Big Ten Football Previews: Michigan, Michigan State

BY DI STAFF | AUGUST 31, 2012 6:30 AM

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Brady Hoke won 11 games and a BCS bowl in his first year at the helm in Ann Arbor last season.  But one goal eluded him: a Big Ten championship.

“We had a disappointing year a year ago when [we] do not win the Big Ten championship,” Hoke said on Big Ten media day on July 27. “And at Michigan, we’ve not won that championship since 2004.”

The Wolverines pulled off a 23-20 victory over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl for the program’s first BCS bowl win since 2000. The win thrust Michigan back into the national spotlight, and it now faces the expectations of being a national-championship contender.

Senior safety Jordan Kovacs said he and his teammates aren’t letting the hype go to their heads, because they already expect a lot of themselves.

“That’s one of the questions we’ve had a lot this off-season: With these high expectations, not only in the Big Ten, but nationally, does this add all this pressure? Not at all,” Kovacs said. “Our expectations have always been high.”

Hoke said he doesn’t put any stock in preseason prognostications. He noted that his team was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Legends Division in 2011, and he said he stresses that where the team starts is irrelevant.

“It’s like anything in life,” he said. “It’s not where we start but where we finish.”

The Maize and Blue finished strong in 2011. Michigan went 3-1 in November, including a decisive 45-17 victory over then-No. 16 Nebraska. Kovacs said it’s important to peak in November, but the team also wants to push that effort into October, too.

Senior quarterback Denard Robinson will play behind an offensive line that’s working in two new starters, but he said he’s not worried about staying off the turf.

“Those are my brothers,” he said. “Of course I’m going to trust everybody that’s in front of me, because I know how hard they worked in the summer. So they already have my trust.”

Robinson said the team needs to stay focused on improving, and he didn’t consider himself immune. His numbers regressed from 2010 to 2011, and he said a combination of issues contributed to that — including learning offensive coordinator Al Borges’ system and a lack of timing with his receivers.

He also said he made too many throws off his back foot, which affected his timing.

But with another season under their belts under Borges, the Wolverines are headed for big things this year.

“I think it did hurt us,” Robinson said. “I think us not having timing, [the new offense] was a key issue in that. Now, we’re not thinking about the offense. Now we know the offense, and we have confidence in ourselves when we run the offense.”

By Tork Mason

Michigan State

Michigan State may have lost Kirk Cousins, but the Spartans still have their defense.

The defense returns eight starters, including juniors Max Bullough and Denicos Allen and senior Chris Norman, who tallied a combined 211 tackles last season. Six of the eight returners earned All-Big Ten honors last season.

“We’re all experienced,” Bullough said. “We’re comfortable with each other. We don’t have to worry about trusting each other … we can worry about playing together each week.”

There’s not a lot of experience on the other side of the ball, however.

Andrew Maxwell is a new quarterback left to fill a legendary role after getting time in nine games and never a start, and the Green and White lost their top three receivers.

The nation might doubt Maxwell because no one knows much about him, but he doesn’t doubt whether he’ll be able to bring the Spartans through a winning season.

“Personally, I look around, and I see my supporting cast. I see a defense that, for the past couple weeks was ranked No. 1 in the country,” Maxwell said during Big Ten media day on July 28. “And then, if you look at our depth at offensive line, our depth at running back … We can be a special team.”

Maxwell’s teammates don’t doubt him, either. Bullough said Maxwell has a “bigger arm” than Cousins, and that his lack of game experience “isn’t a big deal.”

“He’s always been talented ever since we came to campus together,” fellow junior Norman said. “He’s always had a great arm, I always thought he could thread the needle. I always thought he was athletic as well, and he’s a smart guy. Personally I have really high expectations for Maxwell, and I think he’s going to do well with that.”

The Spartans have a wealth of offensive players who might lack the experience and production of last season’s offense, but have the talent, the new signal caller said. Many say Maxwell himself is included in that category.

Maxwell spent three years studying under Cousins’ tutelage. The veteran leader prepared his protégé extensively for handling the job of Spartan quarterback. Cousins taught Maxwell the formula for success, both on and off the field.

“I saw how [Cousins] went through the week, the extra time he spent in the film room, the extra time he spent with receivers not only on the field but off the field talking about the game, too,” Maxwell said. “The product on Saturday was a successful season and all sorts of records. Just seeing how hard we worked on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and what the result was on Saturday.”

And in terms of preparation on the field? Well, Maxwell is getting perhaps the best preparation possible as he practices against the Spartan defense.

“It’s a challenge to go against those guys every day in practice,” Maxwell. “They know [the offense] so well, and then couple that with the fact that they’re one of the best defenses in the country, sometimes you walk off the field frustrated because they stopped everything. But then you get to game day, and you see the effect all that has had … Yeah, I’m ready.”

By Molly Irene Olmstead

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