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Posted on Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 12:40 p.m.

Top 5 Michigan football stories of 2011

By Jim Knight

In a year that started with Michigan firing its football coach and ended with a date in a BCS bowl game, there was no shortage of stories to tell.

So many stories, in fact, that a tell-all, best-selling book about the program was part of the ongoing drama.

The top five Michigan football stories of 2011, chosen by the sports staff:


Michigan beat Notre Dame, 35-31, in the first night game at Michigan Stadium.

Melanie Maxwell |

5. The first night game
at Michigan Stadium

The first night game in the 84-season history of Michigan Stadium was a spectacle even before the Notre Dame and Michigan game started.

ESPN's "College GameDay" set up shop at Ingalls Mall, Desmond Howard was honored as Michigan's first "Michigan football legend, the Wolverines wore Adidas-designed "legacy" uniforms and a record 114,804 people packed Michigan Stadium.

The game lived up to the hype as Denard Robinson threw two touchdown passes in the final 64 seconds, leading the Wolverines to a come-from-behind 35-31 victory. beat writer Kyle Meinke captured the scene in his column from that night:

Robinson found receiver Jeremy Gallon for a 64-yard gain with 8 seconds left, then hooked up with (Roy) Roundtree for the 16-yard winner on the next play.

Pandemonium. The joint still was packed 10 minutes after the game, when the Big House, notorious for its tame atmosphere despite gaudy crowds, was rocking and shaking and pulsating with fervor for its team.

"We called the play and it worked," Robinson said. "Every time you see this game, both teams have to fight to the end. It's never over until you see zeroes on the clock."


Michigan State celebrated a 28-14 victory.

Melanie Maxwell |

4. Michigan loses to Michigan State for the fourth consecutive season

Michigan's first loss of the season hurt, emotionally and physically. The Wolverines went to East Lansing with a 6-0 record, but lost, 28-14, for the fourth consecutive season to Michigan State.

The Spartans were tagged with 13 penalties — including six personal fouls. The lasting memory will be of William Gholston twisting the head of Denard Robinson while he was on the bottom of a pile.

Afterward, Michigan coaches and players said Michigan State played like the tougher team.

"I think they were definitely more physical," Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said. "They pounded us. They beat us up."

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Greg Mattison

3. Greg Mattison overhauls defense; Wolverines finish 17th in the nation

Think about what Greg Mattison inherited when he accepted the job as Michigan's defensive coordinator. He took on a defense that allowed opponents 35.2 points and 450.7 yards a game in 2010.

Now, with Michigan in a BCS bowl game, the Wolverines finished as the No. 17 defense in the nation, allowing 17.2 points and 317.6 yards per game. The improvement is so striking, it caught Mattison by surprise.

"I felt there’s no way we’re going to be that (good)," Mattison said earlier this month. "There’s no way. I don’t mean that in a negative (way) toward what happened before. I just know when you measure the way we measure things, you have to make sure that doesn’t happen."

Mattison was comfortably in charge of the Baltimore Ravens defense when his good friend Brady Hoke was hired at Michigan. Mattison, who was an assistant at Michigan from 1982-86, decided to join Hoke and brought 31 years of experience to the Wolverines.


Brady Hoke at his introductory press conference.

File photo

2. Michigan fires Rich Rodriguez, hires Brady Hoke

Heard any good rumors? That seemed to be a theme for a few weeks in January. First, a 52-14 loss to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl made the firing of Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez appear imminent.

Still Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon stuck to his plan of reviewing the program with Rodriguez. That happened in a three-plus hour discussion on Jan. 4, and some media outlets reported that Rodriguez was fired. That didn't actually happen until the next day.

Once it was done, Brandon had kind words for Rodriguez.

"I know he's frustrated, because he would have loved to continue," Brandon said. "I think when you consider — as he would put it — the drama that he has dealt with since the day he got on this campus, I think he's handled himself in an amazingly controlled and measured way."

Then round two of rumors started. Who would coach Michigan? Jim Harbaugh and Les Miles were popular names, and former Michigan assistant Brady Hoke was mentioned frequently, too. Hoke was named the 19th coach in Michigan football history six days after Rodriguez was fired.

Hoke accepted Brandon's offer "immediately," and he was introduced to media and the university on Jan. 12 with a press conference that had a pep rally feel.

Sports Year in Review

STORIES: U-M football | U-M basketball | High schools | ’Other’ sports

PHOTOS: U-M football | College sports | High school sports

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Denard Robinson, left, and Fitz Toussaint both rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season.

1. Michigan beats Ohio State, goes 10-2 and earns a Sugar Bowl bid

Brady Hoke and Michigan nearly accomplished everything on their 2011 check list as the Wolverines went 10-2 and earned a BCS bowl bid to the Sugar Bowl to face Virginia Tech.

Among the key points for Michigan:

Start strong: The Wolverines won their first six games.

Improve the defense: Michigan put together a top-20 defense and in one three-game stretch allowed just 10 points.

Build an offense that was more than quarterback Denard Robinson: Michigan averaged 34.2 points a game as Robinson (1,163) and Fitz Toussaint (1,011) both rushed for more than 1,000 yards.

Win the big games: Three out of four isn't bad. Michigan beat Notre Dame, lost to Michigan State and finished the regular season with victories against Nebraska and Ohio State.

