View from the Sidelines: Now what? Comment Count

Ethan Sears October 6th, 2018 at 9:43 PM

[Upchurch]

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.

Comments

cheesheadwolverine

October 7th, 2018 at 1:36 PM ^

Yup.  So far, we lost a toss-up non-conference game and beat five teams we need to beat.  The next six games define the season, and, frankly -- with as bad as the takes are going to get if we don't win at least four of them -- might define the Harbaugh era.

schreibee

October 7th, 2018 at 1:53 PM ^

I don't think losing 2 of the next 6 games changes the Harbaugh era narrative at all, honestly. 

Fair or not with the tough schedule this season, 3 loss seasons were not the expectation when he came to Michigan.

Losing maybe up to half of the 2018 starting lineup means '19 will be uncertain, even with msu/osu at home.

I just don't think they can lose more than 1 more (and obvsly NOT to msu/osu preferably!) and have the narrative be something different heading into '19.

Tough sledding,  but we've got the team to do it! 

EDIT: What part of "we've got the team to do it" draws negs on this site?

Not concerned about getting negs, only that my point was completely missed. The narrative I speak of is driven by media & our rivals. Losing 3 & not playing for the B1G title doesn't change that,  however satisfied we may or may not be with it!

BlueHills

October 7th, 2018 at 3:41 PM ^

I see your point, but there’s something about Harbaugh’s work here that feels like solid program-building designed for the long haul. I think we need that. This program lost its identity during its wilderness days.

If you look at OSU, or even Wisconsin, they’ve been solid programs with an identity for decades. Each succeeding coach walked into a situation with a very good football program and team to build on.

Harbaugh didn’t have that luxury; our program was on the skids. Yet he managed to put together a couple of strong seasons until last year’s very young team, and even then, had a pretty decent record.

Also, if you look the Big Ten in Bo’s years, it was a pretty bad conference. The only competitive teams for a couple of decades were Michigan and OSU. No wonder we competed every year for the championship. That’s no longer the case, with Wiscy, PSU, and MSU in recent years. It’s become a competitive league. Hell, Northwestern had 10 wins - they’re developing a program. Iowa has developed a program. The traditionally weaker teams are no longer held together with twist ties and chewing gum.

In all but two cases, we’re getting blowout wins this year. The team is looking powerful, and should be at least competitive against the slate that’s coming up next.

People criticize the pro-style offense we run, but the fact is that this year it’s scoring an awful lot of points. And we’re controlling the ball and the tempo of games. So I think it’s a growth thing, and the team is getting better. I’d like to see us win every game by a billion points, but it’s going to be a process.

I’ve said this before, but the search for a miracle worker could easily put us in Nebraska’s situation (of course there are differences!), but they got impatient with their 9-10 win coach, and certainly their program lost its way. It’s instructive.

Diagonal Blue

October 7th, 2018 at 5:01 PM ^

Dude no one wants Harbaugh fired, but you're kidding yourself if you think people are going to be happy with another 3 loss season. At some point they have to win the B1G and make the playoff and he has the talent to do it this year. It's year 4, the process and building are over, it's time for the results.

BlueHills

October 7th, 2018 at 6:12 PM ^

Plenty of folks will be unhappy with anything but perfection. Nothing I can say to dispute that.

Nonetheless, I like the long view. Steady progress and player development are worthwhile endeavors. The wins are happening, and will get better. I’m pretty excited about where this team is headed these days.

wolverine1987

October 7th, 2018 at 6:13 PM ^

Agree that "people" aren't going to be happy if we lose 3 games, but they are unrealistic and therefore wrong IMO. If we win a bowl game and finish 10-3 I'll be fine, as long as we beat Sparty as part of that. When Harbaugh came, like everyone, I was super happy. But not because I thought we'd win a NC, but because I thought it meant guaranteed 10 and 11 win seasons. That's my hope after the ten years in the wilderness, consistent 10 and 11 win seasons, which means you are a serious, top notch program. That's all I care about for Michigan. Because we will never be better than OSU as long as Meyer is there--on top of being a better recruiter, he has a much better pool of talent to draw from in Ohio. We should lose to OSU most years--they are better than us, and most years, the team with more talent wins.

WolvinLA2

October 7th, 2018 at 1:51 PM ^

At this point, I’d be surprised if Patterson left. He doesn’t look like a pro QB and isn’t Baker Mayfield-level good yet to make up for that. I don’t see the purpose to leave early to maybe be a 5th round pick. I think there are at least 10ish QBs who would be drafted ahead of him at this point. 

OkemosBlue

October 7th, 2018 at 3:03 PM ^

I guess you're serious, but I disagree.  The most obvious reason is arm strength.  Ruddock had none.  Patterson has a ton.  The second most obvious reason is that you either have forgotten about John Elway, Steve Young, Fran Tarkenton, and Russel Wilson or never saw them play.  Roll outs and escapability are important and can take a player into the elite level.  Now, I'm not disagreeing that, at the moment, Patterson could use some more work in the pro offense, but to suggest that he wouldn't go in the 1st round (or second at the lowest) if he continues to play at this level is wishful thinking.  Most draft analyses think so too.

