Wojo: Time for Harbaugh, Wolverines to justify the hype

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Issues were addressed, fixes were affixed. There’s a touted new offensive line coach, a touted new strength coach and other blunt acknowledgments that things weren’t working. Oh, and there’s a new quarterback, as celebrated an addition as we’ve ever seen at Michigan.

And now, even though the Wolverines have yet to win anything substantial, the expectations are renewed, even ratcheted. This is the creature Jim Harbaugh has created, a combination of pressure, potential and hype, everything that was expected when he arrived, everything except the gaudy results.

A lot is expected of Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson, who has yet to throw a pass for the Wolverines after transferring from 
Ole Miss earlier this year.

There is no hot seat, not in the traditional sense, not even close. Harbaugh is 28-11 and 1-5 against his main rivals, and while the angst among Michigan fans is understandable, it’s a murmur right now, a drumming of impatient fingers. Harbaugh’s first three seasons were a disappointment, certainly not a disaster.

Fair or not, this is the season he will be most accurately judged, with a loaded defense, an experienced running back tandem and a quarterback capable of being the difference in close games and big games. Shea Patterson is not the only reason Michigan is back on the cusp of contention, after an 8-5 mess a year ago, but he’s the main reason this is the most important season of Harbaugh’s tenure, a significant crossroad.

It's not truly win-or-else. It’s more like, win-or-what-now?

The schedule is brutal, with road games against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State, but in the Big Ten East, it’s never going to be easy. The Wolverines haven’t beaten a ranked opponent on the road since 2006, haven’t won a Big Ten title since 2004, and have beaten Michigan State and Ohio State precisely three times in a decade.

More:UM offense believes it’s closed gap on top-notch ‘D’

More:Michigan's Devin Bush 'one of the fastest linebackers' Jim Harbaugh has seen

More:Shea Patterson won 'close competition' to be Michigan starting quarterback

“We hear about it quite a bit, year in and year out, it’s always we’re third or fourth, whatever it is,” senior receiver Grant Perry said. “I’m tired of it, and I know the guys in the locker room are as well. We made a real emphasis to not let that feeling overcome us anymore, and try to change that culture.”

‘We need to improve’

The changes in Michigan’s staff, notably with offensive line coach Ed Warinner replacing Tim Drevno and Greg Frey, are well-documented. The changes in Harbaugh — toned down and more flexible — have been noted by players. He clearly and sharply adjusted.

But the biggest hope for the Wolverines isn’t necessarily what changed, but what didn’t change. They returned one defensive starter a year ago and finished third in the country in yards allowed, despite their youth. Now they return nine, with potential NFL draftees all over the place, from Rashan Gary to Chase Winovich to Devin Bush. Coordinator Don Brown calls it one of the fastest and deepest defenses he’s ever seen.

There’s also the notion that Patterson, the Ole Miss transfer and former No. 1 high school quarterback in the country, could explore the pros if he excels immediately. It’s too early to say if this is Michigan’s best shot, and the loss of receiver Tarik Black to a foot injury is a blow. Skepticism is warranted, reflected in the Wolverines’ No. 14 ranking. Optimism also is warranted, and the Wolverines are a fashionable sleeper pick to reach the playoff.

All at once, Patterson represents the potential and the urgency.

“I’m just gonna go out there and attack it, because I know there’s not gonna be another shot,” Patterson said. “You only get this time once in your life.”

The “one shot” angle has been echoed by others, acknowledging college teams can change dramatically year to year, and don’t often have this much experience. In fact, Michigan has the fourth-most returning starters (17), behind Florida (19), Michigan State (19) and Utah State (18).

Harbaugh doesn’t chafe from the scrutiny, at least not publicly. He says questions about his record are “fair,” and when asked when he might fulfill lofty expectations, he made no brash proclamations and no excuses.

“We need to improve, and that’ll lead to success, it’ll lead to championships,” Harbaugh said. “It’s that simple.”

Patterson will get the noisy attention, mainly because of his dual-threat talent, and partly because the Wolverines have lacked a play-maker at quarterback. Theoretically, he’ll make the offensive line look better because of his scrambling ability. Conceivably, the offensive line should be better anyhow, despite questions at both tackles.

Players rave about Warinner almost as much as they rave about Patterson. They also recognize it’s only hype until it’s actually seen.

“We’ve talked about how (the line) sometimes has let the offense down in the past, and we’re sick of that narrative,” junior guard Ben Bredeson said. “We definitely know what people think of us. Coach Warinner simplified a lot of things, and the pace of play has gotten faster for us. It’s been incredible, we’re just a lot sharper than we were in the beginning.”

Rough rivalries

It’s simplified and amplified. Players say Patterson has imbued the offense with uncommon confidence, not in what he says, but in what he does. He’s had to adjust to taking snaps under center, but you can bet there will be shotgun and spread formations too. In practice, the defense long has dominated the offense. That hasn’t completely changed, but according to both sides of the ball, it’s shifted.

More:Harbaugh: Notre Dame will bring UM's strengths, weaknesses into focus

More:Scouting Michigan’s offense: 'Shea Man' is the man

More:Scouting Michigan’s defense: Gary’s new look

“In the time I’ve been here, he’s the hardest quarterback I’ve had to practice against,” senior safety Tyree Kinell said. “The play’s never over with him, so we’re guarding receivers for a long time. He’s a good thrower on the run, he’s smart with his decisions as well. He does take chances, and they’re good chances. The defense hasn’t really gotten him much this year.”

If the offensive line’s improvement is legitimate, and if Patterson’s play is dynamic, and if the defense is even better than last year, this could be Michigan’s best shot. But yes, those are “ifs.”

Senior running back Karan Higdon smiled when asked about the line’s development, and said people will be “shocked and surprised” when they see it. Defensive players have been encouraged by what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard, and what they’ve learned.

“We’re not shying away from the fact that we’ve really struggled against our rivals,” Winovich said. “I personally feel a lot of pressure, and I think our team feels pressure too. But we have a lot of pieces here.”

From 10-3 to 10-3 to 8-5, the trajectory under Harbaugh has been alternately tantalizing and erratic. More seasoned pieces are in place, more daunting challenges ahead. Patterson is known for making something out of nothing. For Harbaugh and the Wolverines, it’s probably time to make something out of something.