January 04, 2012
Sugar Bowl: Michigan 23, Virginia Tech 20 (Overtime).
First of all, I suppose a few congratulations are in order: You did it, Wolverines. You vastly improved the defense, vanquished Ohio State for the first time since 2003, won 11 games for the first time since 2006, beat two ranked teams for the first time since 2007 and won a BCS bowl game for the first time since 1999. You may well be on your way to your first top-10 finish since 2006. The four-year odyssey that began on Sept. 1, 2007, and claimed the tenure of Rich Rodriguez is over, its habits broken and toxins purged.
All of that sentimental bunk about Brady Hoke returning Michigan to its meat-eating essence or whatever, well, it actually worked out that way. It worked out far beyond the expectations of the most observant pilgrims of Oosterbaanian lore. No one in August was going out on a limb for a 7-6 outfit with no defense transitioning to a new coaching staff. As collapse-prone as the Wolverines were after fast starts under Rodriguez, no one was going out on a limb for them in early November, after losses at Michigan State and Iowa seemed to leave them back at square one. Since then, Michigan is 4-0 with wins over Nebraska, Ohio State and now Virginia Tech and abides in a state of Bo-like balance. Those who stayed fended off a fourth quarter Hokie rally to complete the circle.
Just how they managed to complete it on this particular night — amid season lows for rushing yards, total yards, yards per play and first downs — I'm still not entirely certain. The team that beat the Cornhuskers and Buckeyes to close the regular season looked like an outfit legitimately coming into its own, marking a point of no return between Hoke's first season and Rodriguez's last. On its own, Tuesday night's performance doesn't deserve any of that kind of talk: When in doubt, the offense reverted to the "Chuck It Up and Hope" mode that sparked the wild comeback at Notre Dame in the second week of the season — only without the prolific stat line that came out of that game.
What little good the offense did manage to wring out of the night was of the fluky variety. Both of quarterback Denard Robinson's touchdown passes were off-balance heaves — from 45 yards and 18 yards out, respectively — to a covered Junior Hemingway, who out-battled Hokie defenders for both jump balls. Two plays before Hemingway's second touchdown catch, Virginia Tech picked off an even more luxurious lob from Robinson that was negated by a sketchy pass interference penalty. A key field goal at the end of the first half came only after a fake field goal that had no business working, but incredibly did when a pass thrown into heavy traffic by holder Drew Dileo caromed directly into the hands of the long snapper for a first down.
In overtime, Danny Coale's diving catch in the end zone might have proven to be the game-winner for Virginia Tech — if it hadn't been overturned on somewhat less than "indisputable" video evidence. On the next play, third-string kicker Justin Meyer pushed a 37-yard field goal wide, setting up Brendan Gibbons' game-winner from the same distance on Michigan's turn with the ball.
All things considered — including reminders of just how persistently snake-bitten Rodriguez's teams were with with the same players — Hoke may very well have an angel sitting on his shoulder who occasionally intervenes on Hoke's behalf, Christopher Lloyd style. Or a contract with the devil, which frankly would go a long way toward explaining the leap in total defense.
Of course, that glosses over a lot of the actual good the Wolverines did that didn't simply come up "tails" in their favor: They forced three turnovers, generated points off all three and stuffed the Hokies on 4th-and-1 inside the Michigan 10-yard line in the first half. Including overtime, Virginia Tech crossed the Wolverine 30-yard line seven times, but came away with a single touchdown. And as shaky as Robinson looked as a passer, Hemingway was a legitimate MVP on the other end.
But that is all beside the point, which is: Michigan is back, all the way back, with no asterisks. There will be plenty of time over the next eight months to pore over the details, concoct pet theories to explain the inconsistencies and calculate the precise odds of the 2012 edition staying back with dramatically higher expectations next fall. There will be plenty of time to argue about the agency of Brady Hoke, who inherited a veteran team that may have been poised for a breakthrough, anyway, and was immediately granted a collapse at Ohio State. That comes later. For now, Brady Hoke gets to be a genius, and the only credential he needs is the scoreboard.