Ann Arbor — Sometimes you can’t win even if you’ve won.
For all the times Michigan players spoke positively of their overall performance against Rutgers in a 52-0 victory Saturday at Michigan Stadium, admit it, you know you said out loud or thought to yourself, “Yeah, but it was against Rutgers.”
And this is a valid point. After all, Rutgers coach Chris Ash was fired on Sunday. The Scarlet Knights are not a good team — not breaking news — except when opponents needs to feel better about themselves, and that’s exactly what Michigan needed a week after suffering an embarrassing loss at Wisconsin.
“It’s just like having a good day,” Michigan receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones said. “When you have a good day, you just feel better.”
Quarterback Shea Patterson accounted for four touchdowns, including three rushing, and led an offense that flowed for the first time this season without an outbreak of fumbles. More than that, the win backed up what the players had been saying all week — they had a bad taste in their mouths and practices were energized — and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said he would “self-critical” and evaluate his coaching.
And clearly that paid off. For one thing, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who in the spring seemed hesitant to call plays from the press box, moved to the field, interacted with the players and had his fiery nature on display.
“Any time after a loss, it can go one of two ways,” Patterson said. “We worked hard every single day in practice and trusted the game plan. I just really liked the way the team responded.”
So take shots at the opponent but Rutgers is a team Michigan should have pounded and did, and there is a value in that. They did so while getting some of the younger players valuable game experience and exposure. Freshman Dax Hill looks like he’s ready for prime time, and middle linebacker Cam McGrone backed up a really nice showing at Wisconsin with an even more confident performance against the Scarlet Knights. Defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour got back on the field as did running back Tru Wilson.
Beating Rutgers did more for the Wolverines’ collective psyche than what will ever show up in their win-loss record.
“We were hungry to come out here and play,” defensive end Kwity Paye said. “Our main objective was to shut them out, and we did that.”
When high standards of play aren’t maintained, as was the case when Michigan lost at Wisconsin, even Harbaugh voiced his disappointment, mostly directing the criticism at himself for not having the team prepared and for being outcoached. But the criticism went beyond that and players heard it from former Michigan players, who publicly stated how upset they were with the Wolverines’ effort, as well as from national media and fans.
But the players already knew how bad the performance was before hearing it from anyone outside their locker room. That’s what, they said, fired them up even more this past week. Did they practice and play with chips on their shoulders? Sure did. And that collective chip was inspired not by outside criticism but from within.
“We felt like the chip was from us,” said running back Christian Turner, who had 11 carries for 48 yards and a touchdown. “We expected more out of ourselves regardless of what anybody else thought. We knew what we need to do. We know what we can do. It was just executing and getting the job done.”
Harbaugh and Gattis spoke of a disconnect earlier in the week. Something wasn’t translating from practice, where the Wolverines had been playing smoothly without turning over the ball and stunting their progress. That needed to be addressed and fixed. Was it as simple as moving Gattis to the field? Maybe.
Gattis has a fiery personality, and while calling plays from the press box affords him an eagle’s eye view of the field, being with his players a few games in with a new offense seemed to be the more astute move.
“We’ve seen a lot of good offensive play in practice and you want to see it in games,” Harbaugh said. “And we have seen it in games at times, at times not. I would agree with Shea, it felt more like that. That’s more of the way it runs in practice. I thought it was also really good for substitutions. We’ve been having some substitution errors in the first three games. For Josh to be there as the game’s getting formulated, he can react to the kind of subs he wants in the game, who he wants running what particular route or play.
“It flowed much better today. It could still be better, the operation and mechanics of it, but I thought it took a big leap today.”
One last time, yes, this was against Rutgers, but the Wolverines were able to translate — particularly on offense — what they have done in practice to the game. In their 11 drives, they scored seven touchdowns and had a field goal. One drive ended with an interception in the third quarter and Will Hart punted twice.
But now the real tests resume. Iowa comes to Michigan Stadium this weekend with the nation’s fifth-ranked defense, allowing an average of 251 yards, and the Hawkeyes are No. 10 in rush defense, yielding a paltry 77 yards per game. Michigan had 141 yards on 41 carries (3.4 yard-per-carry) against Rutgers while churning out 335 passing yards. Michigan is 94th in rushing, averaging 130.5 yards, and they’ve all said the run game sets the tone.
That must improve because looking ahead to the likes of Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State, there’s little room to run. Michigan State ranks No. 4 against the run, followed by Penn State at No. 7 and Ohio State at No. 15. There’s a lot of time for Michigan’s offense to get better connected, but not that much.
Turner said it’s all about maintaining their overall energy. Harbaugh said it’s about maintaining the approach they took last week knowing their backs were up against it and they had to fight.
“You’ve got to sustain, you’ve got to work harder,” Harbaugh said. “You’ve got to work smarter. You’ve got to be tougher mentally and physically. That’s the only way to do it, and they really set themselves to doing that. That’s one week and now you go about doing it another week.”
Iowa at Michigan
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Records: Michigan 3-1, 1-1 Big Ten; Iowa 4-0, 1-0
Line: Michigan by 5.5