Hoke's team improving steadily

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Brady Hoke has found himself in the company of Lloyd Carr and Fielding Yost by starting his career 5-0 at the helm of the Michigan football team.

But it's the 58-point win and a shut out that sets him apart.

Since 1969, when Bo Schembechler took charge, every Michigan coach has won his respective Big Ten opener.

Schembechler upset No. 9 Purdue, 31-20, in the 1969 season. Gary Moeller took down Wisconsin, 41-3, with his third-ranked Wolverines. In 1995, Lloyd Carr's team, ranked 13th in the country at the time, beat No. 25 Illinois. And, in one of the rare bright spots of Rich Rodriguez's Michigan coaching career, his unranked Wolverines upset No. 9 Wisconsin in Michigan Stadium, 27-25, in his conference opener.

But Hoke is hoping to follow more closely in the steps of Schembechler and Moeller, each of whom helmed a team that made its way to the top of the conference for a share of the Big Ten title in the coach's first year.

From the moment he arrived on campus, Hoke has been hammering home the point of competing for Big Ten championships, and Saturday's contest was definitely a strong way to start the conference slate.

"It has everything to do with these kids and keeping that Jug in Ann Arbor, and us going out and trying to play football every time we take the field, whether it's tomorrow in practice or game day," Hoke said. "Believe me, we had a lot of mistakes in there from a personnel standpoint, take a daggone penalty, and that's my fault. We didn't have a guy out there on the punt team. You can't do that and win championships."

But even with his championship expectations, Hoke has seen improvement in the areas he deemed most important through the past two weeks.

Against San Diego State, Michigan wanted to step up its defensive game after experiencing three slow starts early in the season. But in the past two games, the Wolverines have tallied nine tackles for losses and forced four fumbles.

Before facing Minnesota, Hoke and Al Borges emphasized the importance of getting Denard Robinson more comfortable in the passing game. On Saturday, Robinson completed 15 of 19 passes, threw for two touchdowns, and ran for one. The quarterback had a season-low six carries for the Wolverines, which, according to Hoke, might be a key to reaching his championship expectations.

Hoke explained that he doesn't believe the Wolverines would be able to win the Big Ten if Robinson were to continue carrying the load in the running game.

"I think when you become too one-dimensional, people are creative," Hoke said. "We are going to play a lot of good coaches and some teams with very good personnel, and good coaches get good personnel and game plan and scheme. That could be a problem."

Even with its slow starts early in the season, it also seemed that Michigan was finishing slowly and lacking the same intensity it held in the middle portions of games. But the Wolverines held up against the Gophers and actually had more time of possession in the second half than the first, even with the mounting lead.

"There's a goal for us every week to finish the fourth quarter," defensive end Craig Roh said. "It's been a huge emphasis for us since winter conditioning. We'll have something at the end of workout to just finish. We just have to finish."

It might be a good sign that Michigan is focusing on how it has to finish now that the Wolverines have begun their Big Ten season. Strong starts are nothing new in Ann Arbor, but Michigan has struggled in recent memory to finish out the conference season well.

The Wolverines' next challenge will be a night game matchup against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill. Hoke is looking forward to seeing how his team performs in a different environment.

"A 10-game home schedule would be wonderful," Hoke said. "But I'm kind of interested to see how we react, what we're made of, our mentality and toughness. See how if we're businesslike and how we go about the work that we have to do and the preparation and all those things."

Well, one thing is for sure. With a 5-0 start, Michigan has been all business at home.

Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at jenningsespn@gmail.com.