The change at quarterback didn’t work for Michigan, so what’s next?
For the first time in Brady Hoke’s tenure with the Wolverines he made a change at quarterback for non-injury reasons Saturday afternoon. But Hoke’s attempt to defibrillate his lifeless offense fell flat. Shane Morris completed seven of his 19 passes for 49 yards and threw an interception in a 30-14 loss to Minnesota at the Big House. When Devin Gardner, last week’s starter, relieved the battered sophomore midway through the fourth quarter, Michigan had managed only 109 total yards.
A woeful offensive performance did nothing to slow Hoke’s fast-fading job security amid a disastrous start to the season for his team, which fell to 2-3 with the loss. The Wolverines have come up short in all three of their games against Power 5 conference opponents this season, getting outscored 87-24 in the process.
“We’re disappointed in how we played football today,” Hoke said. “When you look at different aspects of our game, I don’t think we played as well as we can. I don’t think we executed as well. That always comes back to me first as a coach.”
After a 31-0 loss at Notre Dame, it was Gardner who shouldered most of the blame from the Michigan faithful. Hoke’s turn to face the ire came after the 26-10 rain-soaked loss to Utah two weeks later. Now, with a losing record for the first time in Hoke’s four seasons, the Michigan faithful that remain are cocking back farther and launching their verbal rotten tomatoes one tier higher.
The calls for athletic director Dave Brandon's resignation started midway through the third quarter, shortly after Minnesota linebacker De'Vondre Campbell intercepted a Morris pass and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown. That play was followed shortly thereafter by a fumble from Morris, which the Gophers also converted into seven points. A close, physical game deteriorated into an embarrassing loss and the attention turned from the field to the sidelines.
The “Fire Brady” and “Fire Brandon” chorus was accompanied by the third straight week of booing at the Big House. Fans booed Morris and his teammates. Fans booed Hoke and his staff. Fans even booed themselves when the public address system announced an attendance of 102,926. The Michigan Stadium crowd has flirted with ending its streak of 255 consecutive games with more than 100,000 spectators in attendance several times already this season.
That record might have fallen Saturday if not for a botched promotion earlier in the week. On Monday, campus convenience stores gave away a pair of free tickets to the game with the purchase of two Coca-Cola products -- a $150 value for three bucks. The athletic department pulled the deal that night saying it never gave the go-ahead to Coke, but not before tickets sold out.
Add that botched play to a growing list of recent criticized missteps for Brandon’s athletic department, which has tried several ways to build excitement around a team that is failing to provide it on the field. Former football players ripped the athletic director in the media this week for what they see as disrespectful tactics. The suggestion box outside of Brandon’s office is overflowing with complaints about his attempted commercialization of a program that, at this point, can only take pride in its rich tradition.
Of course, those problems are exacerbated by the product Brandon is trying to sell. What would be innovative and generous if attached to a 5-0 football team is cheap and gimmicky for a group that is 2-3. It gets less likely each week that Hoke can survive beyond the 2014 season unless he turns things around in a hurry. The coach said he still believes he has a team that is capable of winning a Big Ten championship this season, but his answers for how it gets to that point haven’t changed despite the past few weeks of repeated problems.
“We continue to go about our business and [maintain] how positive the guys are with each other about what’s going on,” he said. “Believe me, there are guys in there who are taking responsibility for what we’ve done. I’m talking about players, coaches, everybody. When you look at what’s ahead of us we’ve got to get back to work and get better.”
Hoke’s players are still emotional in their defense of their head coach. Junior linebacker Joe Bolden choked up after Saturday’s game while trying to shift the blame to himself and his teammates.
“It’s lack of execution on our part. If we’re not executing the game plan it’s our fault,” Bolden said. “You’ve been coached. You’ve been taught the right way. You just need to simply execute.”
Michigan’s players universally tried to protect Hoke throughout the week, but after the loss Hoke was asked about his own ability to protect those players. The coach decided to keep Morris in the game after a big hit early in the fourth quarter that left the quarterback visibly wobbly on television.
Hoke said afterward that he didn’t see any symptoms of an injury from his vantage point on the sideline. A few plays later, Morris limped off the field and Gardner took over. The quarterback battle between those two will continue next week. Neither player has seized his opportunity to take the job, and Michigan’s search for a spark from that position failed this week.
The Wolverines return to the drawing board this week with a 4-1 Rutgers team waiting for them in Piscataway, New Jersey. The prospect of a Big Ten title in Ann Arbor is bleak, if not downright delusional, one game into league play. As October approaches, the most compelling race left to follow for Michigan might be who can survive longer: Hoke or Brandon.