Wolverines 'hitting their stride' as they head out on the road

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
From left, Michigan offensive lineman Ben Bredeson, tight end Nick Eubanks, and fullback Ben Mason celebrate Mason's first touchdown of the day in the first quarter against Nebraska.

Ann Arbor — It feels like forever ago Michigan opened the season with a seven-point loss at Notre Dame. As the Wolverines prepare to go on the road for the first time since, they’re feeling confident and mature.

Michigan (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) is ranked No. 14, having moved up five spots after dismantling Nebraska in the Big Ten opener last Saturday as they head to Northwestern (1-2, 1-0) this weekend. The Wolverines have scored 150 points the last three games, the defense is now ranked third nationally, nice things — gasp! — are being said about the offensive line play, and quarterback Shea Patterson ranks 18th nationally with a 70.1 completion percentage.

It can be argued the quality of opponent hasn’t been stellar the last three weeks, but it also can be argued that with some nit-picky exceptions, the Wolverines have done what they were supposed to do in those games and didn’t let up. Against Nebraska, Michigan rolled in every phase, including on special teams with a punt return for a touchdown by Donovan Peoples-Jones and a 50-yard field goal from Quinn Nordin.

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“I think we’ve matured a lot, more than you should in three games,” third-year starting left guard and co-captain Ben Bredeson said. “Obviously, that’s a good thing. “

Bredeson explained what he meant that the team has matured essentially ahead of schedule.

“The way normal teams mature through the season, I think we are past where we should be on paper,” he said. “I think it’s going to pay dividends for us later on. I think we really grew up in these last three games and especially this last game hitting our stride offensively, defensively and special teams. That was huge for the team and I think it’s going to carry over now into this week.”

Hopes were high for the Wolverines when the opened the season at Notre Dame in prime time and with ESPN’s "College GameDay" on hand. It was thought the Wolverines’ defense, which lost only two starters from last season, would set the tone early. It did, but not the way that was anticipated as Michigan got in a 14-0 hole early.

Since then, the Wolverines have won three straight, scoring 45 points or more as they beat Western Michigan, SMU and Nebraska. Now they face Northwestern, which on Monday announced sophomore Jeremy Larkin, one of the Wildcats’ top players, has retired from football because of a cervical stenosis diagnosis.

“I feel like we’re more confident and we think about having more fun out there,” cornerback Lavert Hill said Monday when asked how the team has evolved since the loss to the Irish.

Football coaches and players always discuss responding to adversity and how that makes or breaks a team.

The Wolverines experienced it the first game, and they said that has propelled them.

“I think part of it was bringing everybody back together,” Bredeson said. “When adversity hits, you’ve got to find a way to get through it. I think we found a way.

“The Notre Dame game was tough. It’s a hostile environment down there. Everybody has grown up from that experience seeing what a hostile crowd is against you and coming back home and seeing how nice we can have it when everyone is cheering for us. And then just game reps. I think we’ve made a lot of progress so far. The focus is a lot better and people are ready to go.”

Michigan is coming off its most dominant game and unlike last season when the praise on a regular basis was set aside for the defense, it is shared by the offense and special teams, as well.

“All three phases I feel we’re improving,” defensive end Rashan Gary said. “It’s a great feeling sitting back and watching the game and also playing in the game that it’s a feeling I haven’t had in a while. I don’t know if it’s because of the confidence or my brothers, how hard we’ve been working, and the work is showing up.

“There’s a different feeling, and we’ve got to keep on performing.”

In many ways, Michigan’s offense is the most complete it has been in years. It’s hard to pinpoint where that begins. The offensive line is always a good starting point, and the group is coming off its best performance.

“I like the way things are going,” Bredeson said. “I like the system that we’re in. I think it really fits the type of players that we have and everyone is really buying into it.”

Patterson, who transferred from Ole Miss last December, has been a steadying force for the offense, and backup Dylan McCaffrey has been smooth when he’s had playing time, so quarterback is a position of depth and strength.

After games, Patterson has consistently praised the offensive line for giving him time and opening holes for the running backs. Bredeson said the line has stepped up after the first game in large part because they’re communicating better in practice and games.

“Communication for us is huge,” Bredeson said. “I felt like we didn’t talk enough in the early weeks especially in the Notre Dame game. Now, we’re not only communicating, we’re over-communicating and things are going well for us on the line once we were able to talk through the looks and see what we have. That gives (center) Cesar (Ruiz) a full picture of what’s going on and he can make all the adjustments. Once we make our calls, you saw what happened last week where we can take advantage of certain looks and big plays.”

The receivers group is thin, having lost Tarik Black to a broken foot a week before the start of the season, but they have caught seven of nine passing touchdowns — last year the receivers had three touchdowns for the year.

“We’re feeling confident in our game. We’ve proven what we can do,” Collins said of the offense. “We’ve got to keep going and keep pounding and keep playing how we know how to play.”

The defense has started to flex its muscles, as well. Penalties marred the first half against Notre Dame and against SMU and Michigan has had three targeting calls, including on Khaleke Hudson in consecutive games. But now the Wolverines are No. 3 nationally in total defense and pass defense.

“We’ve got to come out and show the world we know what we have here,” Gary said. “That Nebraska game showed y’all a glimpse. We’ve got to keep on improving. We’re not done. We’re not satisfied.”

Gary said the team is motivated by a three-game winning streak heading into Northwestern.

“Notre Dame is behind us,” he said. “We’ve got a good taste in our mouth and we want to keep that taste in our mouths so we’ve got to come out, practice hard, hit the film room hard and perform.”


Twitter: @chengelis