Rested Michigan braces for Northwestern, then top-10 slate starting with MSU
Michigan used the last week to practice and enjoy a few days of rest, but also to look ahead to the final half of the season and study film of upcoming opponents, including three teams from the Big Ten East division ranked in the top-10.
The sixth-ranked Wolverines are 6-0, 3-0 Big Ten and face Northwestern at Michigan Stadium on Saturday. The Wildcats (3-3, 1-2) defeated Rutgers, 21-7, last Saturday.
In the final six games of the regular season, Michigan has games at Michigan State (7-0, 4-0), ranked ninth, and Penn State, ranked seventh, as well as the finale against Ohio State, which also was off last Saturday and is No. 5.
“This next half is where it gets crucial, it gets hot and the games you want to play in as a Michigan Wolverine,” linebacker and captain Josh Ross said last week on the Inside Michigan Football radio show, adding the team used the off weekend to refocus. “Get our bodies right, recover and get our minds right, ready to go, because this second half stretch is what makes legends.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said last week he felt the week with no game came at a perfect time. The Wolverines were coming off back-to-back road games against Wisconsin and Nebraska.
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He said he and the staff and players were using the time to good and varied use.
“First, future opponents, self-scout what we can do better — so many different areas that we’ll study in terms of that,” Harbaugh said. “Continue to stay sharp in terms of practice. Recruiting.”
Ross said the team planned to study film of Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State, but Northwestern is up next, and there are games against Indiana and at Maryland the week before the Ohio State game.
“At the end of the day, one game at a time,” Ross said. “Keep pushing, keep pressing, and we’re going to be where we want to be.”
That Michigan is unbeaten has surprised many analysts who in the preseason didn’t know how the Wolverines might rebound from a dreadful 2-4 season in 2020, or how they might respond to a rebuilt coaching staff.
The most significant staff changes were on the defensive side, with new coordinator Mike Macdonald, who spent the last seven years with the Baltimore Ravens, and the additions of Steve Clinkscale, George Helow and Ron Bellamy. Shaun Nua, who coaches defensive line, is the only holdover.
Michigan is ranked 21st nationally in defense, yielding an average 310 yards and eighth in scoring giving up an average 15.5 points. The Wolverines have generated eight turnovers, including five fumbles and are tied for 10th nationally in turnover margin at plus-six.
This has been a spirited group, as evidenced by the team dancing before the fourth quarter at Wisconsin during “Jump Around” and also at Nebraska during “Thunderstruck,” the goal to make the opposing stadium their own. The Wolverines have become more confident in large part because of the coaching hires.
“Something I’ve been thinking a lot about, and I know this has been said a couple times in the building, there isn’t a coach in this building that I wouldn’t want to play for, which says a lot about the culture and the relationships between the players and the coaches,” senior defensive tackle Jess Speight said last week. “Just the want-to, it takes it one step further that we have all this mutual respect for each other.
“The coaches are all passionate about the game, and we’re all passionate about the game. We really believe in coach Macdonald. He’s a really smart guy. One of the Ravens players talked to us at some point and said something about how he’s going to be the smartest guy in the room and that he has that respect from everyone. It was interesting to see how that transpired and see him working and noticing wow, this guy knows his stuff.”
As Speight said, the Wolverine are passionate about the game, and now they are zeroed in the final half of the season. They set high goals this season of winning the Big Ten title and making the College Football Playoff.
But first things first, and that's Northwestern and finding ways to improve.
“The main thing we’re preaching to each other, let’s just consistently keep getting better,” Ross said. “That’s been our message player to player the whole year, let’s take everything up a notch every single week. We get to the new week, let’s make our communication better, let’s work together better, let’s make our assignments better, let’s be on the same page better.
“That’s going to be our biggest thing going into these next six weeks, let’s just keep getting better and then the sky’s the limit for this team, for this defense. I really believe that, and we really feel that.”