October 3, 2012

Borton's Blog: On the road again

Life on the road in the Big Ten is never easy, a reminder Michigan will likely receive again on Saturday in West Lafayette. For the Wolverines, that life hasn't been perfect in a good long while.

As a matter of fact, the last time U-M swept the four-game Big Ten road slate, Brady Hoke coached its defensive linemen, rather than not wearing the headset as the big boss. In the now-bronzed-for-eternity 1997 football season, Charles Woodson & Co. breezed through Indiana (37-0), shut down Michigan State (23-7), served judgment on Penn State (34-8), and survived against Wisconsin (26-16) on the way to a national championship.

Since then, Michigan has never gotten off the road without at least one dent in the fender. Heading for Purdue, U-M embarks on a Big Ten season trying to get over .500 on the road for the first time in five years.

They went 2-2 last year - a road loss at Michigan State keeping them out of the Big Ten championship game - and 2-2 in Rich Rodriguez's final season as head coach. The latter marked a major step up, after 0-4 and 1-3 road efforts in 2009 and 2008, respectively.

Those defenseless dips followed seven straight years of going 3-1 on the road in the Big Ten. That mark itself doesn't guarantee anything, either, since the Wolverines won the Big Ten in only two of those seven seasons.

It's not impossible to go 2-2 on the road in the conference and still get a share of the title - see the 2000 campaign - but it's not recommended. Drew Henson's final season in a Michigan uniform marked the only year since Bo Schembechler stepped onto the U-M campus that the Wolverines split on the Big Ten road and still traveled to a preferred destination.

Since 1969, Michigan has swept the road slate eight times, always with significant results. Here's a look back:

1997 - Perfect on the road, perfect at home, perfect period.

1991 - The Wolverines dominated on the road, taking out Iowa (43-24), Michigan State (45-28), Minnesota (52-6) and Illinois (20-0) on the way to a Big Ten championship, Rose Bowl and No. 6 ranking.

1990 - U-M belted Wisconsin (41-3), Indiana (45-19) and Purdue (38-13) on the road, then slid past OSU in Columbus (16-13) to cap the perfect road slate. Only a pair of back-to-back, one-point home losses to MSU (28-27) and Iowa (24-23) kept them from much bigger dreams. They still earned a share of the Big Ten championship and a final No. 7 ranking by the Associated Press.

1989 - The Wolverines survived at Michigan State (10-7), then took down Iowa (26-12), Illinois (24-10) and Minnesota (49-15) on the road en route to a perfect Big Ten championship season. Schembechler's last team wound up in the Rose Bowl and ranked No. 7 in the AP.

1986 - U-M won at Wisconsin (34-17), Indiana (38-14), Purdue (31-7) and Ohio State (26-24) to assist in capturing the Big Ten title. They ended up in the Rose Bowl and ranked No. 7 by United Press International.

1980 - Schembechler's breakthrough team in Pasadena warmed up with Big Ten road wins at Minnesota (37-14), Indiana (35-0), Wisconsin (24-0) and Ohio State (9-3), before taking down Washington (23-6) in the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten champs finished No. 4 in the rankings.

1973 - The Wolverines never lost in '73, winning on the conference trail at Iowa (31-7), Michigan State (31-0), Minnesota (34-7) and Purdue (34-9), prior to the infamous 10-10 tie against Ohio State in Michigan Stadium. A vote of Big Ten athletic directors kept U-M from the Rose Bowl and the postseason altogether, and Schembechler's conference champions wound up No. 6 in the nation.

1971 - Michigan rolled through a perfect regular season, including Big Ten road wins at Northwestern (21-6), MSU (24-13), Minnesota (35-7) and Purdue (20-17). The Big Ten champs lost to Stanford in the Rose Bowl, 13-12, but held onto a final No. 4 ranking in the UPI.

In other words, a perfect road record in the Big Ten has produced two significant notches in the belt over the past four decades. At minimum, it garnered the Wolverines a Big Ten championship and a No. 7 final ranking in the polls. Six times, they landed in Pasadena at season's end.

But as the last 14 seasons have demonstrated, it's not that easy to get off the Big Ten road without requiring AAA any more. Michigan starts the quest again on Saturday.

With trips to Purdue, Nebraska, Minnesota and Ohio State, it's safe say that if the Wolverines somehow reversed the road woes experienced so far this year and actually swept the slate, they'd at a minimum wind up in Indianapolis for another road contest - the Big Ten championship game.

Easier said than done, and impossible without dramatic strides forward, starting with a turnover turnaround.

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