The 40-34 victory against the Buckeyes ended a seven-year losing streak and concluded talk of "Ohio" that Hoke started in his introductory press conference.

From Kyle Meinke's column that day:

"It couldn’t feel any better," said center David Molk, a captain who had been outscored 100-24 by Ohio State in three previous seasons. "I mean, going through what we’ve gone through? This is my third coach, third offensive coordinator, third offensive line coach, third strength coach."

Then, the center's voice rising: "It’s been a lot, and it’s been a roller-coaster that, for some reason, never seemed like it would ever get good. But, you know what? We kept fighting."



Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 6:35 a.m.

My vote was other afford me a moment or more... When David Molk and RVB, Koger, Martin and co. decided that after* RR had been fired the team was to stay together. THAT alone is the foundation to Team 132. A solid foundation, built on honesty, respect, trust, integrity, accountability and values is what provides a foundation to gain footing. This senior class, it's ability to keep the family together with it's values in tact and buy in completely to the new coaching staff is what is the story of the year. Trust me, I love all the other story lines, but without the glue/gel/foundation established by the seniors we never get to 10-2 and a BCS birth. It is a credit to unity and belief in one's brother that have given us the fans (short for fanatics) more reasons we could have dreamed in cheering on Team 132. Remember this year, this TEAM, this group of seniors that made the nation remember what Michigan football is, was and will be. Go Blue! Proud supporter of Team 132, it's coaching staff and most of all the Seniors who endured hell together.


Mon, Jan 2, 2012 : 3:26 a.m.

The Best that happened to UM football this year was beating Notre Dame. That had to be the most thrilling football game I've ever watched Michigan play. Night game - so what, loss to State- horrifying, sugar bowl- ok, firing RR- knew what was coming, Mattison- awesome , but beating the better Irish team takes the cake


Mon, Jan 2, 2012 : 12:38 a.m.

I voted for the coaching change, but the night game against "Our Lady" was the most incredible football game I've ever seen. Two touchdown passes in the last 64 seconds. Was that a real football game or a Hollywood movie?


Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 11:07 p.m.

I agree with the other commenters above... It all started with the firing of RR and hiring of BH. threw 3 different stories into one choice with the "Ohio win, 10-2 record, and Sugar Bowl bid". None of those possible without the new coaching staff.


Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 11:30 p.m.

Glad us posters agree on this one: a no brainer. Your last sentence sums it up in a concise way.


Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 7:57 p.m.

Top story: the RR firing / Hoke hiring. Without that (and Brady's subsequent luring of Mattison to UM) we don't beat Ohio State.


Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 6:55 p.m.

It's saddening to see that twice as many people believe that the Wolverines beating the Buckeyes last November was the "top story" versus the story about Brandon firing Rodriguez and hiring Brady Hoke. If not for Hoke, none of the other things would have happened. Hoke brought Borges with him and got Mattison to come here. I'm sure that Coach Hoke also takes responsibility for the loss to MSU. Beyond that: the first night game turned out spectacularly well - and it was Dave Brandon who spearheaded for that game to take place. Ultimately, history will tell of the deeds of Dave Brandon who is the one who straightened out what was a hopeless mess and turned defeat into victory for the Victors and their fans.


Mon, Jan 2, 2012 : 12:52 a.m.

Maybe the hiring of Brandon was even bigger. RR was a horrible defensive coach and unable to transition (deserved to be fired) but then one reads that Martin wouldn't let him hire his choice because the $250k was too much? Also, embarrassments like RR being told he could recruit Demar Dorsey by the AD- and then after he gets offered a scholarship- RR has to tell him "sorry unpack your bags". That was epic incompetence and treatment of a kid. Brandon brought integrity and competence back to the AD. Finally I don't believe Brandon would ever let a Michigan's coach call the shots at Michigan like Tressel did at Ohio and Paterno did at Penn State. By hiring Hoke I believe he has a coach with integrity. But no one should ever be given total power. Ben Franklin would have understood that.


Mon, Jan 2, 2012 : 12:52 a.m.

Your first point, was my sentiments, exactly! What a turn-around. A cultural change. Go Blue.


Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 6:07 p.m.

A change in the Head Coach was a necessary decision by David Brandon. The football program had indeed undergone a change in culture under Rich Rod. It was negative inside Schembechler Hall. The seasons of 2009 and 2010 saw good starts of 4 and 0 and 5 and 0 then a near collapse once conference play begun. To me, that was a negative culture change many fans recognized that quickly. To his credit, the players believed in Rich Rod and played as hard as they could. Rich Rod had some redemption by pulling out two victories in Nov 2010 over IL and Purdue to get the bowl birth. The collapse then continued with three humiliating losses. The fan base was nearly gone. David Brandon had another critical decsion, who to hire to replace Rich Rod: in comes Brady Hoke. There was something special about his first press conference. Contrast that to the vanilla press conference Urban Meyer had recently at ohio. Hoke delivered and even over achieved. Most of us knew that Michigan would not win a B1G title in year-one but to accend the football program back to the top tier in the conference was a major step. We can all feel good that the football program is in good hands and will remain a serious conference power for many years to come. The right decision, the right man for the job is no easy task. 2011 should be remembered as a major turning point in Michigan Football history; what a fun ride it has been thus far. GO BLUE!!!