Hoke, Michigan look to avoid late season collapse

You can ask the question. It’s OK. The Michigan Wolverines almost seem like they want you to ask.

“It’s definitely important for us to get back and show the nation we’re not going to slide like the other years,” tight end Kevin Koger said.

A brief recap: The 2010 team started 5-0 and finished 2-6. The 2009 team started 4-0 and finished 1-7. The 2008 team started 2-2 and finished 1-7.

Some of that had to do with the schedule — most of the losses came during the Big Ten season. But that doesn’t explain all of it.

There is no point in rehashing what went wrong for three straight years, but players say 2011 is not like the other seasons, and they say it with conviction. They started 6-0 and lost to a superior Michigan State team, which leads to the questions. They don’t mind you asking because they can’t wait to answer, starting Saturday against Purdue.

“The leadership is different,” senior defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen said. “I think the attitude’s different. The main reason why it won’t happen is because we won’t let it happen. There is not going to be a crash and burn. This one stumble isn’t going to lead to us stopping. We’ve gotta keep leaning forward and take a step. That’s been our attitude throughout this bye week, throughout practices. We’re going to keep our momentum.”

Somebody said: But Ryan, you said similar things last year …

“I can understand what you’re saying,” Van Bergen said. “But you’ve got to be around the building. You’ve got to be around and feel the energy and the hunger that the kids have. I think last year there might have been a lack of confidence. The same words were coming out, but the actual confidence and presence in the locker room and practice, and the intensity, wasn’t where it was now. I think that is going to be the difference-maker.”

Let me pause here to point out that Van Bergen referred to his teammates as “kids,” which is awesome. And also, to say this: I believe him.

I don’t think this year’s Michigan team is talented enough to win all of its last five games. But the Wolverines will not fold. Coach Brady Hoke won’t allow it.

Coaching is not just about scheming and deciding whether to go for it on fourth down. Especially on the college level, it is about building a tight unit — about getting a group of 18- to 22-year-olds to believe in their coaches and themselves.

At a place like Michigan, where greatness is expected, a loss can seem like the end of civilization. It’s important that the coach be tough — not tough on his players, but tough enough to take whatever comes at him.

Captain Kevin Koger said the team’s belief “has a lot to do with Coach Hoke. He is always calm and confident. He instills that in us.”

Hoke talks about being “consistent” — it’s one of his favorite words — and even when the Wolverines were climbing in the rankings, he did not get caught up in it. Naturally, his approach to the Michigan State loss was to be consistent: “Once we correct, if we can correct anything on the field, you move forward.”

Koger said Hoke “doesn’t give us too much praise as a team as a whole. … What I like the most, he is always telling everybody they are good football players, which helps with the confidence thing I was talking about earlier. But he doesn’t give the team praise as a whole that much.”

U-M has flaws. Michigan State exposed some of them. But the Wolverines also have a belief that this year is different. They are different. Now they just have to prove it.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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