Five seasons ago, Brady Hoke led a visiting football team into the Big House with the intention of demonstrating he should be Lloyd Carr’s successor at Michigan.
On that day in 2006, Hoke’s Ball State Cardinals, led by a talented freshman quarterback, Nate Davis, finished 7 yards short of a potential game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion from carrying the then-undefeated Wolverines into overtime.
As a former Ball State football player and passionate Hoke friend and supporter, I watched the game from start to finish. The close loss was a byproduct of smoke and mirrors. Hoke’s best players were freshmen and sophomores. The Wolverines played sloppy. They were looking ahead to their season-ending clash against Ohio State. Carr, Hoke’s friend, former boss and mentor, played his reserves early and often.
Still, it was on that day, the afternoon my Cardinals fell to 3-7, I knew Brady Hoke would reach the top of his profession. There was no way to know then that he’d land his dream job. But I knew his efforts to get it would take him big places.
Two years later, shortly after guiding our Cardinals through a 12-0 regular season, Hoke accepted the head-coaching job at San Diego State. Using his connections at Michigan, he secured a 2011 return to the Big House. He gave himself three years to build a team good enough to audition again.
That San Diego State team will play inside the Big House on Saturday. Hoke, now Michigan’s first-year head coach, will be on the opposing sideline, staring at the monster he created.
“We built that team to win this game,” Hoke uncomfortably joked Thursday evening when I reached him by phone.
Hoke and his coaching staff built the team to win the Mountain West Conference. Build a team good enough to compete with TCU and Utah, and you’ve certainly constructed a team sturdy enough to compete against the Wolverines.
A year ago, with Hoke leading San Diego State, the Aztecs, won eight games and a bowl game. They lost four games by a combined total of 15 points. A five-point loss to then-No. 3 TCU was the Aztecs’ most lopsided defeat. Blatant officiating blunders cost SDSU games against Missouri and BYU.
This San Diego State team, with a senior quarterback, Ryan Lindley, and a tailback as explosive as any in the country, Ronnie Hillman, has a chance to be far better than last year’s. That’s why Hoke wasn’t interested in leaving San Diego State for jobs at Minnesota and Indiana. Michigan, if it fired Rich Rodriquez, was the only job Hoke wanted. He wanted to bring this San Diego State squad into the Big House.
“I think they’ll want to come out and beat our ass,” Hoke said of the Aztecs when I asked how he believes his former players will respond to him. “That’ll last a play and then it will just be the enthusiasm of playing a football game.”
Hillman is a beast, and Michigan’s defense is still leaky. In three games, Hillman has rushed for nearly 500 yards. He’s averaging 6.5 yards per carry. A week ago, he torched Washington State for 191 yards and four touchdowns.
“If Ronnie gets to the second level, he has a chance to go,” Hoke said.
Hillman is going to get to the second level. The Aztecs are going to score points. And they’re probably going to get a few stops, too.
Rocky Long, the Aztecs’ head coach, was on Hoke’s coaching staff as defensive coordinator. He practiced every day against Al Borges, Michigan’s offensive coordinator. Long’s multi-look 3-3-5 defense is meant to create confusion. It also deploys enough athletes to occasionally track down an improviser like Denard Robinson.
On the defensive side, the Aztecs will look tiny. They have one defensive starter who weighs more than 250 pounds. They have 10 defensive starters who can all run.
If Michigan can avoid offensive penalties, satisfy itself with 4- and 5-yard runs, it should grind out a boring, relatively low-scoring victory. If the Wolverines make mistakes on offense — turnovers, penalties — they’ll find themselves in a high-scoring shootout.
Whatever happens, Saturday is going to be a nightmare for Brady Hoke. You never want to face the monster you built.
“It’s horrible,” Laura Hoke, Brady’s wife, shouted as Brady and I wrapped up our phone call.