Michigan cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich said the Wolverines are really developing into a team in all three phases. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Michigan is at the midway point of the season, about to face a tough stretch beginning with Wisconsin in a night game at Michigan Stadium on Saturday. And while many in the fan base fall back on a familiar refrain that goes something like, “Talk less, do more,” the players and coaches are walking with their shoulders thrown back and sharing feelings of confidence.
The Wolverines are ranked No. 12 and are 5-1, 3-0 in the Big Ten, with No. 15 Wisconsin coming to town. ESPN’s "College GameDay" will be here, as well, signaling this as a big game.
Michigan fullback Jared Wangler has been here a while, one of the last remaining players recruited by former coach Brady Hoke and his staff. This is Jim Harbaugh’s fourth season as head coach.
That gives Wangler a unique perspective on where this program has been — the low of Hoke’s final-season 5-7 record — to where Michigan is trying to get this year, back to Big Ten title contention and, perhaps, a shot at the College Football Playoff.
“Thanks for the reminder for how old I am. Not many Hoke guys here anymore,” Wangler said, laughing before turning serious
“There is something special with this team. You can feel it. I feel like we’re hitting on all cylinders right now and we’re really gelling on and off the field. The schemes have been great, the coaching has been great, the players, everyone is really interacting well. Confidence is there, which is really what you need, especially in these big games coming up. I sense something great about this team. I’ve played with a lot of guys. The guys on this team, I love them. There are a lot of really good people on this team. No big ego guys. Really guys who just want to win.”
It began, he said, in the spring. There was a new guy in the fold, Shea Patterson, the former top-rated high school quarterback who transferred from Ole Miss where he made 10 starts, who arrived with no airs and immediately fit in.
Michigan lost its opener at Notre Dame on a big night-game stage and has since rattled off five wins. It can be argued those were against middling teams, but the comeback at Northwestern in the Wolverines’ first road test since facing the Irish has been meaningful for the team. They trailed by 17 and Patterson orchestrated a late winning touchdown drive.
“You go to Northwestern, we’re down by 17, it’s easy to start arguing with each other on the sideline, but guys are picking each other up," Wangler said. "There was never a sense of, ‘It’s your fault, do this.’ It was more of a sense of, ‘Let’s do this as a team collectively.’ You could see it there — this is a team poised to do great things.”
The players are not making guarantees or bold statements. But they are confident.
After last week’s win over Maryland, linebacker and co-captain Devin Bush said the defense has a mantra it has fully embraced the last few weeks.
“When you come in, you play Michigan, you’re gonna have to beat Michigan,” Bush said. “Michigan is not playing against you.”
Cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich said Wednesday he likes that approach and said everyone has detected a different vibe.
“Their actions, the way they’ve practiced, coaches even talked about it, you can feel the team coming together,” Zordich said. “Devin’s leadership has helped. You can see it, you can start to feel it and hopefully it’s contagious and keep coming together and keep getting better week after week.”
What exactly are Zordich and the coaches picking up on?
“The togetherness of the team,” he said. “They’re becoming a football team. It’s not just offense, defense, special teams. There’s three groups that are coming together to form one team. That’s very important.”
And it is different than last year’s team and the Harbaugh-coached teams before that.
“I think it is, the difference being is, especially last year, we were just so young and I think a little fragmented and they weren’t quite feeling the togetherness,” Zordich said. “Maybe it was the inexperience. But now, it just seems, hey, these guys are getting older, they start to feel comfortable with each other, with the system and playing together.
“I can see it offensively, too. I think Shea has done a hell of a job bringing everybody together on that side of the ball.”
Jay Harbaugh, who coaches the running backs, said Patterson has been a catalyst for the increased confidence.
“Obviously playing quarterback and leading the offense, he’s going to be able to impact the emotions of the rest of the offense and he’s so positive, he’s on top of his stuff, and he’s really focused throughout practice that everybody definitely feeds off it,” Harbaugh said.
“There’s the preparation part there and then there’s that gut trust that this guy can make some stuff happen. Our team never feels we’re out of it or never feels like we’re going to lose, but having a guy like that, it kind of amplifies it. You really feel like there’s nothing that can stop us because he’s so dangerous, and he’s able to make things happen.”
And from Patterson the Wolverines derive confidence on both sides of the ball.
“We’re a confident team right now and our guys are mature enough that it’s confidence and it’s not arrogance, and they understand you have to prepare to win the game and you’ve got to win the game on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc., and you get a whole team approaching it like that,” Harbaugh said.
Bush said the Wolverines have been anticipating this game against Wisconsin since the start of the season.
“This is one of those games you see on the schedule and you’ve got to get those first six games out of the way,” Bush said. “Now that it’s here, it’s all you’ve been waiting for.
“This is the part of the season, it defines your whole season, what your team wants to do.”
Bush said this team is more equipped to handle where the Wolverines want to go and what they want to accomplish.
“I think we’re more mature in a way,” he said. “Not saying we were immature before, but we’re more mature as in we 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.”
Safety Josh Metellus said every game in the Big Ten is a “statement” game.
“We just want to make sure everybody knows Michigan is here,” Metellus said. “We’re trying to big things, and we’re gonna do big things.”
He echoed Bush’s comment that teams have to beat Michigan.
“First of all, it’s our house,” he said. “It’s now, all right, we’re going out there and we’ve got to make sure we beat Wisconsin. We focus on Michigan, first, what we have to do, and everybody does their job. Now, they’ve got to beat our job. They’ve got to beat us one-on-one. They’ve got to beat us man-on-man."
This is Wangler’s last season at Michigan. This is his last chance to experience a “special” season. It’s at the midpoint of the season but in many ways it feels like it’s beginning now.
“We love the big games,” Wangler said. “Can’t ask for much more than under the lights against Wisconsin, a team you know is going to bring it. We get juiced up for this kind of stuff. There are going to be some big hits, it’s going to be a hard, tough game. They’re well-coached. It’s one of the things you come here for. You’ve got to win these games to win the championship. That’s why you come to Michigan.”