Michigan seeks identity during the stretch run
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?
Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson leaves the field after his 42-21 home win against Maryland at Michigan Stadium.