Wolver­ines’ win­ning ways fuel na­tional as­pi­ra­tions

Har­baugh has fourth-ranked team poised to cap­ture first Big Ten ti­tle since 2004

Windsor Star - - SPORTS - DAN GEL­STON

Michi­gan is on the cusp of reach­ing the heights ex­pected when it hired Jim Har­baugh.

It took four sea­sons and a hand­ful of crush­ing de­feats to get here, but the fourth-ranked Wolver­ines (8-1, 6-0 Big Ten, No. 4 CFP) are poised to win their first con­fer­ence ti­tle since 2004.

Stay out of the loss col­umn, and the Wolver­ines could play for their first na­tional ti­tle since 1997. Rut­gers (1-8, 0-6) should pro­vide noth­ing more than a sim­ple tuneup Sat­ur­day in New Jersey, as will In­di­ana next week at the Big House be­fore Michi­gan closes the reg­u­lar sea­son at No. 8 Ohio State. The Wolver­ines, who haven’t lost since the sea­son opener against No. 3 Notre Dame, would have to beat the Buck­eyes for just the sec­ond time in 15 years to keep any hope at a na­tional ti­tle alive. It might take a mir­a­cle for Rut­gers to beat Michi­gan, but the Wolver­ines (48 1/2-point favourites) also don’t want to mess around and play a close game against one of the worst teams in FBS. North­west­ern was the last team to come close to beat­ing the Wolver­ines, jump­ing out to a 17-0 firsthalf lead on Sept. 29. Since then, Michi­gan has outscored the op­po­si­tion 163-48.

Not bad, but con­sider Michi­gan prob­a­bly could have hit that scor­ing mark against Rut­gers the last time it trav­elled to Jersey: the Wolver­ines hu­mil­i­ated Rut­gers 78-0 and the fear around Pis­cat­away is that it could hap­pen again. Michi­gan had nine rush­ing touch­downs and 600 to­tal yards (vs. 39 for Rut­gers) in the rout and Har­baugh leads an even bet­ter, more dan­ger­ous team into town this sea­son. Michi­gan was 111th in yards pass­ing per game last sea­son and the Wolver­ines dipped to 8-5. For­mer Mis­sis­sippi star Shea Pat­ter­son has pro­vided Har­baugh the quar­ter­back he has been look­ing for since com­ing back to his alma mater. Pat­ter­son is com­ing off his fourth, three-touch­down game of the sea­son and was named a fi­nal­ist this week for the Davey O’Brien Award. Pat­ter­son has thrown for 1,667 yards with 14 touch­downs an­di­son the board at Las Ve­gas with the third-best odds to win the Heis­man Tro­phy.

“I’m not sur­prised that the im­prove­ment has taken place,” Har­baugh said. “He’s just get­ting com­fort­able with play­ing in this sys­tem. It’s been all good since the first day he got here.” Pat­ter­son just may be the QB that Michi­gan has needed to win the na­tional cham­pi­onship. “He brings a level of fo­cus and men­tal tough­ness, a level of in­ten­sity to the po­si­tion that few do,” Har­baugh said.

Here are other items of note for Sat­ur­day’s game:

How bad is Rut­gers? Kansas, ■ which beat the Scar­let Knights 52-3 in Septem­ber, will let go coach David Beaty at the end of the sea­son. The hottest ash around Rut­gers could be the hot seat that coach Chris Ash sits on as the sea­son winds down. Ash couldn’t even muster an un­der­dog ral­ly­ing cry for his team to knock off the Wolver­ines, sim­ply stat­ing he just wanted the Scar­let Knights to im­prove. Hey, at least a field goal will do the trick from the last home game two years ago. “They’re prob­a­bly play­ing as

■ good as any team in the coun­try,” Ash said. “In the years that I’ve coached against Michi­gan, it’s prob­a­bly one of the best teams they’ve had.”

Har­baugh didn’t have to reach to

■ pay Rut­gers a com­pli­ment. “Their kick­off cov­er­age is re­ally im­pres­sive,” he said. “One of the best in the na­tion.”

Guess what? It’s true! The Scar­let Knights have al­lowed a tight 14.88 yards per kick re­turn. Only Eastern Michi­gan has been stingier on stuff­ing teams on the kick­off. It’s the rest of the game that gives Rut­gers fits. The Scar­let Knights are 128th in to­tal of­fence and 82nd in to­tal de­fence out of the 130 FBS teams. Rut­gers will host a top-five op­po­nent for the 13th time in pro­gram his­tory. The Scar­let Knights haven’t beat a ranked team since a win over No. 23 USF in 2009. Nine Wolver­ines are from New

Jersey: OL Juwann Bushell-Beatty, OL Kraig Correll, DL Michael Dwum­four, DL Rashan Gary, DB Brad Hawkins, DL Ron John­son, DB Hunter Reynolds, OL Ce­sar Ruiz and OL Jon Run­yan. If Michi­gan has a big lead in the

■ sec­ond half, the backup QB may get some much-needed snaps. Pat­ter­son’s backup, Dy­lan Mc­Caf­frey, broke his col­lar­bone in last week’s win over Penn State. Har­baugh said Bran­don Peters and Joe Mil­ton will com­pete for the job, adding he would rather have Mil­ton save his red­shirt el­i­gi­bil­ity.


The Wolver­ines, helmed by coach Jim Har­baugh, haven’t lost since their sea­son opener against Notre Dame.


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