'Brotherhood' bond paying off for focused Wolverines

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan running back Karan Higdon, right, tries to get teammate quarterback Shea Patterson to laugh while Patterson was being interviewed on live television after Saturday's win over Penn State.

Ann Arbor — Something happened in the spring. Maybe it was earlier, right after the embarrassing bowl loss to South Carolina. Was it during the trip to Paris in late April? Might have been during grueling workouts with the new strength coach. Could have been during summer workouts.

No one can quite put a finger on the exact moment the Michigan players began to feel a special chemistry and brotherhood, as they describe it, but they’re now speaking freely of their bond as they remain unbeaten in the Big Ten.

Defensive end Chase Winovich coined the “Revenge Tour” — in its most basic translation, it is Michigan’s quest to avenge losses from last year — and now his teammates have embraced the concept. There are even “Revenge Tour” T-shirts made by Valiant and being sold at the M Den, and Winovich modeled one after Saturday's game.

Michigan has rattled off eight straight wins since a season-opening loss at Notre Dame, including the last three “revenge” wins against ranked teams — Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State. The fifth-ranked Wolverines upended the No. 14 Nittany Lions, 42-7, on Saturday at Michigan Stadium.

Quarterback Shea Patterson accounted for three touchdowns, running for one and throwing one to Donovan Peoples-Jones and one to Zach Gentry. Running back Karan Higdon gained at least 100 yards rushing for the seventh straight game, this time running for 132 yards and a score against Penn State. Chris Evans also ran for a score and Brandon Watson had his second pick-six of the season.

More: Michigan: Five things we learned vs. Penn State

More: Michigan leaps up to No. 4 in both polls

In a brotherhood, teammates share the glory and deflect individual praise. So maybe it would be too much to say Patterson, who transferred from Ole Miss last December, was the missing piece for the Wolverines.

But it wouldn’t be a stretch.

His skill and steadiness have been vital for the Wolverines, who have also seen improved play from the offensive line and skill position players to complement Don Brown’s exceptional defense that continues to lead the nation.

Patterson wasn’t with the Wolverines when they felt humiliated in a 42-13 loss at Penn State last season, but he rode the wave of payback his teammates were intensely experiencing the last two weeks as they prepared to face the Nittany Lions. He said it was simple: It’s because he’s fully immersed in this team.

“I get it from the brotherhood we have here,” Patterson said after Saturday's game. “We’re close to all these guys, and I think that’s why we’re being really successful right now. Just to know they did that to my brothers, it makes it that much more personal.

“We truly care about each other, have each other’s back out there. That adds another dimension to your team. It’s something you need to have to keep winning. We’re going to ride the wave.”

Patterson said he knew immediately he would acclimate quickly with his new team.

“From the jump, from the first few workouts in the spring and onto the summer, just a bunch of great dudes,” he said. “Easy to feel welcome here. I really felt a part of it right away.

“New guy coming in in the spring … it did surprise me a little bit, but I’m just happy to be a part of this thing. So many great guys and just an awesome feeling to be part of it.”

Patterson has helped the offense become more efficient. He is ranked 16th in pass efficiency and the Wolverines are 54th nationally in total offense, averaging 418.4 yards a game. A year ago at this time, Michigan was ranked 86th and averaging 380.6 yards. They’re eighth in third-down percentage and last year were ranked 113th.

Perhaps the most significant evidence of an improved offense are these numbers — Michigan was ranked 106th in tackles for loss allowed and 111th in sacks allowed at this point last season. Now, the Wolverines rank 28th in tackles for loss allowed and 37th in sacks allowed.

More: Wojo: Wolverines are on a no-mercy mission

Michigan plays at Rutgers, who is winless in the Big Ten, this weekend and Indiana (1-5 Big Ten) in the final regular-season home game before the final leg of the “Revenge Tour” at Ohio State.

There are plenty of reasons, in terms of X’s and O’s, why Michigan has had success. The relentless defense is a big part of it. The Wolverines have brutalized opposing quarterbacks, albeit some have played injured. Nebraska’s two quarterbacks combined for 93 yards passing, Maryland’s two had 73 yards, MSU played three quarterbacks and they had 79 yards, and Penn State starter Trace McSorley had 83 yards.

Only Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson has posted a solid number, completing 16-of-27 passes for 174 yards but took six sacks and didn’t throw a touchdown or interception.

“It’s not their spirit being broken,” Winovich said after beating Penn State. “It’s our spirit feeling unstoppable. That’s the feeling I got. We’re a more mature, veteran group. We know how to get to that level playing our best.

“We didn’t want to just beat them. We want to get after them. There’s a frustration that’s been built up over the last couple years with things not going the way we wanted them. When things are out of your control, focus on the now.”

Higdon, like Patterson, said earlier this year they began to feel the vibe this team has generated. It has allowed them to focus on the now and buy into the oft-used game-by-game approach.

“We’ve got big goals winning the Big Ten and the national championship, but it also starts with winning the week in front of you,” Higdon said. “We’re out there playing for each other.

“It was that way from the beginning. Going through summer workouts with the guys, you could feel it was a different group of guys. Like Shea said, we care about each other a lot and it’s personal that we go out there and play for each other each and every play. We’ve been doing that throughout the season and it’s paying off for us.”

Winovich explained after the Penn State game that the revenge tour is not taking a break as Michigan prepares for Rutgers and Indiana the next two weeks. The tour, he said, doesn’t just mean beating teams that beat Michigan last year.

“The revenge tour for me wasn’t necessarily some slogan,” Winovich said. “It was me putting a label on a feeling, the attitude that already existed on the team. It wasn’t necessarily, we’ve got to beat these teams. The revenge tour is the grittiness, the fire and the things I think were in missing years previous when mixed with legit talent.”

Players year after year are asked to explain the identity of the team. Sometimes it’s obvious to the outside world, sometimes it isn’t.

Winovich shared his thoughts on the identity of this Michigan team.

“We’re a gritty, physical, fast, any good adjective you can give a football player, I’d say we identify with most of them,” he said. “We’re smart, we know our assignments and our schemes. We’re hungry, too.

“We’re a hungry team. It’s easy to get complacent in this game and life. Sometimes wins can hurt you more than losses. We’re just going to make sure this one helps us, not hurts us.”

As the team continues on, Winovich said the “baseline” changes. Expectations change. He is enjoying the fans who are piling on the bandwagon and said it will be like a “battleship” heading into Columbus for the regular-season finale.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh took a hard look at himself and his staff after last season's bowl loss. The offense had to be fixed. He hired a new strength coach in Ben Herbert, added Ed Warinner to the staff as offensive line coach, Jim McElwain to coach receivers and Sherrone Moore to handle tight ends. And, Patterson joined the team.

As the Wolverines prepare for the 10th game of the season, Harbaugh likes his team’s focus.

“Our team is very confident in themselves and their teammates, as well,” Harbaugh said. “They’re loose, too. They’re right amount of loose and focused. They’re practicing hard and good. Like where our team is at.

"What I see is a really focused team, a really confident team. I love this about our team — they really like each other, evidence by how they talk about each other.”

Michigan at Rutgers

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, HighPoint.com Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.

TV/radio: BTN/950 AM

Records: Michigan 8-1, 6-0 Big Ten; Rutgers 1-8, 0-6

Line: Michigan by 36.5


Twitter: @chengelis