WolvinLA2

October 7th, 2018 at 3:48 PM ^

I wouldn't assume that.  He's a great talent but he still has a lot to prove.  In a pretty light schedule this year, he has only exceeded 200 yards passing in 3/6 games, has never thrown for 300 at Michigan and has two games without a TD pass.  He has a strong arm but he also had some accuracy issues (not a ton, but when you're an undersized QB, NFL wants to see everything else be spot on).

I think he'll get drafted eventually, but he doesn't scream NFL QB to me yet and it might make sense for him to stay an extra year.  Guys like Bush and Gary are sure thing NFL guys (though still won't be first rounders, likely) but I don't know about Shea this year.

Sten Carlson

October 7th, 2018 at 5:13 PM ^

I agree, he's a special player and he's been a godsend for the program already.  However, if I had nit pick (which the NFL scouts certainly will) I think some (too many?) of his passes are not hitting the WR/TE in perfect stride to all allow them to continue running and get those extra YAC. 

His game, in all facets, is light years ahead of what we've seen at Michigan of late (maybe ever), but he's not a fully polished QB … yet.  I have no doubt that he and Coach are working hard on that (and other) aspect of his game, and by the end of the season he's going to be much improved from where he is now. 

Really, the question comes down to whether Shea feels he can learn/improve more at Michigan under Harbaugh, or in the NFL.  His WR/TE corps will largely be intact, so he's bound to hit the ground running through the air quicker should he return as the chemistry is already establish.  The one thing I can say is that I really hope he plays his best football in the biggest games of the year that we're about to enter. 

jdemille9

October 7th, 2018 at 4:18 PM ^

He isn't Baker Mayfield-level, but this is an extremely weak QB draft class. He's more likely to go because of that than because of his NFL-level talent/potential after this season. 

Who are the ten QB's that go ahead of him? Seriously asking, not being a dick. I just don't see it. Grier, Herbert are about all I see that are better talents than Patterson. Not saying he's a 1st-rounder if he goes this year, but he's got a better shot at a higher draft spot than if he goes in the 2020 draft.

WFNY_DP

October 8th, 2018 at 3:45 PM ^

Another way to look at it: Mayfield wasn't as "good" as Lamar Jackson in '16. He stayed at Oklahoma and clearly passed Jackson. Mayfield was starting for the Browns and Jackson was nothing more than a wildcat QB yesterday. Another year with Lincoln Riley certainly helped Mayfield.

Now, the word of caution is that Mayfield--despite his stature--has the arm talent and the accuracy that you can't teach (if he's 6'2" him going #1 overall would have been a no-brainer). As a Browns fan (sigh) I can say that I was skeptical. And, while three games isn't a career or an indicator of his future success or lack thereof, it's hard to dispute that he has an amazing ability to keep his eyes downfield and hits guys where the ball needs to be on almost every throw. Shea doesn't have that, and may never have that; I'm not sure it's a skill you can learn.

Michigan4Life

October 7th, 2018 at 11:08 PM ^

QBs that are likely to get drafted ahead of Patterson are:

Justin Herbert

Dwayne Haskins

Drew Lock

Jarrett Stidham

Will Grier

Tyree Jackson

The three QBs are about the same tier as Shea. I've been told that Montez has a chance to climb up to 1st round but we'll see.

Steven Montez

Jordan Ta'amu

Ryan Finley

Wolverine 73

October 7th, 2018 at 1:40 PM ^

That’s a pretty grudging take on the first half of the season.  The offense has looked better than at any time since the second half of the Rudock year, sharper, more varied.  It’s been night and day on QB play compared to last year.  The OL seems to have eliminated the penalties that plagued it in the past, and is playing far better than anyone thought it would.  The defense remains elite.  The punting game has been awesome, and kicking very good.  Yeah, the tough games are coming up, but this team feels as if it is far better equipped to win those games this year.

Double-D

October 7th, 2018 at 2:50 PM ^

This does not look like an 8-4 or 7-5 team at all.  Maybe I misunderstood.   I have not seen anything about UW or MSU that says we should not be favored to win those games. 

MSU is not a good team. Sure they will play us tough at their home but that is a game we should win.  Wisconsin at the Big House is a team we match up well with.  We have better athletes at most positions on the field.  

PSU is talented but they have Franklin and we get them at home after a bye week.  I see it much more likely we head to OSU with all the marbles on the table. 

Watching From Afar

October 7th, 2018 at 3:30 PM ^

Wisconsin is not built to run away from teams with equal or better talent. They bludgeon teams to death and it usually takes a while to pop a final blow. So long as Michigan's DTs hold up, they should be in the game even if the offense doesn't do well. Last year (I know, with Hurst) with an offense that didn't go 3 and out every play, Michigan was leading/in a position to compete till the end. With an offense that goes 3 and out over and over again, Wisconsin finally pulled away. So long as the offense is competent and doesn't make big mistakes/put Wisconsin in favorable field position, a repeat of 2016 is possible in that it's close, but Wisconsin never really has a chance to put that final blow in and win/push the game to the brink.

