Confident Wolverines turn attention to Michigan State, final stretch
After a matter-of-fact win over Maryland on the road, Michigan returned home to get some rest before making a final-season push.
The Wolverines (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) do not play Saturday, a welcome break before a final three-game regular-season stretch that starts off with in-state rival Michigan State at home, then Indiana on the road, and finally Ohio State at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan has won five of its last six games, the only loss in that span at unbeaten Penn State, where the Wolverines seemed to have found a spark in a second-half comeback that fell just short. They also have apparently corrected their early-season issues with fumbling and have now gone 11 quarters without a turnover.
“Just playing with great effort at all times,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said when asked what he likes most about his team following the 38-7 win at Maryland. “They are believing in themselves. They have confidence in themselves they’re going to make the play and they have confidence in each other.
“That’s the thing I see. That confidence and that trust in each other is probably our greatest strength right now.”
Michigan was coming off an inspired 45-14 victory over Notre Dame before heading to Maryland. The Wolverines wanted to start fast and build on a lead rather than dig a deep hole, as they did in their road losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. Granted, they are superior opponents to the Terrapins, but regardless, Michigan was looking to dominate a team on the road.
Quarterback Shea Patterson said the whole focus heading into Maryland was to not come out flat.
“That was the biggest thing as far as attacking the week and approaching this game as, that (Notre Dame) game is over with and we’ve got to come out and make a statement on the road, and I think we did that,” Patterson said after the win over the Terps.
The offense had received the most criticism earlier this season. Josh Gattis is a first-time coordinator who installed his offense in the spring and it has taken time to work out the kinks. Turnovers killed drives and consistency.
But the run game has come along and against Notre Dame in rainy and windy conditions, the Wolverines ran for 303 yards. Against Maryland, Michigan was balanced in its run-pass attack and got key contributions from special teams, including Giles Jackson’s 97-yard return on the opening kickoff. There were some offensive lulls late in the first quarter into the second, but a well-timed faked punt brought the Wolverines back to life.
“On the offensive side of the ball (we’re) trying to play the same way the whole game,” Patterson said when asked what’s improved with the offense. “Coming out fast and starting the second half fast. Just getting the ball to our guys in open space, and the run game has picked up over the past three, four weeks, so I think that’s definitely helped us out a lot.”
With three regular-season games remaining, Patterson said the focus is on fine-tuning details.
“Really trying to be the best we can be. Just executing and paying attention to the details like they do on defense with Coach (Don) Brown, that’s what we’re trying to do on offense with Coach Gattis,” he said. “We’ve put in so much time and so much effort. When it gets down to it, just pay attention to the details and the execution and the rest will take care of itself. I think that’s where our heads are at right now.”
This won’t be an easy final stretch.
Michigan State has struggled and is 4-4 (2-3 Big Ten) but Coach Mark Dantonio will have the team ready to play at Michigan. The Spartans, off last weekend, will play Illinois on Saturday at Spartan Stadium. The Illini have won three straight and are 5-4, 3-3.
Indiana is coming off a 34-3 win over Northwestern and is 7-2, 4-2. The Hoosiers also don’t play Saturday and return to play at Penn State on Nov. 16. Then there’s unbeaten Ohio State. The Buckeyes play Maryland and Rutgers before hosting Penn State in an enormous East Division game on Nov. 23, a week before playing at Michigan.
The Wolverines said they have maintained a game-by-game approach, but with Michigan State looming next on the schedule and rival Ohio State, which has won seven straight against Michigan and 14 of the last 15, ahead, they admit they've thought about their rivals.
“We thinking about Michigan State right now,” linebacker Josh Uche said after the Maryland win. “We thinking about both of them right now, honestly. That’s something, being a Michigan man, you’re always thinking about.”
Safety Josh Metellus, who had an interception against Maryland, said the Wolverines are extremely confident with a month left in the regular season.
“We’re at a great spot,” Metellus said. “The trust on this team is at a high level. Every guy who has a big role on this team, a small role on this team, they’re trusted by their teammates to get the job done, and I feel like we’ve been showing up every week since that Wisconsin game. Everybody on this team has been doing what they’re trusted to do and I feel like the confidence is real high, but I feel like we still got that one-play mentality to keep us pushing throughout the rest of these games.”
Metellus said the players hit the reset button after the loss at Wisconsin.
"That loss hurt and we came in that Monday and we knew we had to get the job done and we knew how,” he said. “We won games before. We had 10 straight wins the season before, so we knew how to win games. We just had to get back to that mentality as a team.”