Schembechler expected Michigan to improve -- but not this much

Few forecasters considered Michigan among the top teams in the Big Ten this season, let alone the nation. After all, the Wolverines were coming off a 6-6 season, the worst in coach Bo Schembechler's 16-year tenure, and faced perhaps the toughest schedule in the country. Notre Dame, South Carolina and Maryland all were rated and undefeated -- until they played Michigan. Wisconsin also was unbeaten. And Michigan State had scored 31 points to give No. 1 Iowa a real run for its rating.

But the Spartans couldn't score Saturday against Michigan as the Wolverines raised their record to 5-0 and climbed to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll.

So what happened? How did Michigan go from No. Nothing to No. 2 -- and even to No. 1 in one computerized ranking? By the way, we'll find out Saturday whether the experts or the electronics are right when ``No. 1'' Michigan visits ``No. 1'' Iowa.

Actually, Schembechler felt all along that this team had more potential than was generally realized.

``In spring practice, the club showed me that it was going to approach this season with more resolve,'' he said.

Bo knew last year's problems were due partly to injuries, including one to quarterback Jim Harbaugh after the Wolverines had won three of their first four games.

``Jim's the most underrated quarterback in our league,'' he said of his signal caller, who is passing at a .605 percentage and is the team's third-leading runner.

``Any time you lose a quarterback of that caliber, it has an impact. But what really compounded the problem was the loss of numerous other players such as Tony Gant, a fine safety man, and Doug James, our captain and offensive guard.''

``A big key is if Tony can make a comeback for us,'' Schembechler said before the season started.

Gant has come back, completing a defense that leads the country in point prevention. So far, only Wisconsin has been able to reach the Michigan end zone. Notre Dame and South Carolina got on the scoreboard via field goals, while Maryland and Michigan State were blanked altogether.

The defense showed its stuff at a critical point in Saturday's 31-0 win. Michigan State, down 17-0 but fighting back, had marched 94 yards to the Wolverine 2. But a penalty pushed the ball back to the 12, Mike Hammerstein pushed it back another five yards when he tackled a runner in the backfield, and a quarterback sack put another 12 yards between the ball and goal line. Suddenly, first-and-goal became fourth-and-forever. A potential touchdown plunge turned into a failed 46-yard field goal attempt. An d that's pretty much the way it's been for Michigan's oppponents all fall.

Tackles Hammerstein (6-4, 260 pounds) and Mark Messner (6-3, 245) already have erased more than 100 yards of opposing offense. Inside linebackers Mike Mallory and Andy Moeller are coaches' players who combine 220 pounds of brawn with a couple more of brain. Cornerbacks Brad Cochran and Garland Rivers are All-America candidates, while the safeties are Ivan Hicks, who takes after his brother, Dwight, formerly of Michigan and presently of the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, and of course Gant.

Teaming with Harbaugh on offense is Jamie Morris, a 5-7, 175-pound running back who led Michigan in rushing as a freshman and is doing the same as a sophomore. And for pass receivers there are 6-6 tight end Eric Kattus and 6-8, 240-pound split end Paul Jokish, who also played basketball for two seasons. Imagine what it's like for a 6-2 defensive back to have to guard a 6-8 receiver who is used to jumping center.

This year's team seems to have more depth, and there also seems to be sufficient senior leadership, even though there are only 11 seniors in the starting lineup.

``We didn't have a lot of those big names being bantered around the country as All-America players and Heisman Trophy candidates,'' Schembechler says looking back to the start of the season and addressing the question of why no one -- except perhaps the coach himself -- anticipated much from this team. ``We had some good players, though -- and a marvelous attitude.''

Still, Bo has to admit, ``I knew we'd be better, but I didn't expect this to happen.''

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