Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh knows what kind of role the Wolverines can play these next two weeks, first at fifth-ranked and unbeaten Wisconsin and then home against No. 8 Ohio State in the regular-season finale.
The Wolverines are 8-2, 5-2 in the Big Ten, and could play the spoiler for both opponents. Wisconsin is now No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings that were released Tuesday night, while Ohio State is No. 8 in those rankings.
Harbaugh was asked during his appearance Wednesday morning on the “Jamie and Stoney” show on 97.1 The Ticket if it matters to him what a significant role Michigan could play on the national stage these next two weeks.
“All those things matter,” Harbaugh told the show. “I mean, opportunity to reintroduce ourself to the national football audience. That opportunity, we cherish it. Look forward to the ballgame on Saturday and getting prepared properly. The practice, the film watching, the preparation, the training, all those things are what we’re focused intensely on right now getting ready in anticipation of that ballgame Saturday.”
How strange is it, he was asked, for Michigan, ranked as high as No. 7 this season, to be the under-the-radar team.
“I know we’re going to play an undefeated team this week at their home stadium, and the national audience will be very interested in it,” Harbaugh said. “There’s our opportunity.”
Here are some of the highlights from the show:
■ On whether the team is playing its best football right now: “I think our team is improved. It’s been an ascending improving team.”
■ On Cesar Ruiz filling in at right guard and the offensive line: “You’ve got five guys that are working together, sometimes six, add the tight end as well, it takes coordination and some experience. Time on task. It’s been a very good group. Thought the group is athletic and it’s proven to be that. The play’s been ascending. Juwann Bushell-Beatty has been an improving player. The right guard, Mike Onwenu, most of the year until the last two ball games (he’s been out with injury), has been an improving player. A very good player. Cesar Ruiz has gotten in there and played very well and might just stay in the starting lineup, maybe not at right guard, maybe at a different position, because Mike Onwenu is one of our best offensive linemen, but that bodes well for us going forward. Patrick Kugler has done a very good job as the center, directing things and making the calls and finds the way to get the blocks and get the snap. All that is not that easy to do. Ben Bredeson has always been there at the left guard the last couple years and Mason Cole, the left tackle, played center last year and moved to left tackle for this season, so there were some moving parts. There was only one returning starter on the offensive line coming into this year, so it was a predominantly new group playing in there and getting that time on task has been improvement. To see the individual improvement as well, to see each guy improving and ascending as a football player has been really good for our club.”
■ On whether he hoped Brandon Peters would have been more prolific in the pass game: “It would have been probably up to more of your prolific standards in this past ballgame had there been a couple interference penalties called. We felt we got Donovan Peoples-Jones doing a nice job getting open on three occasions and was really interfered with three of those times and one called. Brandon is completing 71 percent of his passes, can’t ask for more than that. Zero interceptions. Four touchdowns. That’s a pretty prolific ratio. No fumbles. This past week he did a nice job along with the offensive line, no sacks. He had good protection and he also had to get out of trouble, had to slip out of trouble and found the way to get the ball to Karan Higdon when he was scrambling. Two touchdown passes. I guess you didn’t term that as prolific but efficient. You’ve got to say efficient. Like efficient. Good football. Doing what you have to do to win the football game.”
■ On the run game being prolific in recent games: “Definitely going to pound the rock when you’re having success like that. Now, Wisconsin is a very stout defense. They’re ranked No. 1 in many categories in college football. It’s a big challenge for our offense this week. Certainly they have the ability to stop the run, they have the ability to defend the pass. That’s going to be a good challenge for our offense this week. Looking forward to it.”
■ On how Wisconsin always has huge offensive linemen. Is it something in the cheese: “Good, hearty Midwest guys. They do a great job in their strength and conditioning program, they do a great job coaching their offensive linemen. They’ve got a proud tradition of producing really good offensive linemen that attracts future offensive linemen. That’s quite a thing they have there.”
■ On kicker Quinn Nordin and their conversation after he missed his field-goal attempt at Maryland: “I have that relationship with all the players. Honest, just tell ’em the truth. I was telling the truth to him, ‘You’ve got to make ’em, Quinn. I’m going to give you one more shot.’ And he said, ‘I will make it, Coach. I got this.’ Well, ‘Talking about it is not going to get it done. The ball needs to go through the upright,’ so we understood each other. He was understanding what I was saying, I was understanding what he was saying. That’s on each player on the team to execute their responsibility and do their job, and that’s his job. We understand each other. He’s got to make the kicks and team needs him to do that.”