MSU is MSU. Their OL might suck, but they'll scheme a way to get some big gains on misdirection or QB scrambles (OPTIONS!!!). That and their WRs are legitimately good. They could feasibly throw up jump balls and crossers/slants all game and move the ball pretty well. They are built to boom or bust on Michigan's blitzing. If they can break the 1 tackle necessary to get a big gain, there will be problems. Similarly, they'll throw the ball where the LBs blitzed from a lot. I've rewatched a lot of the MSU game from last year and they almost never ran routes that left Lewerke in a position to get hit. Gary and Winovich were moving their OTs, but Lewerke was getting the ball out quick and then they went into clock kill mode. There was almost always a hitch or seam that they had if they needed to get out of something quickly or die.

PSU is a wildcard. Their offense can either go off similar to how it did last year with landing >50% of jump balls and McSorley can legitimately break defenses, or they could rely too much on one guy (McSorley like they did Barkley) and bog down. Mix that in with a defense that is ok, but not great, and Michigan just has to survive the barrage of opening shots. If they can do that and get up a 10-14 points I don't think PSU will come back. They have the ability to score in bunches and quick, but I don't know if they can make the adjustments necessary in game if they don't get a lead to start with.

Edit: All of this is assuming that the OL continues to be B or B+ in pass protection and Harbaugh doesn't try to run at stacked boxes (or MSU in general). If Michigan comes out with 2 TEs and Mason and tries to run at MSU, they're going nowhere. It's not a function of MSU playing poor running teams, they are legitimately good at stopping the run. Their DTs are solid and competent (not crazy good or anything like Hurst) and their LBs come down with hair on fire. Add in their safeties who are ready to get to the LOS and you run into a defense that can stop the run with violence and a team that can be picked apart through the air. Michigan needs a semblance of a running threat to make PA somewhat plausible so MSU doesn't just sit their LBs at 5 yards to cut off slants/seams, but they won't be successful with 1 yard runs and then trying to run PA.

Also, Wisconsin's LBs are dudes. Running at them and their NT is easier than running at MSU, but I wouldn't want to try and do it for 3+ quarters if a score is needed.

Doctor Wolverine

October 7th, 2018 at 4:23 PM ^

I agree they don’t look like an 8-4 of 7-5 team, but they do have a tough schedule down the stretch. I think that 8-4 is at least as likely as 11-1 and a playoff contender. Most likely we end up somewhere in between at 10-2 or 9-3, ranked in the 10-15 range and a good bowl game. Of course my hope is that they continue to improve, build momentum and have a special end to the season. 

PM

October 8th, 2018 at 6:25 PM ^

Agreed. If you think back to last year, we were actually scaling the offense back to simplify it for QB reasons. This year, it continues to scale up thanks to improved QB and OL play (that provides time to throw).  Oh yeah, receivers are actually getting open on a more consistent basis which doesn't hurt either. Bottom line, while there is certainly room for improvement, we are actually improving/ trending in the right direction. What a refreshing change from last year.

Diagonal Blue

October 7th, 2018 at 1:48 PM ^

I think worrying about who is going to stay and who is going to go pro right now is premature, but it does emphasize the importance of stacking great recruiting classes on top of each other. 

Lets beat the breaks off the Badgers next weekend.

Harlick

October 7th, 2018 at 1:52 PM ^

Two years ago we easily beat all three in the same scenario.   A top Wisconsin team,  Michigan state on the road and Penn state that was conference champion.  This team looks better than that team on offense is looks as good on defense.   This is going to be a special season. 

freelion

October 7th, 2018 at 2:04 PM ^

Yes but you are ignoring several distinct differences between this team and Harbaugh's other Michigan teams:

1. We have an actual QB

2. We have an actual offensive line coach

3. We are getting better week by week

The only missing ingredients that keep this team from being dominant are an elite LT and an innovative offensive coordinator.

I think we will beat Wisconsin and MSU handily and then we will see about PSU after a bye week with maybe Tarik Black back at WR and an increasingly dynamic offense.

DeepBlueC

October 7th, 2018 at 3:13 PM ^

Since we haven't played a quality opponent since week 1, it's a little hard to tell if we're actually "getting better week by week".  We're getting solid wins against teams that are nothing special, but we still have done nothing against high quality opponents, especially on the road.  Still in wait and see mode.

Watching From Afar

October 7th, 2018 at 4:09 PM ^

You can see an at least not tire fire offense pieced together from NW and Maryland.

Not saying the offense is great or anything, but the Gaz and Fisher didn't dominate. They had some nice plays, but last year we saw 1 or 2 guys completely destroy the offense.

Maryland has Cowart, Anieboman, and Brooks. None are necessarily Young/Bosa/Bachie level guys, but they're not whatever Nebraska threw out on the field.

Yes, still wait and see to the larger extent. But this OL and offense as a whole has a much higher floor than last year's which is a good start. If the can keep Shea's head on his body, they should do more damage than last year against the 3 teams they're about to run into.