There wasn’t a college football team talked about more in the off-season than the Michigan Wolverines. And man, pundits were really loving what was happening in Ann Arbor. A young offensive coordinator in Josh Gattis was going to get Michigan over the hump and his no-huddle attack would propel them into College Football Playoff contention.
“All your love is gone, so sing a lonely song.” - The Doors
Now, just two games into the season, that love for Michigan is gone. After a slow start offensively against Middle Tennessee, and a nail-biter overtime win against a good Army team, the same old narratives are back in full force. ‘Michigan is overrated. Jim Harbaugh is overrated. Michigan won’t beat the best teams on their schedule.’ Etc. Etc.
Harbaugh has never been one to enjoy much praise, whether it’s directed at him or his team. He doesn’t like too many pats on the back, he thinks it can cloud the focus, not make a team work as hard as they should be. “You’re saying there’s a lot of hype around the team,” Harbaugh said in response to a reporter at Big Ten Media Days in July. “I’ve read other articles, I’ve already been asked today ‘do you think people are sleeping on you, coach?’ I mean, you say everybody’s hyping the team up and then somebody else is saying everybody’s sleeping on it. Those are two very different sides of the spectrum. So, we don’t, we haven’t addressed that.”
Things have changed since July, though, and now the spectrum firmly resides in the masses doubting Michigan will even net a road win at Wisconsin. How quickly things change.
Now Michigan is the Vegas underdog against Wisconsin, and most pundits believe they will lose in Madison at Camp Randall. When asked what being the underdog means, Harbaugh called it “irrelevant”. And while he’s right, favored or ridiculed, the team still has to go out there and execute the same way, the whole underdog thing isn’t bad. Verbal tomatoes being thrown Michigan’s way allows them to play with a chip on their shoulder.
Some of the critiques directed at U-M from an X’s and O’s perspective have been warranted, while other criticisms have been far too personal and vitriolic. Add this to the underdog narrative and that chip on the shoulder gets even bigger.
“You can’t miss it,” safety Josh Metellus said. “I follow probably 800 people, and 700 are probably Michigan fans, so I see everything on social media. I don’t listen to it though. After a couple years ago, I stopped listening to it. It doesn’t faze me. I’m sure it doesn’t faze a lot of people on this team. We have all grown up being in the spotlight. People either bring you up or tear you down, but a lot of us don’t really even pay attention to that. As long as we feel good about ourselves, that is all that matters.”
Michigan knows they need to play better, they know they have something to prove, they know there’s no margin for error, they realize one slip up and their biggest goals will evaporate. “We haven’t played the best football we can play. Guys in the building have potential to be way up here, but we haven’t reached it yet,” Shea Patterson said this week.
Patterson noted the first two games were wins on paper, but not wins for the team. He mentioned they want to come into Wisconsin and make a real statement to themselves. Patterson isn’t hiding from the fact that Michigan hasn’t played up to their standard, he isn’t denying they could have played better. And most importantly, he realizes they have to play better now. There’s a sense of urgency. There needs to be.
The reality is it’s hard to hit the ground running with a new offensive scheme, it takes time, practice reps, and especially game action. The bye week for Michigan couldn’t have come at a better time. The team needed more reps, and now they’ve gotten them under their belt.
“We love Michigan fans. It seems like there’s always something that we’re missing. There’s things in this offense that we’re not hitting, there seems to be one thing wrong with the big plays that we’re missing,” Ben Bredeson said Tuesday. “But with the bye week there were a lot of things that we corrected. Going into Big Ten season I think it was perfectly timed.”
It seems as if the outside concern is much louder than any worries inside Schembechler Hall. “No, I have no concern,” Bredeson said. “I think that speaks to more than what the fans have seen. We’re the ones running the offense and the ones seeing it every single day, and we have complete faith in this. I love this offense that Coach Gattis brought here. We’re doing some really outstanding things in practice and some of them just need to get transferred over to the field.”
Wideout Tarik Black isn’t concerned either. “I think we can go way, way up from here,” Black said last week. “If you watch the film, there’s a lot of plays we definitely can make going forward. You guys will see. Trust me, you’ll see. That this offense is gonna be crazy.”
Michigan’s offense isn’t the only unit receiving criticism, the defense has as well. “It is not the defense of last year,” ESPN analyst and former New York Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma said of Michigan. “I don’t know what this defense is. I’m not saying they are a bad defense. I’m saying the stars and the studs they had last year to contain a guy like Jonathan Taylor, they are not there. So Jonathan Taylor, offensive line, have at it, have fun, because it is going to be a rout.”
“Nothing bothers me, but I see it,” defensive tackle Donovan Jeter said this week. “The defense, saying, ‘This year, the drop off and all that.’ We see it, but it is what it is. It is not going to change how we work, it is going to make us work harder. We just have to get back to the standard of trying to be the best in the country.”
Does the D have something to prove? Jeter thinks so. “I think our whole defense has something to prove. You guys in the media been killing us. We definitely got to do something.”
The team has the choice to curl up in a ball or attack the criticisms head on. When it comes to Michigan, they’ve collectively looked themselves in the mirror, they’ve acknowledged what they can do better, and now it’s a matter of going out there and doing it.
It’s Big Ten season. This is a huge game against Wisconsin. Yes, it’s a must win. From here on out Michigan needs to play an angry and relentlessly aggressive brand of football that aims to impose their will, sucking the life out of their opponent. Do they have it in them?
“When the whistle blows, there ain’t no more underdog. It is me vs. you, Michigan vs. Wisconsin,” Metellus said.
That sounds intimidating.