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2018 feels different for Michigan football, but is it?

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Putting things into perspective before Michigan faces Wisconsin

Dustin Johnston- Maize n Brew

“I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s something different about this team than some previous teams I’ve been a part of,” Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich said.

Winovich is right.

Things feel different.

The No. 12 Wolverines (5-1) are heading into a big game versus No. 16 Wisconsin (4-1) on Saturday night at The Big House.

Their chances of winning the game? A lot higher than a season ago. Even Vegas thinks Michigan will topple the Badgers by over a touchdown.

There’s a variety of reasons why Michigan is now favored, and why 2018 feels different for the Wolverines.

The Quarterback

Yes, it usually starts with the quarterback, arguably the most important position in sports, the player who can make or break your team single-handedly.

“It’s better as a (QB) group than we were last year,” Jim Harbaugh said in July. “And I feel like our starting quarterback will also be better, play better.”

Harbaugh wasn’t joking. The position looks drastically improved compared to the performances we saw last season from the trio of Wilton Speight, John O’Korn, and Brandon Peters.

However, in 2018 Shea Patterson has shown flashes of brilliance and a steady level of consistency, while backup Dylan McCaffrey has performed admirably when his number has been called.

Patterson is changing the way Michigan attacks teams, they’re taking shots down the field at a high clip, and Patterson’s 8.6 yards per pass attempt (24th nationally) is a reflection of it.

His legs are allowing for plenty of designed pass plays that have him roll out of the pocket. His mobility has also bought more time when receivers aren’t initially open, allowing for Michigan to pick up a positive gain via scramble when a play completely breaks down.

Jim Harbaugh hasn’t had a quarterback like this since he’s been at Michigan. No quarterback has even had remotely the same upside (yet).

We’re seeing a quarterback complete 68.8% of his passes (16th nationally) while distributing the ball to a wide variety of options. Patterson has been scanning the field well and takes what the defense gives him, whether it’s a check-down or a big gainer.

For the first time we’re seeing a starting quarterback of Harbaugh’s at Michigan have a contagious fighting spirit and talent to go along with it.

Some guys just have ‘it’.

“He has it,” passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton said last month. “He has the combination of instincts and talent that you desire in your quarterback, and I think has shown on a week-to-week basis that you have to account for Shea both inside and outside the pocket, and that’s what we desire to have at the quarterback position here.”

Offensive Line

Michigan’s offensive line has improved a ton since week one, and last week versus Maryland they had an impressive day in pass protection, allowing zero sacks.

The o-line has been giving Patterson ample time to throw while also making sure he doesn’t take too many unnecessary hits. Through six games, guard Michael Onwenu has yet to allow a sack.

While the unit still needs to keep on improving, this is another position group that is a lot better than it was a season ago. First year offensive line coach Ed Warinner has been able to teach these linemen in a way that they understand and embrace.

Toughness

Part of the reason Jim Harbaugh ascended so high as a head coach is because he’s had a track record of having tough all around teams, at every level.

Harbaugh went out and got a new strength and conditioning coach, Ben Herbert, a guy that would embody the type of strength Harbaugh tries to instill in his team.

“Philosophically, how he views things, the things he takes pride in, the things he believes in, carry in line with the things that I do,” Herbert said after being hired.

Herbert’s had a hands on approach that the team has embraced, and the results have been just short of amazing. If this was a Yelp review, Herbert would be getting five out of five stars.

Of 60 returning scholarship players, 26 of them gained 10 pounds or more.

What the team did this off-season through pumping iron has been leading to tougher play on the field.

Leadership

Last season Michigan had the youngest team in the nation, this year it’s filled with an abundance of leaders that all have different qualities to compliment one another.

  • Shea Patterson
  • Karan Higdon
  • Chase Winovich
  • Rashan Gary
  • Devin Bush

We can keep going and list more, but you get the point. All of the above named and more all are vocal leaders that have it in their spirit to motivate whoever is around them. Leadership with talent can go a long way, leadership with talent creates believers in mass quantity.

Playbook becoming diverse

This Michigan offense is starting to resemble what took Jim Harbaugh to three consecutive NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl. The offense is becoming more unpredictable, being able to beat you in a variety of ways.

We asked Shea Patterson about the pistol formation last week and if we’d see an up-tick in snaps from it and some of the other new sets they’ve trotted out the past couple weeks, to which Patterson said “I think Michael Onwenu said a few weeks weeks ago we haven’t even used a fourth of the playbook.” Patterson went on to say he felt that Onwenu’s estimate was pretty accurate.

Taking that estimation at face value would indicate we’re going to see:

  • More pistol formation
  • Ben Mason at HB with Jared Wangler at FB
  • Two HB’s on the field at once
  • Read-option where Patterson starts keeping the ball at a higher clip
  • A steady amount of deep passes
  • Yes, still going to see plenty of running down the throat of the opposing defense
  • More play-action in weeks to come out of formations Michigan have almost always ran out of
  • Increase in screens to receivers and Zach Gentry

These are just a handful of areas in which the offense feels different. Yes, we need to see more, and they can get better, but the offensive playbook looks different... because it is.

Depth everywhere

Michigan has already weathered injuries at numerous positions, be it receiver, running back, defensive line, and being without Khaleke Hudson for over a game due to targeting calls.

Not only has the next man up strategy worked so far in 2018, but even when injuries don’t occur, the likes of WR Ronnie Bell, Viper Jordan Glasgow, RB Tru Wilson, OL Jalen Mayfield among others have stepped up and shown to be good rotational players at the very least.

The depth seemed thin at far too many spots in 2017, but it appears to be the opposite problem in 2018. Depth everywhere.

The Mindset

The goal every year for Michigan is to win the Big Ten Championship and get into the College Football Playoff, but not every year is equally as realistic.

“We’ve got to understand we have to play the same every week and approach every game like we’re playing Ohio State,” Patterson said recently. “Just come out firing, not starting slow on offense or defense. Just trusting ourselves and trusting the game plan and going out here and playing.”

Then there’s Winovich, who played like a man possessed when trailing 17-0 to Northwestern and telling the defense “this is the part where we gotta double down on all the hard work we’ve done, the preparation that we’ve gone through, they can’t take this from us!”

While failure is always a realistic possibility, failure is not an option for Winovich and Patterson, who happen to be roommates.

We can sit here and debate how far this Michigan team can go, but after being around this team for half the season, there’s no debating they genuinely believe they can beat every opponent left on the schedule.

2018 feeling different doesn’t mean anything yet

I’m not one to subscribe to blind faith, it can be dangerous.

I don’t care for gut-feelings all that much either.

I like basing my feelings upon rational observations and a certain amount of evidence to support them. After accumulating these, there was enough to write an article about said feelings, but that doesn’t mean anything yet.

Michigan still has a long road to get to where they want to be this season, and as soon as the conclusion of the Wisconsin game this article could become obsolete. However, it might age like fine wine.

The bottom line is Michigan not only needs to keep doing what they’re doing (hello No. 1 defense in the nation), but also improving in any way they can.

There will continue to be doubters along the way, and they’ll be both fans and foes doing the doubting. The best remedy for those who don’t believe is to continue rattling off convincing victories. At some point, they just might have to get on board and say “this year is different”.

The canvas isn’t complete, but enough has been painted for me to stick around and see how the painting turns out. It looks interesting so far, the finished product may be promising and worth hanging up on the wall above the fireplace.

Stay focused, Michigan football, you’re on the right path.

Now comes the hard part... go out there and win the rest of your games.

Let Winovich’s battle-cry during the Northwestern game continue to light a fire within you and shout “they can’t take this from us!” in times of turbulence.