ANN ARBOR -- Brady Hoke's biggest problem right now might not be the other teams in the Big Ten.
It might be the one next door.
Seven months after John Beilein took a team built around freshmen and sophomores to the national-championship game, Hoke is struggling to make any progress at all with a similar group of players.
As much as he wants to blame himself, that's more an issue of the difference between basketball and football than anything either coach did, right or wrong. Beilein had young players like Trey Burke, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary who could come right in and dominate a sport that is increasingly ruled by teams with players only staying in school for a couple years before heading to the NBA.
Hoke, on the other hand, is discovering that life with a young offensive line is a recipe for disaster in college football.
"When you are talking about playing true freshman, well, it is a grind," he said Monday. "They haven't been home since June, and that's tough. They are working at an entirely different level, and that's tough.
"Even when you are talking about redshirt freshmen, they've been here, but they've spent a whole season working off play cards. Now they are out there in the middle of the stadium, in front of these crowds. That's a huge step up."
As much as Hoke has juggled the middle three spots on the offensive line, he's still working with the recruits he has brought in over the past couple years -- players that hadn't spent much time on the field before this season.
He's not about to dump the blame on them -- at one point during Monday's press conference, he complained "we're beating the offensive line to death, and that's not fair" -- but their inexperience is an obvious problem.
"I remember what it was like when I was first playing, and you don't realize what a change it is from where you were before," said senior tackle Michael Schofield. "These guys are working as hard as they can, and we're trying to give them as much help as we can, but some things just come with experience."
The results have been painfully obvious. Michigan has lost three of four, all while completely unable to get any kind of performance from their tailbacks.
In the quadruple-overtime loss to Penn State, Fitz Toussaint and Derrick Green rushed the ball 30 times for 28 yards. Against Michigan State, it was eight carries for 20 yards, and Saturday against Nebraska, they were held to 17 carries for 17 yards. So, at a school famed for power running, and in a season where the coaching staff promised to bring it back, the running backs have averaged 1.2 yards per rush in the three losses.
Add in 14 sacks of Devin Gardner by the Spartans and Cornhuskers, and Michigan has finished the last two games with a scarcely believable minus-69 yards on the ground.
"Everyone is going to point to the offensive line, but this is on all of us," Hoke said. "It isn't just them. It's never just one guy or one small part of a team in life, unless you are golfing. If you are golfing, I suppose it is on you. But this isn't golf."
Hoke has a point. Gardner has been holding on to the ball too long, and seems to have his playmaking ability beaten out of his at this point in the season, while the tight ends and running backs are getting mauled in pass protection.
Still, as much as Hoke wants to defend offensive coordinator Al Borges, and he stressed again Monday that he's quite happy with the playcalling right now, the fact remains that the Wolverines spend an awful lot of time slamming Toussaint off-tackle for no gain or a loss.
"We've hit all the buttons," Hoke insisted. "The other day, we went from spread to jet reads, to having two backs in the backfield, to trying two tight ends and a fullback. The play calls are good. We feel like we can run the ball, or we wouldn't have called those plays."
So Hoke will keep trying to coach freshmen into juniors and he'll stick with the offense that he and Borges planned for this season. He doesn't have any choice -- it is too late in the year to try to make major overhauls with the scheme, and there just aren't any new players to throw into the line -- and he'll continue to be positive.
"Are the fans upset? They should be, because this is Michigan," he said. "But I can't worry about that. All I can do is worry about the 115 players on my team.
"That's my job. That's the reason I'm here."