Wolverines 'on a roll,' ascending in all three phases
Ann Arbor — Following a thorough dismantling of Nebraska in the Big Ten opener, left guard Ben Bredeson stood on one side of the postgame interview room talking with what seemed a bit of disdain for those who have called into question Michigan’s offensive line play the last few seasons and, more recently, after the opening loss at Notre Dame.
On the opposite side of the room, always colorful defensive end Chase Winovich beamed as he spoke about how the Wolverines could feel the life sucked out of the Cornhuskers after Michigan’s first score in a 56-10 pounding Saturday before 111,037 at Michigan Stadium. Winovich rarely minces words and when asked the team’s identity after four games, it’s easy to discern he believes it has much to do with the offense as it does the defense these days.
Michigan, now ranked No. 14, is 3-1 and has scored 150 points in the last three games. The Wolverines have risen to No. 3 nationally in total defense, yielding an average 240.3 yards, and are 13th in scoring defense at 14.3 points a game. Since giving up 21 first-half points at Notre Dame in the opener, Michigan has allowed 36 points.
Meanwhile under the guidance of quarterback Shea Patterson, who has clearly been a lift on so many levels for a unit that had its share of struggles a year ago, Michigan's offense is tied for 23rd nationally in scoring, averaging 41.8 points, and is 63rd in total offense, averaging 420.8 yards. The Wolverines are averaging 6.55 yards a play.
Michigan also is getting plays from special teams, including a kickoff return for a touchdown by Ambry Thomas in the opener and a punt return for a touchdown by Donovan Peoples-Jones against Nebraska. The Wolverines have had strong contributions by punter Will Hart and they rank No. 2 nationally in net punting (45.55 yards). Quinn Nordin also boomed a 50-yard field goal against Nebraska, the third of his career of at least 50 yards.
“What really stands out, our team is working hard and it’s paying off for them,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It’s showing they like to practice. They’re improving. It’s an improving, ascending team and it’s paying off.
“I thought our team played very physical in all phases — offensively, defensively, special teams. It showed up in a lot of the one-on-one matchups, goal-line, short-yardage (situations). I thought our receivers blocked extremely well again. Showed up on a punt return, there were some great blocks there. I thought physically our team played well.”
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The Wolverines built confidence at home the last three weeks and head to Northwestern this weekend to face the Wildcats (1-2), who have lost two straight at home and are coming off a bye.
“This team’s on a roll,” Winovich said after the Nebraska game. “I can’t really describe, put into words exactly our identity. I just know we’re doing the things we’ve got to do. We’re doing the things we talked about that needed to be done after last season going into this year.
“I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, where after the Ohio State game (last season) we talked, we didn’t do what we had to do. This is the opposite of that. People are making plays. DPJ’s play, Ronnie Bell’s catch for a touchdown and a bunch of defensive plays. Guys are playing to that standard that we need them to. It’s a special feeling and one that we’re going to try to keep rolling.”
Winovich said there’s a different feeling among the players because there seems to be a balance that hasn’t existed the last few years. Defensive coordinator Don Brown, in his third season, has built an aggressive, hard-charging, take-no-prisoners defense that has, of course, had some lulls but generally been the most consistent aspect of the Wolverines.
But Winovich wasn’t talking about the defense first, which has typically been the case. He had a chance, along with fellow defensive end Rashan Gary, to take an extended breather in the second half against Nebraska and watched the offense more intently. So after the game he chatted about the performance by the offense and special teams before the defense.
“If it wasn’t that way, I wouldn’t be saying we’re on roll,” he said. “I’d be saying we performed well, and I think that’s the biggest difference (from previous seasons), the fact — talked about this after Western, all cylinders are full go.
“It’s a great feeling overall. You never want to rely on somebody else. I’m sure the offense feels the same way. We just go out here and do our thing; offense scores, it’s a great feeling.”
Teams that become dominant, though, typically have stingy defenses. And dominant teams are powerful late in seasons in large part because of the defense sets the tone.
Defensive line coach Greg Mattison and Brown have wanted that tone set from now and Winovich described them both as “locked in."
“The fun and games are over,” Winovich said. “We’re trying to get after it and improve and try to make him happy. Coach Brown, during the whole game you saw it, there was no point in the game where he let up. He was constantly reminding us we’ve got to finish these guys and give them no room to breathe.”
Michigan was able to run the ball against Nebraska and finished with 285 yards rushing, including 136 yards from Karan Higdon and three short-yardage touchdown runs by fullback Ben Mason. Michigan had 308 yards rushing against Western Michigan and 197 against SMU.
Opposing defenses will get tougher the deeper Michigan gets into the Big Ten schedule. Wisconsin is No. 18 overall in total defense, Maryland is 20th, Ohio State 25th and Michigan State 53rd. The test for Michigan's offensive line is yet to come, but right now, the starting five are happy to be building confidence.
“I think we’re an offense that can move the ball a lot of different ways,” Bredeson said.
Higdon spoke after the game and it sounded like the offense had gotten a message from Michigan's fiery defensive coordinator. The offense was told to be aggressive and unyielding. Sounds like something Brown would say, right?
“That was one thing we talked about this week — really just bringing it to them, unleashing everything all at once,” Higdon said. “We did that. And guys don’t like that. I mean, I don’t think you’d like to be punched in the face, either.”
Some may say — and will say — Michigan hasn’t faced a tough team since Notre Dame, but that doesn’t change how the Wolverines are feeling about themselves and the identity they’re shaping a third of the way into the season.
“I know it might be a controversial thing to say, but I really feel from top to bottom it might be the best Michigan performance I’ve personally been a part of from a team feeling,” Winovich said after pummeling Nebraska.
“It was a team effort. Everyone contributed from top to bottom — ones, twos, threes. It’s a special feeling and you don’t always get to have that. I’m thankful to be part of it and excited to keep it rolling.”