Michigan is 2-7 going into game with Gophers
Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez has relied on his experience from West Virginia to help get through his first season with the Wolverines — unfortunately for him, it’s mostly the experience of going 3-8 with the Mountaineers in his first season there in 2001.
His first year at WVU was about identifying problems, coming up with solutions and raising standards. He won at least eight games every year after that inaugural season and won 32 of his last 35 games there.
His first year with the Wolverines has been tougher than he or the rabid Michigan fan base expected. There are more problems than Rodriguez anticipated.
"There’s a list of things," an occasionally agitated Rodriguez said during a news conference on Monday, "but I don’t need to go through that right now."
Michigan began the year with 10 new starters on offense, many either too inexperienced or miscast for his trademark spread offense. The defense has been terrible at times — Rodriguez counted 21 missed tackles last week in a 48-42 loss at Purdue. His most effective player might be punter Zoltan Mesko, a finalist for the Ray Guy award.
The problems have added up to a 2-7 record heading into Saturday’s Little Brown Jug battle at the Metrodome. If Minnesota wins, the Wolverines will have their first eight-loss season in the program’s 129-year history.
No wonder Rodriguez was wound up.
"I’m sure a lot of people are saying that I’m a bad coach," he said. "Everybody can have their opinion, but I’ve been here 10 months. I feel as good as I have ... [because] I know we can build this program to be one of the best in the country. It’s not showing that right now, but we can do that. It may take us longer than what I thought. ... We’ll get it right. Everybody wants to push the panic button."
Michigan is expected to start backup quarterback Nick Sheridan against the Gophers. First-stringer Steven Threet hasn’t shaken off the effects of a concussion suffered last week at Purdue. It’s the last thing Rodriguez needs as he tries to keep his team motivated for its final three games.
"We’re not going to a bowl game, but do you think we’re going to pack it in?" he asked. "You think the guys are a bunch of quitters? I don’t think we’ve got any quitters. You think the coaches are going to pack it in, not show up for work? Golly."
Rodriguez joined the Wolverines following a controversial departure from West Virginia. The spread offense that averaged 456.2 yards a game in his final season at West Virginia is sputtering along at 288 yards a game this season.
The 13-10 loss to visiting Toledo on Oct. 11 is this year’s Appalachian State-like shocker. Two weeks later, the Wolverines lost to Michigan State — once again at home — falling to their in-state rival for the first time in seven seasons. Then there was last week’s loss to a mediocre Purdue team and — poof — here went the nation’s longest bowl streak at 33 years.
Rodriguez probably wouldn’t mind living Gophers coach Tim Brewster’s life for the time being. Brewster — like Rodriguez an advocate of the spread offense — has turned the Gophers around after going 1-11 last season.
"To implement a new way of doing things, a new system, takes time," Brewster said when asked about Rodriguez’s transition. "It is a process. Rich is going to do a great job there. ... It’s a similar process, I’m sure, to some of the things we went through last year."
The transition year has been especially difficult for some of the team’s seniors.
"At times, it gets tough," senior nose tackle Terrance Taylor said, "but you’ve got to have the motivation to keep pushing."
Both Taylor and Rodriguez, however, spoke of how they have to honor the school’s rich football tradition even if they aren’t playing up to that tradition.
For Rodriguez, it means he has to find different ways to motivate his players. Playing for the Little Brown Jug, which Michigan has held in 26 of the past 28 years, is one carrot to dangle.
"I’ve got to do all I can to make sure our players are getting excited every day, not just for the games but for the work during the week," Rodriguez said. "Hopefully we can get a win eventually and make them feel good. But even if we don’t, I want the players to appreciate the opportunity they have each day."
For Taylor, the incentive is to finish with pride and be strong for the underclassmen.
"You can start getting down and want the season to be over with," he said. "We’ve got three games left and things are going bad, but we are still here playing for Michigan and we’ll still practice hard and play hard. When you make a commitment to Michigan, you are not going to give up, no matter what the situation is."