Two weeks ago, following a close defeat at the hands of Rutgers, Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess told reporters that wins and losses are only statistics. The sentiment appears to be the same around Schembechler Hall this week, despite the Wolverines at last landing on the happier side of that equation.
James Franklin, whose Nittany Lions lost to Michigan 18-13 on Saturday night in Ann Arbor, expressed the same idea with perhaps a bit more clarity earlier this year. Franklin’s team was 4-0 when he presciently (Penn State is 0-2 since) said wins or losses can mask the true state of a program.
“Winning minimizes issues, and losing maximizes them, but the issues are still there,” he said.
Michigan’s primetime victory snapped a three-game losing streak and helped the team avoid starting 0-3 in Big Ten games for the first time in nearly 50 years. It provided coach Brady Hoke with a temporary reprieve from questions about his job security. The air is a little more breathable in Ann Arbor this week, but no one at Michigan is under the impression that a festive atmosphere and a single win have washed away the shortcomings of the first half of the season.
A loss to Penn State would have heightened the demand for Michigan to make the first in-season coaching change in program history, taking advantage of the upcoming bye week as a transition period. Even with the win, there’s no guarantee that turmoil will rest its legs during the bye along with the football team. Michigan’s Board of Regents, the university’s eight-person governing body, meets Thursday afternoon and plans to discuss the way the athletic department handled the controversy surrounding quarterback Shane Morris’ head injury. That group could heavily influence whether athletic director Dave Brandon survives the recent flubs in his department.
With the open date next on Michigan’s schedule, it seems a safer bet that Hoke will get a full two weeks to prepare for in-state rival Michigan State and sort through the mound of issues that have backed him and his program into a corner. It will be an unpleasant task made slightly more bearable by a successful night against Penn State.
“Winning always helps, but I think you make a mistake if you think it is the ultimate answer to everything that you’re doing,” Hoke said. “You evaluate and see what you can do better and what you need to do better. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of games left on the schedule and a lot of great opponents left.”
The pitfalls that have led to Michigan’s 3-4 record this season were not eliminated against the Nittany Lions. The running game’s struggles were amplified by the absence of leading rusher Derrick Green, who will miss the remainder of the season with a broken collarbone. Green’s replacements -- De'Veon Smith and Justice Hayes -- managed only 44 yards on 19 carries.
Senior Devin Gardner played a gutsy fourth quarter on a bad ankle, but he showed he has yet to eradicate the turnover issues that have consistently troubled him over the past two years. Gardner dropped a screen pass into the arms of Penn State defensive lineman Anthony Zettel early in the second quarter. The Wolverines narrowly avoided another momentum-swinging interception in the second half. Their turnover margin is still dead last among FBS schools.
Hoke said after the game that Gardner has played a big role in the locker room’s refusal to fold during the past month. On Tuesday, Michigan’s players were guarded when asked if the win validated their faith. They said there was a brief monkey-off-the-back sense of relief with winning, but they didn’t regain any confidence because they had never lost it in the first place.
The win, they admitted, makes smiling in the locker room feel slightly more acceptable and showing up to practice slightly more exciting. That will come in handy when attempting to chip away at the problems that winning can’t hide.
“It’s always good to win. It was a lot of fun,” said placekicker Matt Wile, who provided 10 of the team’s 18 points. “I definitely think that it gave us some momentum. We just have to keep bringing that momentum on to Michigan State."
Winning helps momentum and morale, but those were the least of Michigan's problems through seven weeks of the 2014 season. The win buys Hoke more time, but it doesn't make the task ahead of him any easier.