Michigan Football Chatter THE Game Week
• 62. It's not the best thing that happened to Michigan (giving up 62 points to Ohio State last year) but if the Wolverines win Saturday and begin shifting the rivalry ... back to a rivalry, with at least a 30-40% winning percentage over the next 10 years, 62 might ultimately be a blessing in disguise for the Maize and Blue.
It forced Don Brown to evolve as defensive coordinator and it forced Jim Harbaugh to alter his approach to offensive philosophy, getting rid of his run- and pass-game coordinators in favor of a single mind, Josh Gattis, a young innovator that has begun showing what he and this offense are capable of in recent weeks.
"I think in retrospect we're going to look back and be thankful they didn't panic as a coaching staff as much as we panicked as fans and close observers earlier this season," an insider said. "We wanted to blow it up in September, bench Shea [Patterson], take the play-calling out of Josh's hands, return to the 2015-18 offense.
"There was real concern, and it wasn't without warrant - that Wisconsin loss was a complete shock - but coaches like Jim Harbaugh get to this level because they're steady, because they understand from experience that not everything always goes according to plan, and that what you've been working on and what you've seen with your own eyes for months in winter, spring, summer, and fall camp is more reflective of who you are than a single bad game, even as bad as that one was!"
That Wisconsin game seems like a distant memory now with all the significant changes that have come. Look at the defense alone:
- Senior DT Michael Dwumfour returning to the lineup, providing a legitimate interior chaos creator on early downs, something that has helped every defensive linemen beside him.
- An injury to junior Josh Ross that paved the way for redshirt freshman Cam McGrone to take over at middle linebacker. McGrone, like Dwumfour, has a skill set that allows everyone around him to be their best, knowing McGrone can erase any mistake with his speed and athleticism sideline to sideline.
- Daxton Hill went from a young freshman getting a handful of snaps to the starting nickel corner (a fill-in starter at safety this past week) and a defensive back that can cover slot receivers and crossing routes in man coverage that makes offenses rethink that approach.
- The defense has really taken to zone schemes, showcasing the look more and more to confuse and harass opposing QBs.
- The defensive line and senior rush linebacker Josh Uche have emerged as the strongest unit on the team, closing gaps, getting after the passer, making big plays in the backfield, etc., and the versatility of the front seven has allowed Brown to get extremely creative in his personnel and pressure packages, unveiling a 'cheetah' package that includes four defensive ends on passing downs.
And that's just the defensive side of the ball. We'll get to the offense in a bit.
"This isn't last year's defense - it's better," a former player very well connected to the program shares. "And Don Brown has been holding back a few things too that they've been practicing but haven't shown in the games.
"I'm not saying that the defense will look brand-new but he has a few blitz packages and coverages they haven't used once this year that they will put into place this week. If Justin Fields and the Ohio State offensive line are ready for that then I'll tip my hat to them.
"I predict you're going to see something like the 2016 game when our defense really gave Ohio State and JT Barrett fits."
• As for Michigan's offense, an impeccable source attributes the Wolverines' recent success in the passing game to "Shea finding his confidence and feeling the best he's felt all year."
"He got banged up early in the season and he just never really felt comfortable the first few weeks. I'm not trying to give him a copout because not all of his struggles can be attributed to the oblique injury but when you're not feeling great and you're being challenged physically and mentally [adapting to the new offense], I just don't think he felt quite like himself," the source continued.
"He's felt 100 percent the last few weeks, and then it's a bit cliched but he's in one of those zones where the game has slowed down for him and he's seeing everything, trusting his line, trusting his teammates. He's making passes right now he never would have even attempted back in October.
"He was always waiting for his receivers to come open and so every pass was late and limited our big-play ability. But now, he's throwing his guys open, throwing to spots he knows his teammates will be, he's turning over his trust to them and the result is we've seen a lot of really big plays in the passing game."
Gattis and the coaches have also evolved, learning what their team does best and what it doesn't do well. For instance, a staple of the passing game in October - the play-action, deep drop and 50-yard bomb to junior WR Nico Collins - has been dropped for patterns over the middle, sideline fades, wheel routes and posts.
"Plays where Patterson can hit receivers in stride about 15-20 yards down field with opportunities to run after the catch, or throwing corner routes that allow Nico or Donovan Peoples-Jones to go up and get the ball. They're not getting their big plays from Shea having to chuck it a long way but by putting their targets in advantageous situations and asking Shea to hit them on the run."
Will we see more of that this Saturday? Weather will certainly be a factor. In windy conditions at Illinois, Michigan relied more heavily on the run. In slop weather against Notre Dame, Michigan again relied more heavily on the run. The last three games have been ideal weather conditions and we've seen Michigan throw a lot more. If it's bad on Saturday, what will U-M do?
"These guys feel like they can run, they feel like they can pass, if it's snow, rain, sleet, they'll need to run, and they need to Shea to be a runner. I think he will. He understands his legacy is on the line and that matters to him. It matters to all these guys. You're going to see a lot of guys selling out for the team.
"One of the legit criticisms of Jim was four years into his time here, he had a lot of me-first guys but he's been pushing all the right buttons, and this is one of the most selfless teams I've ever been around.
"I don't know what happens Saturday, but this is not last year's team. There were a lot of guys pulling in different directions by the end of the season, but everyone is on the same page, and I predict we'll be real proud of our team Saturday."
• When the year began, it was largely felt that Michigan would lose all three of its junior wide receivers, either to the NFL or to the transfer portal. Now, the feeling is Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones could bypass their NFL pursuits for one more season at U-M.
"One of the biggest motivating factors is these guys feel that Michigan is really close to a championship, and these are two of the most selfless, 'team' guys you'll find," a source shared. "The other part is showcasing themselves with greater senior years.
"Even with a quarterback change, what we've seen these past few weeks with the passing game is what everyone inside Schembechler Hall is expecting to be next year so they could come back and put up much bigger numbers.
"The flip side of that is both Nico and DPJ have put some really nice games on film this month and have shown NFL scouts what they're capable of. I still think it's unlikely that Nico and Donovan return but it's trending more positively for us."