Michigan sophomore fullback Ben Mason says he’s looking forward to next week’s game against Wisconsin.
So are we.
This is the season-defining stretch for the Wolverines, a gauntlet of three difficult games. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State.
“The beginning of the schedule was prep to get through these,” said junior linebacker Devin Bush Jr., “and I feel like we’re ready.”
All the offseason talk of improvement, of being ready for the big games, of contending for a Big Ten title and a bid to the college football playoffs — all that talk comes to a head next week.
Because everything Michigan wants is still on the table. All of the Wolverines’ goals were still there for the taking even after their ugly season-opening loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 1.
It feels like that game took place ages ago. In the context of a 12-game season, it did.
Against the Fighting Irish, Michigan started slow out of the gate. It fell behind, 21-3, and that was too much to overcome, because the Wolverines couldn’t give Shea Patterson enough time in the pocket. They couldn’t establish the run game. They couldn’t make big plays when they needed to; they gave up big plays when they could least afford to.
Basically, they looked a lot like they did last year, when they stumbled to an 8-5 season.
In a way, this team is still dealing with some of those same issues. No one has forgotten Michigan’s 17-0 deficit at Northwestern last week. The offense still has drives in which it looks stagnant.
But there’s plenty that’s different now, too.
It starts up front. Give the Wolverines’ offensive line credit. They talked all offseason about simplifying things, about the effect of new offensive line coach Ed Warriner.
Against Notre Dame, it looked like that talk was just that: talk.
But the offensive line has steadily improved. To borrow the lingo of Jim Harbaugh, it’s an ascending unit. They kept Patterson clean against Western Michigan, SMU and Nebraska.
Then the linemen did the same against Northwestern’s Joe Gaziano and Maryland’s Jesse Aniebonam, two of the conference’s premier pass-rushing ends.
The run game has been consistent, too. Karan Higdon is averaging over 100 rushing yards per game. Mason continues to plow over defenders in short-yardage situations.
And, of course, Patterson has been everything Michigan needed him to be. He has been one of the best quarterbacks in the conference so far. He has been a steady presence under center, and when things go wrong, he can still make plays like the 34-yard touchdown pass he completed to sophomore receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, when Patterson spun away from the rush, flipped it to Peoples-Jones and watched as his receiver did the rest.
That’s the sign of a good quarterback: he makes the easy plays look routine, and does the same with the hard plays.
Patterson is on a roll, and his impact can’t be understated. He has already surpassed the total number of touchdowns Michigan threw all of last season, and he did so in six games.
That has opened things up for the offense, too. In stark contrast, Michigan is opening its playbook up. The Wolverines are adding layers to what they’d shown through the first few weeks.
Last year, it was the opposite. On the ground, Michigan scrapped its zone running schemes and went with a steady diet of powers and counters. It asked even less of its quarterbacks.
The offense looks like a more consistent unit than last year’s. It looks ahead of where it was against Notre Dame.
The defense has been great, too, like it was expected to be. There have been minor blips on the radar; the unit would probably have liked to have several drives against Notre Dame and Northwestern back.
Still, this has been one of the best units in the nation. It has beaten up on the teams that it should’ve, and now it’ll have a chance to prove itself against Wisconsin’s power-run game, the dual-threat capability of Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke and the explosiveness of Penn State’s offense.
Think of the past five games as homework assignments. The Badgers are a midterm exam. So are the Spartans and the Nittany Lions. All in preparation for the final against No. 3 Ohio State.
Michigan lost to all four teams last fall. It wasn’t good enough.
The Wolverines believe they’re good enough this year. They think they’re ready for this stretch. We’ll find out if that’s true after these next three weeks.