Michigan left guard Ben Bredeson says this is an important three-game stretch for the Wolverines. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Michigan has won five straight since losing its season opener at Notre Dame by a touchdown, and here at the midway point of the season, the Wolverines say they are having more fun and that’s translating to a better experience across the board.
In recent weeks, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has told the team, particularly the offense, to just play, as in, think less and relax.
The 12th-ranked Wolverines (5-1, 3-0 Big Ten) are preparing for a tough three-game stretch that kicks off with No. 15 Wisconsin (4-1, 2-0) at Michigan Stadium in a night game from which ESPN’s GameDay will broadcast earlier in the day.
“We’ve settled in a lot more,” left guard Ben Bredeson, a team captain, said Monday. “This team has definitely settled in, relaxed. One of the big things coach Harbaugh has been preaching is just to let loose and make plays and I think you can see a lot of guys are starting to embrace that.”
Harbaugh has told them that from the start of the season, and not that the Wolverines will say they were playing tight at the start of the season, but having fun and playing loose have been emphasized more recently. Michigan has won its four home games averaging 48 points and came from a 17-point deficit to win at Northwestern on Sept. 29.
“Especially these last few weeks,” Bredeson said, referring to the frequency of Harbaugh’s message. “Football is a fun game and play it with a smile on your face. It’s fun to win. If you can let loose, make plays and win, that’s a good feeling. That’s what we’ve been going for as a team, especially on offense.”
What does playing loose look like? Something along the lines of fullback Ben Mason’s hurdle of a Maryland defender in last Saturday’s 42-14 win.
“Exactly,” Bredeson said. “Never thought I’d see that day. You watch him in practice and he tries to run through anybody that’s within five yards of him. I was on the other side of the field and I saw him go up and the whole O-line just started laughing. We had never seen it before. He had never tried it in practice, he just went out and did it.
“Just go make a play, find a way to do it. Shea (Patterson) does it every week, our receivers do it every week and Ben had that great example against Maryland.”
Patterson is ranked 16th nationally in completion percentage (68.8 percent) and was 19-of-27 for 282 yards, his best outing at Michigan.
“We’re letting him do what he does,” Bredeson said. “He’s a football player. He’s been using his feet really well lately, making throws on the run for us. As an O-line, sometimes if our protection is not perfect, he can bail us out sometimes. It’s a great treat to have back there. He’s just a born playmaker. Just let him go.”
Michigan tight end Zach Gentry discusses the confidence in the Wolverines' offense. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Tight end Zach Gentry, who leads the team in receiving with 306 yards on 20 catches, said the offense is playing with confidence.
“We’re feeling good,” Gentry said. “We’re putting points on the board, which is a great feeling and moving the ball. This is definitely the most confident I’ve felt in our offense in a long time.”
He embraces the “play loose” mantra.
“We’ve got a lot of athletes on our offense and we’ve just got to go out there and let it loose and do what we know how to do,” he said.
Much of that confidence comes from Patterson, who transferred from Ole Miss where he made 10 starts. Patterson has thrown for 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has thrown three interceptions.
Patterson has done what everyone said he would, extending plays when he sees them breaking down and making big throws on the run.
“He’s always been a confident guy,” Gentry said. “You can just tell he’s way more comfortable out there. He’s more comfortable making plays with his feet and scrambling and throwing the ball across his body and doing stuff he can just naturally do.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh discusses the play of quarterback Shea Patterson as the Wolverines prepare for Wisconsin. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Linebacker Devin Bush has noticed a change in the offense, as well, in terms of the overall approach to games.
“They definitely have been playing together,” Bush said Monday. “You see the fun they have with the success that comes with it. When they come off to the sideline with smiles and Shea’s over there like, ‘Get me the ball back, make something happen.’ Ben’s over there congratulating us, (saying), ‘Keep it going.’ As a unit, they’re playing a lot together and they’ve been playing looser and having fun.”
Bush, in his third season with the Wolverines, said this offense is unique to his experience here.
“It’s way different,” he said. “When you’ve got a quarterback and you’ve got your captain, Ben, over there telling us, ‘Give us the ball back. We’re going to put points up,’ it encourages you.
“This is the first time I’ve been involved with it here. Confidence. It’s encouraging. You have fun because you play as a team. That’s the biggest part of it.”
Michigan is facing its most significant test against Wisconsin since the opener at Notre Dame. Bush said the Wolverines are more mature at the midway point of the season.
“Not saying we were immature before, but we’re more mature as in we handle our business,” Bush said. “We know what we have to do to handle our business. We’re going to go into this game with the same mentality and we’re going to prepare like we always been doing, and we’re going to play our best game Saturday.”
Wisconsin at Michigan
Kickoff: 7:30 Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Records: Wisconsin 4-1, 2-0 Big Ten; Michigan 5-1, 3-0
Line: Michigan by 7