sentiments were echoed by fifth year senior Roy Manning. “Initially, you’re disappointed because Ohio State is our biggest rival,” Manning said. “We felt like it wasn’t as much a matter of what they did as it was what we didn’t do. But you have to look at the film and move on from there. You can’t stay in the past. That’s why we’re so anxious to play here on the first. We’re ready to get out there and show this country that that last game they saw wasn’t really us as a collective unit. That’s why guys are so excited about this game.”
The motivational element of the loss is obvious when speaking to players. At the same time, honest critiques of what went wrong remain just as important. Leading up to the Ohio State game Hart had a five game rushing streak of at least 150 yards rushing per game (including three consecutive 200 yard rushing efforts), while averaging almost six yards per carry. His 61 yard output against the Buckeyes was his lowest as a starter. The freshman phenom indicated that there was a very good reason for that.
“I only ran the ball 16 times that game,” Hart said. “In Big Ten play I was probably averaging 30 carries per game. I think it was the predicament we got ourselves in. We were down by 14 to 21 points. In high school you can run the ball when you’re down like that, but you can’t do that in college. You have to air the ball out and get it into the end zone. So I don’t think it was that they stopped us. They did a great job of slowing us down, but when I carried the ball, I got yards when they were there. You can’t get eight yards every carry. When they were there I got them. So I think it was the predicament we were in.”
The defense didn’t fare much better than the offense against Buckeyes. As a matter of fact Troy Smith’s effectiveness (150 yards rushing, 250 yards passing) was reminiscent of Drew Stanton’s early game success in the Michigan State game a few weeks previous. With task of defending another mobile quarterback upon them, the defense has spent a great deal of time breaking down the game film from those contests.
“I think we just let those guys get outside of our defense,” Manning said of Stanton and Smith. “No matter who is in the backfield, as long as we can keep him inside of our defense, chances are they aren’t going to break big plays. With Texas, you have got to know that a team with players of that capability is going to hit some plays. They are going to make some things happen because they’re here at the Rose Bowl just like we are. I think the biggest thing in controlling the number of those plays. Our schemes are fine. It’s just a matter of everybody executing their jobs. Against Michigan State and Ohio State, it was guys getting out of position. Sometimes there were guys in position to make a play, but they just came up short. It wasn’t lack of effort. I guess you can say that the bad thing about defense is you can have ten guys out there doing their jobs, but if one guy doesn’t do his job, that can ruin the whole defense. That’s when you have big plays. So everybody has to do his job…and that’s hard. Sometimes you get tired out there. Other times your mind is on the last play. That’s the challenge for a football team.”
Regardless of what the diagnosis is, the impression some have is that Michigan is slow defensively. The Wolverines are aware of that sentiment, and to them it’s is nothing new. “I’m really amped for this game,” Manning said. “I heard a couple of comments earlier this week about our defense looking slow on film. My response then was the same as it is now. Most teams look slow on film…period…no matter who you’re watching. It’s always a difference when you’re out there on the field in live action. Ever since I’ve been at Michigan people have said the whole Big Ten conference is slow. Our job is to go out there and prove them wrong.”
Win or lose on Saturday, the Wolverines will be focused. Manning and the other veteran players have emphasized the importance of treating the game and preparation for it as a job. That’s something that hasn’t been lost on younger players like Hart. “I realize that we’re out here to win,” Hart said. “It’s a business trip. You can come out here and have all of the fun you want…and lose. Then you’re mad and it’s not a fun trip at all. But if you come out here and don’t have fun, don’t do anything, and sit in your hotel room the whole time you’re here…and win, then it’s the best trip ever. I went a couple of places, but the last couple of days I haven’t gone anywhere. I’ve been sitting in the hotel room playing video games and just hanging out. There is no need to go anywhere right now. I’m out here to win.”