Wolverines back on solid ground

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- This, senior center David Molk surmised earlier this week, could have gone one of two ways for Michigan.

He'd seen it happen before, how a team splintered and transferred after Lloyd Carr retired from Michigan in 2007 and the school brought in Rich Rodriguez to replace him.

Instead, this happened: Michigan surprised almost everyone. The Wolverines went 10-2 this season and beat Ohio State for the first time since 2003. Brady Hoke, the man hired to replace Rodriguez after three seasons, was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year.

And Michigan, depending on how things fall Saturday, could play in a BCS game for the first time since a Rose Bowl appearance in 2006.

"Going into the season, I really didn't know what to expect," Molk said. "It was another transition, another coaching staff, another system, and I didn't know where it would go. It could have gone two directions.

"But the strength of the senior class and how we dealt with everything along with the coaches, it played off well."

In all, it was a surprising and unexpected step forward for Michigan, which had languished in the middle or bottom of the Big Ten since Carr retired in 2007.

The Wolverines' defense went from one of the worst in the nation -- ranked 110th nationally at the end of last season -- to one of the country's stingiest at No. 16, allowing 317.58 yards a game, and ninth in scoring defense allowing 17.17 points a game. The architect, Greg Mattison, is a finalist for assistant coach of the year.

On offense, Michigan dipped from eighth in the country in 2010, averaging 488.69 yards a game, to 35th this season, averaging 423.08 yards a game, but new offensive coordinator Al Borges installed a completely different system from what Rodriguez had been running.

Overall, the change had been successful. Michigan jumped from seven regular-season wins to 10. And the Wolverines have been more confident.

Hoke, though, wouldn't commit to Michigan having taken a good step this season.

"We'll find out," Hoke said. "Until the season gets over and until we finish what we start, then I think we'll sit back and look at it and evaluate it a little more."

While Michigan didn't reach Hoke's stated preseason goal of winning the Big Ten, he and his staff showed throughout the season signs of being encouraged.

Before the season, Mattison spoke at almost every media session about wanting to be a Michigan defense and how the Wolverines would try to get there. After his defense shut down Illinois in a 31-14 win, he became emotional as he said this defense had become "a Michigan defense."

Then there is Hoke, who has never been outgoing with praise of his team and never let on to what his expectations for this season might have been.

On Saturday after Michigan beat Ohio State, 40-34, he called his team "a good football team." For Hoke, that is big kudos.

So what did he like?

"The way they've handled themselves on a daily basis, you can see that they are gaining a little bit of confidence as a team together," Hoke said. "That's such a big part. They've had good chemistry since Day 1. Awfully good leadership. Done a tremendous job throughout the course of the year.

"I think the confidence that they've shown together means an awful lot. I think they've gone out there and played that way."

In other words, they've taken a step.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.