The obvious question came with an obvious answer.
Do you guys feel like you’re adequately prepared for Wisconsin next week?
“Absolutely,” said Cesar Ruiz. After Michigan's 42-21 dismissal of Maryland, it was hard to expect another answer.
The obvious follow-up — why? — continued the pattern. Michigan has been preparing well, practicing well and, all things considered, playing well. Yet, after six weeks, we know little more about this team than we did in August.
Well, let’s walk that back a little bit. We know Shea Patterson is as good as advertised, that the defense hasn’t lost a step, that the offensive line maybe isn’t all that bad. But all six games have gone, more or less, the way they were supposed to go. A one-score loss at Notre Dame in Patterson’s first game where a couple 50/50 plays went the Irish’s way; blowout wins against Western Michigan, SMU and Nebraska; a comeback victory at Northwestern; a game that defined routine against Maryland.
That’s half of the regular season, and other than a bad first half in Evanston, there’s been little outside the realm of the expected. Starting right now though, with a gauntlet of Wisconsin, at Michigan State and Penn State, we’re going to figure out what this team is.
[After THE JUMP: Unpacking this]
It’s clear that the talent is there.
Patterson has, on a weekly basis, made NFL-caliber plays in and out of the pocket. His 22-yard touchdown throw to Ronnie Bell on Saturday was just absurd, fit into a way-too-tight window. He stood in the pocket and delivered a deep strike to Donovan Peoples-Jones, then when it was called back for a holding, hit Zach Gentry on the run.
Gentry has established himself as Patterson’s security blanket and Peoples-Jones’ five-star talent is starting to shine through. Karan Higdon has gone over 100 yards in four straight games, turning into a workhorse. Even the offensive line has been legitimately good in pass protection after the Notre Dame game — though it’s worth staying wary and seeing what comes of next week.
The defense is still really good — Chase Winovich has led an overwhelmingly dominant line. Despite injuries and targeting calls, there’s little to complain about in the grand scheme of things.
Now, the Wolverines have to do it against good teams, in big games. This might be the most talented team Jim Harbaugh will have in Ann Arbor for a while. In all likelihood, Patterson will leave for the NFL after this season, along with the core of the defense. Those losses won’t be easy to withstand despite talent waiting in the wings. But Michigan has already slipped up once. There is little-to-no margin for error over the rest of the season, and it’s no secret that the Wolverines have struggled to win against good competition of late.
“We, in the past, have not finished the big games as we wanted to,” Tyree Kinnel said. “And I feel like the Notre Dame game was a learning experience for us. That was Shea’s first game for us, his first game in the system. I think everyone will be better — offense, special teams and defense.”
There isn’t any room for unnecessary penalties in these games. Good as Patterson has been, there’s room to nitpick — and these next three opponents can take advantage of it. Surprising as the line has been, nobody can say with confidence that will translate to a strong performance against better teams.
There’s a legitimate Michigan’s season falls apart starting next Saturday. It’s more than conceivable that this becomes an 8-4 — maybe even 7-5 — season that ends in some corporate bowl game whose name sucks the life out of you. The schedule is really tough, and a trademark of the Harbaugh era has been losing games just like these. It’s unfair to pin that all on the coach, and a fair number of those losses have come down to dumb luck. But it’s hard to trust Michigan in these situations until it actually succeeds in these situations.
But if the Wolverines win two of their next three games, they’re in the Big Ten title hunt. If they win all three, there are probably playoff implications when they go to Ohio State. That’s not impossible — two of those games are at home and the Spartans lost to Northwestern in East Lansing on Saturday. The schedule looks more manageable than it did six weeks ago. Going into Saturday, S&P+ had Michigan favored, albeit slightly, in all of its next three games.
“Our confidence level has gone through the roof,” Kinnel said. “We’re executing the gameplans really well and next week we get to show what we can do in prime time against a very good Wisconsin team.”
What Michigan does in that setting, against that caliber of team — that’s what will matter. You can throw the last six weeks out. It’s all about the next three.