ANN ARBOR (AP) – Michigan’s football program has 23 seniors who will go out as winners, a far cry from their first season.
“I wish I had been under this coaching staff for four years,” Wolverines defensive tackle Will Campbell said.
Campbell came to campus during the Rich Rodriguez era and is finishing up under Brady Hoke. He and the other fourth-year players were one game under .500 during their first two seasons, but have gone a combined 18-5 this year and last.
The 23rd-ranked Wolverines (7-3, 5-1 Big Ten) hope to send the seniors out with a win against Iowa (4-6, 2-4) in their home finale Saturday.
Denard Robinson might not be on the field for a snap. The senior quarterback hasn’t played for two-plus games because of nerve damage in his right elbow.
Hoke said he won’t jeopardize his health just to let him play in his Big House finale.
“It won’t have anything to do with it,” Hoke said.
In relief of Robinson, junior Devin Gardner has played well. Gardner has thrown for 520 yards with four passing touchdowns and has three scores on the ground in two starts.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said his team has had to get ready for both Robinson and Gardner.
“It’s two different preparations,” he said. “And, both of them are tough preparations.”
Robinson hasn’t been available for interviews for weeks, but his teammates say he has stayed upbeat despite being stuck on the sideline toward the end of his spectacular career.
“He’s a source of encouragement,” guard Patrick Omahmeh said. “Whatever he can do for the team, it is what he’s going to do. Everybody wants to go out the way they dream when you came to Michigan, but we can’t always get that.”
Michigan’s fifth-year seniors saw a school-record nine losses up close in 2008 during Rodriguez’s debut season. They have benefited from a coaching change that has worked out well for college football’s winningest program. The Wolverines won 11 games last year and have a chance to win 10 games this year.
“We always knew we had good athletes and a lot of credit for that goes to coach Rod,” senior safety Jordan Kovacs said. “But coach Hoke has taken advantage of our talent and has run with it.”
Michigan, though, is desperately seeking the end to an eight-year drought without a Big Ten title.
To get into the conference championship game, the Wolverines need to beat Iowa and rival Ohio State and then hope Nebraska loses at home to Minnesota on Saturday or at Iowa next week.
Iowa has another scenario in mind.
After losing four straight for the first time since 2007 — the last time the Hawkeyes didn’t end a season in a bowl game — they need to close the season with upsets against the Wolverines and Cornhuskers to be eligible for the postseason.
“I know our players are probably more disappointed and frustrated than anybody,” Ferentz said.
Ferentz, though, said he’s not fearing the possibility of ending the season with a six-game losing streak or worrying about the lasting impact this year has had on his proud program.
“I’ll think about that stuff after the season,” he said. “Right now, we’re just trying to beat Michigan.”
Lately, the Hawkeyes have been pretty good at that. They’ve won three straight for the first time in 100-plus year history of the series and five of the last eight games against the Wolverines.
Ferentz doesn’t sound concerned about Michigan’s motivation to send its seniors out with a win in their last game at the Big House.
“I’m sure it’s a special thing, just like it will be here the week after,” he said. “But I think that wears off pretty quickly once the game gets going.”
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