'It takes time': Continuous improvement has Michigan rolling down the stretch
Ann Arbor — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t big on peeling back the onion as he has often said, so if anyone wants to pinpoint exactly when the Wolverines seemed to really jell this season, be his guest.
Harbaugh has two regular-season games left to coach, against Indiana this Saturday and then against unbeaten rival Ohio State on Nov. 30. Dissecting the reason his team has started to look like the version many in the preseason thought the Wolverines would be isn’t high on his list.
The 12th-ranked Wolverines (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) play at Indiana (7-3, 4-3) in Bloomington, where they have won 10 straight, including a 27-20 overtime victory two years ago.
Michigan has won six of its last seven and three straight since losing at Penn State, which effectively bumped the Wolverines from Big Ten East contention. The Wolverines have beaten then-No. 8 Notre Dame, 45-14, and are coming off a 44-10 victory over Michigan State.
“I’ve just seen continued improvement from our team,” Harbaugh said Monday at his weekly news conference. “What I’ve seen is tremendous effort by our team. When you get that, you get everything else. I’ve seen continuous development and improvement by the team.
“Everybody wants to talk about, ‘Well, was it since the Penn State game, the second half?” Or, ‘Why is your team better? What’s the biggest thing?’ Team has just been improving, been getting better. You can’t plant potatoes one day and expect to eat potato salad the next day. It takes time. Time to develop.”
Most do point to the second half of the Penn State game for several reasons as the moment the flip was switched. Michigan had trailed 21-0 but came back and outscored the Nittany Lions, 14-7, in the second half. The Wolverines nearly tied the game but dropped a fourth-down pass in the end zone late in the fourth quarter.
Michigan, which had scarred itself the first half of the season with turnovers, hasn’t committed a turnover since that first half at Penn State. That has allowed first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis to call plays in a flow without the rhythm disrupted. And since that first half, the Wolverines have outscored opponents, 141-38.
“I feel we can go against anybody up in front of us and Michigan come out with the victory,” safety Brad Hawkins said. “That’s how I feel.”
Hawkins said he knew from the start of the season this was that kind of team.
“I felt it from Day 1,” Hawkins said. “Of course we had a couple of downs, but the light always shines bright again. We continue to get better. We’re definitely finding a comfort zone. We’ve got to continue to get better. We can’t look ahead. We’ve got to continue to play hard and continue to practice the way we’ve been practicing. Everything will fall into place.”
It’s not just the offense that has found its groove, although that has been more evident. After giving up 359 rushing yards and a season-worst 487 total yards at Wisconsin, the Wolverines were ranked 47th nationally in defense, a far cry from the top-ranked defenses Don Brown has produced in Ann Arbor.
But the defense has been stingy against the run since then with only two teams gaining 100 yards or more — Penn State had 101 and Maryland 129, both on the road. Michigan is now No. 5 in total defense, yielding an average 261.6 yards per game. That's down from the 343.7 it was averaging after Wisconsin, the third game of the season.
The offense, though, is where change occurred. Gattis arrived earlier this year, installed his pro-spread, “speed-in-space” offense and it took some time to get it down for the players.
“With this full scheme change — not full scheme change but a lot different stuff than we did last year — I do think there was an adjustment period that needed to take place,” left tackle Jon Runyan said. “Started in spring ball, maybe took a little longer, but that Notre Dame game, we really started to see stuff click for sure. Since then we’ve had pretty much the same result and outcome each of the games since then.”
Runyan said nothing has changed schematically since the season opener against Middle Tennessee State. But no matter when you might think the flip switched, the Wolverines feel confident.
“We’re doing the same stuff we’ve been doing since the Middle Tennessee State game,” Runyan said. “I think we gained confidence and bought into the system 100 percent. People are making good decisions and making right reads and right blocks and balls are falling in the right place, and when all that happens you’re going to see games with outcomes like this. It just gives you more confidence going into the next one.”
He balked that the Wolverines are playing stress-free after having lost out on a shot at the Big Ten title.
“There’s always pressure when you play here, especially when you lose an early game to Wisconsin on the road and people are questioning the identity of the offense and the team,” Runyan said. “You try not to play attention to that, but sometimes it’s over there looming above you. There’s always pressure, but you can’t pay attention to it that much.”
When there’s the offense-defense complement, things just roll better for both sides. The defense obviously is always better when the offense takes care of the ball and scores.
“Most definitely,” Hawkins said. “You always knew the offense was very, very special. We all knew that. They’re starting to click and they’re starting to score touchdowns and that’s a positive for everyone.”