ANN ARBOR — What a difference three weeks make.
It was earlier this month when the Michigan football team was coming off a road loss to Notre Dame, a game in which the Wolverines uncharacteristically gave up a pair of scores early.
Similar questions surrounded a new-look offense, one that, if you talked to players and coaches in the spring and fall, had made plenty of strides. There was a certain play-making quarterback, too.
But the Michigan offense seems to have found its stride ever since that 24-17 loss in South Bend. In its last three games, the Wolverines have averaged 50 points per game and more than 458 yards of offense — a statistical stretch not achieved since the first four games in 2016, Michigan’s last double-digit win season.
“I like the way things are going,” starting left guard Ben Bredeson told reporters on Monday. “I like the system that we’re in. I think it really fits the type of players that we have — and everyone’s really buying into it.”
Let’s go back to 2016, when the Wolverines started an impressive 9-0 and were on the cusp of winning a Big Ten title. Things were clicking in all areas of the offense. In a 60-point blowout win over Hawaii, Michigan rushed for over 300 yards. The next week, in another blowout win over Central Florida (you know, the game Scott Frost made that memorable “we outhit them” comment), the Wolverines threw for 328 yards.
It’s been a similar story this year with University of Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson at quarterback. In a blowout victory over Western Michigan in Week 2, Michigan started on the ground and that’s where it left it. Three-hundred and eight yards rushing and three touchdowns. And when Patterson threw it, he was an efficient 12 of 17 for three touchdowns.
The following week, after a slow start on the ground, Michigan (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) turned to the air to get it done. Patterson finished 14 of 18 with three touchdowns and an interception, another accurate and efficient performance.
“It feels complete,” wide receiver Nico Collins said. “We’re feeling confident in our game. We proving what we can do. But we just gotta keep going. Just keep pounding and playing how we know how to play.”
The biggest question mark of this offense, the front five charged with getting push at the line of scrimmage and protecting Patterson, has steadily shown improvement, too. Michigan has averaged 263 yards rushing in the last three games — taking advantage of a massive size difference against Western Michigan, wearing down Southern Methodist, and pushing around Nebraska.
And perhaps most impressively, Patterson hasn’t had to sweat as much. After giving up three sacks at Notre Dame, the line has allowed just four combined in the last three games. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has insisted in recent weeks that the line had been improving. Defensive end Chase Winovich called Saturday’s game against Nebraska, a game in which Michigan rushed for 285 yards and moved the football with ease, the best he’s seen the line play in his five years playing.
“For our entire team, it’s very noticeable,” Harbaugh said Saturday after Michigan’s 56-10 win. “It’s a hard-working team. That’s paying off — you can see it in the way they play. And they’re the ones doing it. They’re putting in the work, putting in the effort.”
Things weren’t that simple a year ago. The team was younger and inexperienced. The players were thrown a complicated playbook and it admittedly became overwhelming at times. Harbaugh and the veterans had to do more teaching and holding.
That’s no so much the case in 2018. Patterson, while in his first season with a new team, is a junior with plenty of starting experience under his belt now. The offensive line is working with a new, simplified way of doing things. Michigan’s young but talented receiving group has a group of dedicated coaches working with it.
And don’t forget, another year of experience. In football, that goes a long way.
“They don’t need motivational swings or talks or some of the things teams need,” Harbaugh said. “They just go to work. It looks like they enjoy it — that part of it. And they’re playing better.”
Of course, it’s important to put all of this into context. WMU, SMU and Nebraska are a combined 3-8 right now. None of those teams were projected to win their respective league, nor come close. And Michigan was favored heavily in all three games.
But there’s also something to doing what is expected of you. Michigan has done that and then some, even with one of its top receivers on the shelf (Tarik Black) and a without a running back at times, rebounding nicely following a disappointing showing Week 1 at Notre Dame.
The players acknowledge progress, but realize too that this isn’t enough. More work has to be done. And until they beat a team with a winning record, and beat a ranked team on the road, it’s all just smoke and mirrors.
The 14th-ranked Wolverines look to keep the momentum going at Northwestern on Saturday (4:30 p.m., FOX) in another game they are comfortably favored in.
“Just keep improving,” Collins said. “Find the little mistakes we made against Nebraska and we going to learn from it, make corrections.”