The dejection on the faces of Michigan’s players and coaches was obvious as they left the field after Saturday’s 39-7 defeat at the hands of the Oregon Ducks. The defensive woes that have plagued this program in its attempts to stop some of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in college football history (Donovan McNabb, Vince Young, and Troy Smith for instance) once again reared their ugly heads. Some of the breakdowns cannot be excused. Extremely poor tackling and coverage busts (like letting receivers behind the defense in three-deep coverage) are errors traits that should be devoid of any defense…even those that have lost a substantial amount of talent. That being said, at the root of the issue for this year’s defensive struggles is a lack of playmakers on the first string unit and the lack of depth on that side of the ball overall. Quite frankly, whether one believes the issues with the spread-option are systemic and more reflective of long term issues is inconsequential. This defense doesn’t have the personnel to consistently stop offenses like the ones it has played the first two weeks. There are some issues that can conceivably be corrected (like tackling and better responsibility football), but some of them just are what they are and will only get better through procurement of more talent and speed on the recruiting trail.
So where did that leave this year’s team? The saving grace for many that had those fears about the defense was an offense that they thought could win any kind of game Michigan got into. Whether it was a slow grind it out game, or a high scoring shootout… the Wolverines looked to have the arsenal to answer any bell. What has happened thus far has been far different than that, especially last Saturday versus Oregon.
“We came out moving the ball,” Hart said. “Oregon is a great offense. A great offense. You know that spread offense is hard to stop. We knew that we had to come out and score points. I think we came out, moved the ball, and did what we wanted to do. We just did not put the ball in the end zone. When you do not score point, you are not going to win. Obviously, we were not expecting the defense to come out and hold them to 7 points. Not at all. We knew that we had to put out 35, 42 points to win the game and we did not do that.”
To absolve any aspect of the team from responsibility for the current predicament would be unfair. There have been breakdowns on every unit. That said, the problems that have hindered a talented offensive unit that returned most of last year’s key contributors has been an alarming reality. Now a team that had such high expectations heading into the year stares noticeably up at goals that seemed far more attainable before the ball was kicked off a few weeks ago.
In times of adversity, leadership will determine the path that is traveled. The current fog that the Wolverines are in has robbed them of the certainty that has seemingly always been present for the players that donned that winged helmet. That’s why the assertiveness Mike Hart showed after Saturday’s disappointing defeat is exactly what this team needs.
“I am always confident,” Hart said after the embarrassing defeat. You know obviously we got beat pretty bad today. It was one of those days. But I think that the leadership steps up on this team. I don’t think that I have been doing my job as a leader so far, getting this team ready to go. I think that I am going to step up my leadership this week and definitely going to come and win next week.”
“We are going to win next week,” he later continued. “No question in my mind. I guarantee that we win next week. I am going to get this team ready, guarantee that I get this team ready. The coaches are going to do their job. The seniors are going to do their job on this team and we are going to win next week. I do not care.”
Hart clearly is not the biggest in stature, but he definitely has the loudest voice in that locker room. Adding to his credibility is the fact that his fire and brimstone isn’t just word, it’s also action. In other words, he doesn’t just do that talking… he does the walking as well. Does his guarantee put his behind on the line to come out and produce? Absolutely it does. Does it put his team on the line to come out and back him up? Absolutely it does. But so what! It looks like the team needs that kind of spark. Besides, based on the current state of affairs, it’s not as if his comments would make losing to Notre Dame any worse than it would be had he not said anything. His head coach seemed to feel the same way.
“I am not surprised by anything that Mike Hart says,” Lloyd Carr said chuckling. “Do I like it? He said it, so he can back it up. We have got to back him up now I guess. What do you want him to say? We are not going to win? No. That is a little bit out there. So when you put yourself out there, you have got to back it up and so we will have to see now. Because that will certainly give Notre Dame some ammunition, but hey it does not matter what is said really before the game. It is really what happens when the ball is teed up. So, we will see. We will see.”
Hart’s proclamation may seem brash and his calling out of other players may appear abrasive, but it may be exactly what a team that has lacked a bit of fire thus far needs. If he weren’t so obvious in his willingness to hold himself to the same expectation level as everyone else…a higher one even… then a discussion about whether how he is now choosing to lead would be more apt. But if this team’s best player thinks what his squad needs to salvage this season is a heightened sense of urgency and accountability, then there should be quite a few people out there ready to jump on the bandwagon.
“Just letting people know that we got to go and it is for real,” Hart said regarding how he plans to step up his leadership. “I have been not easy, but I just have not been doing my job the right way. I can lead this team better. Prepare this team better. I think we need more enthusiasm. That is something that I need to give more of. I think if I do those things then I think that this team will be ready to go next week.”
If this season turns around, Michigan fans will be able to look back at this moment as one of the year’s most pivotal.
“I think that it comes back to our leadership and to who we are, who
we are,” Carr said regarding how this season can be prevented from going
into a tailspin. “I think that we will continue to fight. I thought that
was the key coming into this game and I think after the way we played in the
1st quarter and a half, I thought we played with fight. But you know, we’ve
got great leadership among the seniors, and it is not easy. Certainly confidence
when you have a beginning like this….and yet 1980, we started off 1-2.
We lost to Notre Dame the last play of the game and we lost to South Carolina.
We came back and won the Big Ten Championship. In 1998, we lost to Notre Dame
down in South Bend, came back and got beat badly here against Syracuse, came
back and won the Big Ten Championship. So we obviously have a challenge in front
of us, but we have got good kids. They are hurting and they should hurt. That
is what losing is. If losing does not make you hurt, then you are a not competitor
and if losing does not make you hurt, you should not be at Michigan, and they
hurt. So I think they will fight back.”