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Luke Pasch: Michigan needs time to grow up

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Luke Pasch, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 2, 2012

ARLINGTON, Texas — Every fall weekend in America, fathers and sons, older brothers and little brothers, take to their backyards for friendly — though sometimes, heated — contests of two-hand touch football.

Invariably, the youngsters drop open passes and their elders pat them on the shoulder, telling them they need to see the ball all the way into their hands before they could turn to run toward the tree stump that marks the end zone. It seems a simple lesson, really, yet it could take years to reach the hump of that basic learning curve.

The Michigan football team didn’t have those years under its belt when it took the field at Cowboys Stadium against Alabama on Saturday night. The Wolverines were asked to grow up a little too quickly, which is an impossible task in the game of football.

After a disheartening 41-14 loss, sophomore cornerback Blake Countess was on crutches and redshirt junior left tackle Taylor Lewan limped off the field. A beaten-up Brady Hoke was slow to the presser podium. He looked and sounded as if he’d been chewed up and spit out by his Alabama counterpart, Nick Saban.

Michigan resembled the dejected youngster who had just taken a whooping in a backyard showdown.

“I think we’re on the short end of the magic measuring stick right now,” Hoke said with half a voice.

Yes, if this game was a measuring stick for how Michigan has progressed as a program in the Brady Hoke era, the team came up way short on Saturday night — much closer to the bottom than fans thought it was following last season’s Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.

The measuring stick isn’t magical, though. There’s no DaVinci code to crack. No sorcery, no black arts.

You need time. A starting running back and healthy secondary would help also, but you need more time.

Saban has been pulling four- and five-star recruits to Tuscaloosa for six seasons now. Each year, it seems, the Crimson Tide lose their top performers to the first and second rounds of the NFL draft, and the following season they recharge with players who are equally talented and have been waiting three years to take on starting roles.

Exit star linebacker Rolando McClain, enter Dont’a Hightower. Exit Hightower, enter Nico Johnson. Round and round it goes.

Michigan doesn’t have the same luxury — not yet at least.

This fall, Hoke had nobody to replace the physicality of Junior Hemingway in the receiving corps, so he was forced to line up junior quarterback Devin Gardner at wideout. Though he wasn’t targeted often on Saturday night, it was clear Gardner is already senior quarterback Denard Robinson’s biggest and most athletic receiver.

But he’s not a receiver yet. He needs time to make his routes sharper, to time his jump balls better. He’s an unfinished product. And if the individuals on the roster are an unfinished product, then so is the team.

To be perfectly clear, a lack of development was far from the only issue on Saturday. Robinson crumbled in the limelight, making mistakes coaches said he had rid from his game this fall, and his co-captain Jordan Kovacs missed too many tackles to keep count.

Those are the dependable veterans that should be leading the freshmen by example.

And sometimes, you have to give credit where credit is due. The Crimson Tide played how champions play. Their defense smothered Robinson’s receivers and sealed off running lanes with almost inhuman consistency. On the other side of the ball, their offensive line opened up gaping holes for running backs T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy.

But Alabama isn’t necessarily a more talented program than Michigan. Alabama is the finished product.

Four of the 17 Wolverine freshmen who traveled with the team for Saturday’s game spurned an offer from Saban to instead play ball in a winged helmet, and four more Michigan commits in the class of 2013 are prepared to do the same.

Hoke is successfully bringing top talent to Ann Arbor — more talent than Rich Rodriguez was ever able to bring over his three-year span at the helm.

But even the talented kids need a good whooping in the backyard before they could hang with the big boys.

— Luke Pasch can be reached at lpasch@umich.edu or on Twitter: @lucaspasch.

— An earlier version of this article published on Saturday was updated on Monday to add context for print.