ANN ARBOR, MICH. - It's been a perfect first month for Brady Hoke.
Michigan's new coach, who discussed the Gophers opening with Minnesota officials before waiting for a better job to become available, has ridden a superstar quarterback into the national rankings with three routs of inferior opponents and a thrilling, crowd-pleasing, confidence-boosting victory over Notre Dame.
It's been a lousy first month for Jerry Kill.
The Gophers' eventual choice for the job has endured disappointing play from his key performers, swallowed a pair of ugly home losses to lightly regarded, overmatched-on-paper opponents, and worst of all, spent several days in a hospital bed when he wanted to be on the football field.
So why would anyone believe that either coach's luck is about to change, that two programs headed in opposite directions might suddenly reverse course Saturday in front of 110,000 at the Big House?
Good question, Kill said. "I know what it takes to win. I won a long time. We're not where we need to be as a program," the Gophers coach said, by way of explanation for his team's 1-3 record. But "sooner or later, all of a sudden you get the breaks. The ball bounces your way -- it bounces right to you and you go, 'Why the hell did that happen?' And I really believe the luckier teams are the ones that work the hardest and stay the course."
Staying the course is sort of the problem right now -- the Gophers' 1-3 nonconference start looks an awful lot like last year's. The pass rush remains toothless, mistakes occur at the worst time, the head coach's status draws most of the attention, and "Who should quarterback?" is a hot topic.
This is not what the Gophers expected, though it's exactly what Kill -- who has been hospitalized twice this fall after seizures -- has been preaching virtually from the day he arrived.
"With my older age, I don't get too shocked by anything lately. Not shocked -- maybe disappointed," said senior safety Kim Royston, at 24 the Gophers' oldest player. "The good thing is, it's a long season. We still have eight games left. This whole college football thing, things get turned around real quick. But for that to happen, we've got to put in the work on the practice field."
Saturday would be a good place to start. Denard Robinson ranks fourth in the nation in rushing, averaging 138 yards per game, and he has helped the Wolverines go 13-for-13 in the red zone, with 12 touchdowns. He's improved so much -- after a sophomore season in which he was named the Big Ten's offensive player of the year -- that linebacker Mike Rallis said the film sessions were eye-opening.
"He can make something out of nothing, basically," Rallis said.
That was the idea for the Gophers' own elusive quarterback, too, but it's happened only sporadically. MarQueis Gray rushed for 110 yards against New Mexico State, a school-record 171 against Miami (Ohio), but only 23 last week. His passing problems -- Gray still has more career receptions (48) than pass completions (47) -- have pushed Kill and his staff to try playing freshman Max Shortell at the position, too, and triggered a public debate over their roles.
Shortell will play on Saturday; Gray's status, depending on a toe injury, is in some doubt. Kill said he still has faith in both.
"They've both done a good job and had good moments but also had some struggling moments. But for what we're asking them to do, we need other people to pick it up, to be frank. Those two kids are doing everything they can, but they can't do it by themselves," Kill said. "They've had to force some balls late to win. Take that out of it, and they've done a pretty good job, they really have. It's just we're asking them to do too much."
To get the results to change, Kill said, his approach cannot.
"I told the kids, I'm not down. I'm not going to beat them up. Yelling and screaming, telling them they're no good, that's not the answer," he said. "We've just got to keep [being] consistent. ... We can't miss a tackle. We can't jump offsides. We can't throw an interception at a critical time."
And they have to be creative about stopping Denard Robinson. Kill's game plan?
"Play about 13 on defense," the coach said. "Maybe 14."
So at least he still has his sense of humor.