Michi­gan seeks iden­tity dur­ing the stretch run

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Nick Baum­gard­ner

Shea Pat­ter­son and the No. 13 Wolver­ines have a chance to make their Play­off case start­ing this week against No. 8 Penn State.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – At this time last sea­son, Jim Har­baugh started peel­ing off lay­ers and toss­ing them into the trash.

The Wolver­ines en­tered Week 6 with shat­tered con­fi­dence and an over­whelmed of­fense that barely was ca­pa­ble of putting one foot in front of the other for four quar­ters.

Af­ter a hap­less home loss against Michi­gan State, Michi­gan slugged through an over­time game at In­di­ana by run­ning the same counter play with Karan Hig­don over and over again. Not just be­cause it worked, but be­cause it was about all the of­fense could do well.

The record through six games this sea­son is the same. But the story reads dif­fer­ently.

“The big­gest thing with this team this year is that we’ve been pre­par­ing, since the start of the sea­son, for ev­ery team like it’s a cham­pi­onship game,” Hig­don, the se­nior run­ning back, said Oct. 6 af­ter Michi­gan’s 42-21 home win over Mary­land. “For us, we go back to the draw­ing board. Pre­pare for this week the same as we did last week. And the five weeks be­fore.

“Then go han­dle our busi­ness.”

Michi­gan’s of­fense opened this sea­son at Notre Dame with a care­ful, con­ser­va­tive game plan. The Wolver­ines didn’t know what they had up front, and Shea Pat­ter­son was mak­ing his first start as U-M’s quar­ter­back in a new of­fense. It was a road game against a ranked team, and it ended with a loss.

From there, how­ever, Michi­gan (5-1 and ranked No. 13 in the Amway Coaches Poll) has done the op­po­site of last sea­son.

Rather than find­ing out what it can’t do, Har­baugh’s of­fense has started to add more lay­ers based on what it can do.

And as Michi­gan now pre­pares to en­ter the most crit­i­cal stretch of its sea­son, start­ing with Wis­con­sin on Oct. 13, the Wolver­ines seem to be as pre­pared as they can hope for. Is this team good enough? “We’re ready; we’re ready to go,” Pat­ter­son said. “We’ll en­joy this one (vs. Mary­land) and pre­pare for Wis­con­sin.”

Michi­gan en­tered this sea­son with cham­pi­onship hype, de­spite los­ing five games with a young ros­ter a year ago. But that win­ning nar­ra­tive gets pushed just about ev­ery year around this place. And in 2018, it took all of two quar­ters and a 21-3 Notre Dame blitz to push peo­ple to­ward the brake pedal.

When that game ended, ev­ery­thing be­gan point­ing to­ward Oct. 13 against Wis­con­sin. The Wolver­ines had five games against West­ern Michi­gan, SMU, Ne­braska, North­west­ern and Mary­land to get bet­ter, and they knew they were go­ing to be fa­vored heav­ily in each of them.

With the ex­cep­tion of an ad­ven­tur­ous 20-17 win against North­west­ern Sept. 29, ev­ery one of those games turned into a blowout. Michi­gan has won five in a row by an aver­age of four touch­downs — just like ob­servers ex­pected.

The of­fen­sive line re­bounded from the night­mare against Notre Dame and has kept Pat­ter­son’s pocket clean. The unit has al­lowed just five sacks the past five weeks, zero against Mary­land. In that time, Michi­gan has av­er­aged 228 yards rush­ing per game.

But can it do that against a top-tier de­fense? Wis­con­sin’s had some de­fen­sive hic­cups this year, but it’s still Wis­con­sin.

Pat­ter­son has added pieces to his game ev­ery week since the Notre Dame loss.

Even last week at North­west­ern, when he strug­gled early, Pat­ter­son calmed down and ral­lied his team to a win. Against Mary­land, he av­er­aged bet­ter than 10 yards per at­tempt, threw three touch­down passes and had a sea­son-high 282 yards pass­ing as Michi­gan’s of­fense put up 465 yards.

Pat­ter­son didn’t trans­fer to Michi­gan to beat up on the mid­dle of the Big Ten. He came here to help Michi­gan get over the hump against the top tier. And start­ing next week, he must start play­ing the best foot­ball of his young life.

Can he de­liver? Michi­gan con­tin­ues to post the same type of de­fen­sive num­bers ev­ery­one ex­pects from a Don Brown de­fense. It has over­whelmed op­po­nents on that side of the ball for large stretches of ev­ery game, in­clud­ing against Mary­land, which had fewer than 90 yards en­ter­ing the fourth quar­ter against Mary­land.

And yet the Wolver­ines also have had a few in­ex­pli­ca­ble drives. It hap­pened early at Notre Dame and wound up cost­ing them the game. It hap­pened last week at North­west­ern be­fore a come­back. Even Satur­day, Mary­land put to­gether two rel­a­tively sim­ple touch­down drives late that will surely drive Brown crazy.

Still, the de­fense has the per­son­nel to be great. Now, it must prove it can be great for four quar­ters against the best teams in the league.

Wis­con­sin’s Alex Horni­brook is a three-year starter at quar­ter­back, and the Badgers of­fen­sive line is nasty. It’s the per­fect op­por­tu­nity for Michi­gan to show it has grown.

Ev­ery­thing the Wolver­ines want is still pos­si­ble: A Big Ten ti­tle, a shot at the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off, wins against ri­vals.

Michi­gan has looked like an as­cend­ing team over the past five weeks, as it al­ways does against mid-tier teams in the con­fer­ence. Now, we’re about to find out where the Wolver­ines re­ally fall in the peck­ing or­der.

Is this team truly dif­fer­ent from what we saw a year ago, or just a copy with a dif­fer­ent coat of paint?

RICK OSENTOSKI/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

RICK OSENTOSKI/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Michi­gan quar­ter­back Shea Pat­ter­son leaves the field af­ter his 42-21 home win against Mary­land at Michi­gan Sta­dium.

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