ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Brady Hoke bristled at the mere suggestion two-plus years ago that he was taking over a football program that had slipped.
"This is Michigan, for God's sake," he said back then.
The Wolverines had struggled enough in the previous three seasons under Rich Rodriguez that he lost 22 games and was fired.
Michigan bounced back to win 11 times in 2011, but Hoke wouldn't say that his debut season was a success because it didn't stop the school's Big Ten title drought.
The Wolverines took a step back last year with an 8-5 record and are in danger of having a similar mark this season, losing two of three games to fall to 6-2 and out of the rankings with what Hoke called the "meat" of the schedule remaining.
The Wolverines are coming off a humbling 29-6 setback at Michigan State that was their most lopsided in the series since 1967. They had two weeks because of a bye to come up with a plan, but quarterback Devin Gardner was sacked seven times and Michigan had a school-record minus-48 yards rushing.
Michigan's biggest problem is that it can't block well enough when Gardner tries to pass or Fitzgerald Toussaint attempts to run. It is starting a true freshman, redshirt freshman and redshirt sophomore at center and guards after trying a handful of other inexperienced players at the pivotal positions.
Hoke said Monday the Wolverines shouldn't have to rely on so many underclassmen on the offensive line.
"When we got here, we had eight scholarship offensive linemen," Hoke recalled. "That number is usually 14 or 15."
It is now, but 13 of the 15 offensive linemen on scholarship are freshmen or sophomores.
That fact — in part — is why Hoke's boss is cutting him some slack and believes college football's winningest program is still in the right hands.
"He's absolutely the right guy to lead the Michigan football program," athletic director Dave Brandon told The AP in a telephone interview Monday. "We were all disappointed in the outcome of Saturday's game. No one more than Brady, his coaches and the team. But we still have important games to play before the season is over, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the season."
Michigan (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) hosts Nebraska (6-2, 3-1) on Saturday, then closes the regular season on the road against Northwestern and Iowa before hosting archrival and potentially undefeated Ohio State.
Hoke appreciates the support he gets publicly and privately from Brandon. The athletic director and former Michigan football player said he attends one or two practices each week and watches film with both coordinators the day after every game.
"That's always nice if you've got people who you work with that are positive," Hoke said.
Brandon, the man who fired Rodriguez and hired Hoke from San Diego State, said it wasn't easy to watch film of the game Sunday. He watched the offensive snaps with Hoke and coordinator Al Borges and the defense plays with coordinator Greg Mattison.
"It was tough," Brandon said. "We didn't play well and give Michigan State a lot of credit for that. They had a great defensive game plan that got a lot of our young guys out of sync to disrupt our quarterback. It isn't about making or finding excuses. It's about developing our young players so we can be more consistent."
Michigan might be forced to play to plug one more inexperienced player into the lineup: All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan potentially could be suspended for the game against the Cornhuskers after his caught-on-tape actions against the Spartans. Lewan twisted the facemask of Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis while the safety was on the ground.
Hoke said he had a discussion to admonish Lewan about what he did, but doesn't plan to sit him out voluntarily.
"If I think he should be suspended, I would've already done it," Hoke said.
Lewan, who also pushed the facemask of Spartans safety Kurtis Drummond during an after-the-whistle confrontation, wouldn't say how his actions compared to what former defensive end William Gholston did two years ago against him and the Wolverines. Gholston was suspended by the Big Ten for a game after punching Lewan and grabbing then-quarterback Denard Robinson's facemask and twisting it about 180 degrees.
"What I did was wrong," said Lewan, adding he would've apologized to Lewis if he saw him on the field after the game.
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