Purdue came to Ann Arbor playing its best football of the year. At the end of 60 minutes Saturday, though, it was clear the Boilermakers were overmatched by a Michigan team playing without one of its best defenders in safety Jordan Kovacs.
Head coach Brady Hoke and his staff spent the better part of two weeks recalibrating the mindset of his team following a disheartening loss at Michigan State. He said he expected to play more freshmen, which he did, and while he didn't know anything about the second half collapses of the last three years, he vowed this team would stay focused.
His team backed him up in a rout despite spotting the Boilermakers a 7-0 lead on the first, 40-plus yard play against his defense this year.
"I thought our team prepared themselves well, came out and responded a little bit," Hoke said. "They came out and took the ball down on the first drive there and scored. I thought our guys held our poise there, and we went back to the sideline and talked about it a little. We adjusted a little bit, and it really wasn't that much of an adjustment that needed to be done, but I was pleased with that."
He had to pause, though, when asked if his group was improving each week.
"I don't know. I'm really thinking … we'll find out more next week," he said. "I think it's a work in progress. Certain guys I can feel, and hopefully you did … our linebackers, you could feel today. Two weeks ago, I didn't feel them. Today, playing downhill and playing physical through people - I could feel that today. If we can grow from that and keep that consistency, we'll get better."
The Wolverines held the Boilermakers to 89 yards rushing, next to nothing from the running backs, playing without redshirt junior safety Kovacs. They ran for 339 yards on offense, getting 170 and two touchdowns (8.5 yards per carry) from rejuvenated sophomore Fitz Toussaint, behind a line that played with much more confidence and aggression.
"I thought he did a nice job, and I thought the guys up front did a nice job," Hoke said. "We'll see [if Toussaint keeps the job]. Obviously we'll look at the tape as a staff and see things that he did well. It's always easy to see when they do good things, because they're usually biting off big chunks of yardage. There are other things that go along with it, but I thought he did a nice job today.
"Offensively, we rushed the ball well. Fitz obviously did a nice job, but I think overall, they all did. Really, it goes to your offensive line. That was a good part."
The coaches issued a challenge to the line after the Michigan State loss two weeks ago.
"No question about it. I could say that every week though, because that's where the game's played," Hoke said. "Those two lines, that's where the game's played. You guys like talking about running backs and guys like that; I like talking about centers and guards, defensive tackles and where the game is played. That's the fun part."
Now, though, comes the hard part, starting with next week's road game at Iowa, followed by a trip to Champaign for Illinois before finishing with Nebraska and Ohio State at home. The Wolverines are now in a three-way tie for first in the Legends Division, but Hoke wasn't impressed.
"Every game is a championship game. We've said that since Minnesota," he said. "There are six to eight plays in a game that are going to be the difference … but next week we're on the road, and it's a championship game."
Nose tackle Mike Martin changed the game with a second quarter safety, sacking Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush in the end zone to give U-M a 9-7 lead. The Wolverines drove for a field goal to go up 12-7 on the next drive.
"Someone said Mike's safety, was that a difference in this game from a momentum side? Yeah," Hoke said. "It was great momentum. When you score defensively, it always brings a great momentum and great morale for your team.
"Mike has been playing good football for us. He's continued to be a great leader for us and work hard, so I was real excited for him."
Michigan's failure to punch it in on first and goal from the one just before the half was one of the game's disappointments.
"I didn't like the end of the first half, because we needed to get seven points not kick a field goal," Hoke said. "That's something we've got to be able to do, however we have to do it, whether it's running the iso up there, the quarterback sneak, whatever. We've got to score points.
"That was too big a situation in the football game and having too good of field position not to do that with 1:58 left. That's disturbing."
Hoke wasn't pleased, either, with a late Purdue touchdown that capped the scoring.
"The touchdown at the end is disturbing because at Michigan, the expectation's for the position and who's in there," he said. "So we've got to obviously work that part of it, too."
Freshman linebacker Desmond Morgan started and finished with a game high nine tackles, playing well. Several of the freshmen saw more time against the Boilermakers.
"I think he's a very instinctive football player. As a linebacker, I think that's critical," Hoke said. "I think he's got a nice burst and will be physical at the point of attack. He's going to play a lot of football here at Michigan."
Hoke said he didn't have any concern about playing so many youngsters because of how they've practiced. Cornerback Blake Countess started, while linebackers Brennen Beyer and Frank Clark played more.
"I want to kill one of them," he quipped without going into detail. "Nah, that's not fair. Read it in the obituaries.
"No, those guys are playing hard, and there are some talented guys. Blake is a talented guy and has good instincts. Desmond does. Frank Clark does, and Brennen Beyer. It's great that they're getting all the time that they are, and they have a great attitude. "
Kovacs sat out the game with a knee injury suffered in practice. He'll be questionable next week at Iowa, U-M's sports information department confirmed. Redshirt sophomore Thomas Gordon started in his place, while senior Troy Woolfolk moved to safety.
"The expectation is for the position," Hoke said. "So if you're in there, there's a way we expect you to play.
"I thought Thomas played really aggressive. Troy, we were moving anyway, so it was one of those things that worked out well. Troy's got some make-up speed some other guys don't have. That's good. I'd like for him to be just a tad more physical at times, but I think he did a good job. They tried to tempo us a little bit, so he did a good job of getting us in and out of what we needed to be looking like back there."
Countess's breakout play contributed to Woolfolk's move.
"With the emergence of how Blake's been playing … I always believe you put your best players on the field," he said. "Troy is probably in the top 11, 12, 13 guys on defense."
Hoke wasn't sure how playing time would shake out when Kovacs returned to the lineup.
Michael Schofield started at left guard again, though Ricky Barnum returned from injury and played. He hurt his ankle again, however, and missed the second half. Left tackle Taylor Lewan was helped off the field with an ankle injury, but returned later.
"That's a lift," Hoke said. "Taylor, I don't know - his leg hurts. That's what I know right now.
"It's football. That's why you have guys on the team to compete. They've just got to keep improving. When their opportunities come, they've got to take advantage of them."
Devin Gardner continues to work into the lineup. He finished 1-for-2 for 26 yards with an interception.
"I think part of that is there's no question when you're able to throw some things at a defense or a team - and for us, the two-quarterback system or whatever you want to call it - it forces guys to work on it," Hoke said. "I think there's enough variety. In fact, there's a lot more we can do with it. But it forces a defense that now you've got to spend 10 minutes a day on that package. I think that helps us."
Hoke on his definition of Michigan football: "Michigan football, as I know it, is playing defense, first and foremost. I think nationally, people think about Michigan football and playing defense, and then running the football. Being able to run the football and being able to knock people off the line of scrimmage. That, in my mind, is what Michigan football is."
Hoke on his team's resolve after fading the last three years: "It's hard for me to compare that to anything that happened before, but I've liked our team. I like how they like each other. Maybe that's corny or whatever, but from where I sit, I like how they respect each other, and they want to play for each other, in my opinion. And it shows. It shows how they practice, and it showed out there today."