Piscataway, N.J. – With two regular-season games remaining and plenty still at stake, in the aftermath of Michigan’s 42-7 walloping of Rutgers, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was asked about the composition of his team and whether it has a chance to do something great.
With the addition of quarterback Shea Patterson, an overhaul of the offensive staff, the addition of strength coach Ben Herbert, and a consistently top-ranked defense engineered by coordinator Don Brown, are all the pieces in place for a championship-level run?
“Oh, yeah. Good chance? Sure. Good one,” Harbaugh said after the win at Rutgers. “Just keep preparing, keep focusing, keep taking it one game at a time and see how good we can get.”
Michigan is No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings, and at 9-1 overall and 7-0 Big Ten, is atop the East Division. The Wolverines face Indiana on Saturday in the final home game at Michigan Stadium and then travel to Ohio State for the regular-season finale.
More: Michigan maintains No. 4 spot in both polls
The Wolverines have that chance because they now have an offense that complements a defense that Brown has had playing at a high level for three years. With Patterson’s addition, the offense is efficient. Literally. He is ranked 14th nationally in pass efficiency. Against Rutgers, he was 18-of-27 for 260 yards and three touchdowns in three quarters.
Michigan’s defense is ranked No. 1 nationally, yielding an average 219.8 yards, and the offense is 53rd, averaging 421.9 yards. The Wolverines are 20th in scoring (37.2), fourth in third-down conversions and fourth in time of possession (34:35). These are important statistics to consider when explaining how the offense complements the defense.
Some fans roll their eyes when they read or hear coaches and players use the “we take it game-by-game” mantra, but that’s what the Wolverines have embraced. It was particularly helpful to them after a three-game stretch against ranked opponents when faced with preparing for a team like Rutgers, winless in the Big Ten.
“Players get to make the decision on what level they play at. How smart they play. How strong. How tough. How precise they play,” Harbaugh said, when explaining how the team is maintaining its focus. “Nobody gets to make that decision for them. I was excited to see what level they were going to play (at Rutgers). I thought they played at the highest level they could. Expect that to be the case next week, as well. Will be excited to see how they respond.”
Tight end Zach Gentry said Michigan’s practice last week ahead of the Rutgers game was “intense.”
“It was another normal week for us,” Gentry said.
He said it hasn’t been difficult to stick with the game-by-game approach.
“The way we’re ingrained to prepare, it’s just nothing too far ahead,” Gentry said. “Our team is doing a good job of not thinking too far ahead and taking it one week at a time. I know we’ll keep doing it this week.
“We’ve got a big game against Indiana coming up at home and it’s senior night so everybody is going to be fired up. I think we take it one week at a time and keep riding this wave.”
As Michigan has rolled each week, Harbaugh and the players have spoken freely about the camaraderie the team enjoys, the mutual respect.
There was a nice moment after the game before the postgame news conference began when defensive end Rashan Gary stood next to Patterson. A sheet of the game statistics was placed in front of Patterson and Gary leaned over to study it with him.
“I just like seeing what my brothers are able to do,” Gary said of checking out the stats. “It’s ridiculous. That just shows us, looking at the stat sheet, how we’re improving individually and as a team. We’ve just got to keep it up.”
Patterson deflects praise by talking about the offensive line, the receivers and the running backs. He chose to transfer to Michigan because he saw the potential and especially the appeal of an established, championship-caliber defense.
The chemistry on offense has developed in large part because of Patterson, who very quickly acclimated to his new team and teammates. He is focused as a quarterback and leader and is helping the team avoid distractions.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a team that’s been this close,” Patterson said. “We all care about each other so much, but the one thing we really do a good job of is not getting distracted by where we are now and don’t let that distract us from where we want to be.
“So each and every week we approach it with the same mindset, and that’s work hard every single day in practice. This guy (Gary) will make plays on defense and everything else will take care of itself on offense.”
Patterson was asked if this was how he envisioned things progressing when he decided to come to Michigan.
“Yeah. I was just fortunate enough to join a group of guys like this, who push me every single day,” he said. “I’m so proud to be part of this thing. It’s so cool to see our progression every single week.”
The defense has allowed 21 points the last three games, and Gary said he has seen a steady evolution team-wide.
“Personally, I feel we’re improving week by week,” Gary said. “The type of players we are is always something to make right, to make perfect. We’re still in that stage. But I feel like we’re where we’re supposed to be and we’re still getting better because there’s still a lot of improvement.”