'We just finally clicked': Michigan takes fresh-start approach to try and finish strong

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

It is the simplest of goals, but the one that Michigan players are embracing.

Riding their three-game losing streak heading into the Rutgers game last Saturday night, the Wolverines went with this approach: Fresh start shooting for 1-0. It wasn’t easy, but they came away with a 48-42 victory in triple overtime to improve to 2-3.

Michigan's Christopher Hinton (15) sacks Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral during the first half Saturday night in Piscataway, New Jersey.

But in their minds, the Wolverines are 0-0 again as they prepare for winless Penn State, which they face Saturday at Michigan Stadium. Michigan is 0-2 at home during this abbreviated Big Ten-only season. There are three games remaining before a crossover bonus game Dec. 19.

“To go 1-0,” Michigan tight end Erick All said Monday of the team’s goal this week. “I expect us to go out there and work hard and put our bodies on the line to do whatever it takes to get this ‘W’.

“I feel like we’re standing behind this 1-0 thing like throughout the week to go, ‘1-0, 1-0, 1-0’ and we'll hopefully win out. So yeah, I feel like we’re just gonna do whatever it takes by any means necessary every week. Let’s go.”

Michigan was down several starters at Rutgers because of injuries: Both offensive tackles, Ryan Hayes and Jalen Mayfield; center Andrew Vastardis; both defensive ends, Aidan Hutchinson, who is out for the season, and Kwity Paye; and linebacker Cam McGrone and safety Brad Hawkins, who were injured during the game.

But the Wolverines did find a spark in backup quarterback Cade McNamara, who replaced Joe Milton and led the team from a 17-0 deficit throwing for 260 yards and four touchdowns. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh would not say Monday if McNamara, who has completed 67% of his 46 attempts this season for five touchdowns and no interceptions, will be the starter against Penn State.

They also found out something about themselves in that triple-overtime victory, the players said Monday during the weekly news conference.

“I feel like we just kept fighting,” All said. “That’s pretty much all you do. If you watch all the games, you don’t see nobody getting down on themselves, you don’t see people thinking about just themselves. Everybody’s thinking about the team, and everybody wants to work hard and make plays for the team, and I just felt like that’s what we did. And we just finally clicked.”

This doesn’t mean Michigan has arrived. The players know that, but it was a start. And now beginning again from scratch and an 0-0 record, the Wolverines are trying to notch another win this season, this time against Penn State.

“The mood is just, we’re happy, but we’re not content,” defensive tackle Donovan Jeter said. “Everybody is more upbeat, more energetic, but I think there’s a better vibe around the building. I still think we have that same mentality — we have to build on this win and just keep improving and getting better.”

Former Michigan Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, now an ESPN analyst, said last Saturday on College GameDay that in conversations with former Michigan players, there was a sense this team lacked “juice” and fire. Some current players mentioned last week that at times they did seem flat.

“As far as the juice on the team,” Harbaugh said Monday, “guys were playing with energy, guys were really into it, passionate, playing the game to the best of their God-given ability, and that’s everything I ask of them.”

All said he disagreed with describing the team as “flat” during the three previous losses. He said the lack of emotion had more to do with nothing going right for them in the losses to Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin.

“We didn’t have nothing to feed off of,” All said. “So going into the game, we felt like, yeah, we’re ready to play, but like, we aren’t making plays, there’s was no energy to feed off. And in the Rutgers game, we were making plays and everything was going well, so obviously the energy builds up throughout the game.”

One game does not give a team an identity, but after trailing 17-0 and finding a way to win in three overtimes, after Rutgers missed a game-winning field goal in the first overtime and Michigan’s Dax Hill sealed the win with an interception to end the game, the Wolverines feel like they know who they are.

“I would say we’re a bunch of guys who are tough, strong-willed, and I think we know how to handle adversity,” Jeter said. “The last game showed a lot of things went wrong down the stretch for us but nobody hung their hand, nobody felt sorry for themselves, we just kept taking it a play at a time trying to find a way to win.

“So I think we’re a bunch of a tough guys who are on the rise. I think we’re growing each practice, each day and like I said, I think we know how to handle adversity well and bounce back from it.”

The math is fuzzy, but, hey, the players are going with whatever gets them where they want to be. They are 2-3 in reality, but in this late season push, they were 1-0 after the Rutgers win and have hit the reset button and are back to 0-0 as they prepare for Penn State.

The Wolverines feel better about themselves, knowing that plenty of blemishes remain, but they snapped out of the losing cycle and intend to make winning a habit.

“To get a win is awesome, it’s everything,” right guard Zak Zinter said. “Once you get that win, it gives you that extra boost of confidence and a hard-fought win, too, where everyone left everything they had on the field to get that win. It boosts you that much more just knowing, ‘All right, we got this. Let’s keep going. We can get these wins.’”


Twitter: @chengelis