No. 12 Michigan sits at 5-1 (3-0) for the third time out of Jim Harbaugh’s four years at Michigan.
Through six games, the Wolverines were 5-1 in 2015, 6-0 in 2016 and 5-1 in 2017. That’s good for a combined 16-2 in the first half of the season.
The second half has been another story for Harbaugh’s Michigan teams. While the Wolverines have been consistently sharp in the first six weeks, they’re a combined 12-10 in their final seven games (bowls included). Michigan finished the second half 5-2 in 2015, 4-3 in 2016, and 3-5 in 2017.
Ahead of Saturday’s College GameDay featured matchup against No. 15 Wisconsin, Desmond Howard, a former Michigan player, Heisman Trophy winner, and a College GameDay host, broke down what makes this team different from the others.
“I think the biggest difference anyone will point out is the quarterback position. It’s no secret that Shea (Patterson) is the most athletic quarterback that Coach Harbaugh’s had since he’s been here,” Howard said on Friday morning on the set of College GameDay. “You need that nowadays to be able to keep the chains moving. We’ll be able to tell tomorrow night, it’s a huge test for the offense and Shea Patterson. But I think that would probably be the first thing that I would look at (as what makes the team different): the play of the quarterback.”
Is that the “easy” answer? Sure. Leaning towards the quarterback’s play to be an X-Factor in a any team’s season is, typically, the right answer. But Michigan isn’t just any team, quarterback play means something different in Ann Arbor.
It’s been home to Tom Brady, Brian Griese, Tom Harmon, Denard Robinson, John Navarre, Drew Henson, Jim Harbaugh, and many more.
The only player on that list that’s played for the Wolverines within the past decade is Robinson. In Ann Arbor, quarterback play is much like U-M’s national success: a thing of the past.
Wilton Speight looked promising in 2016, but he was timid and unimpressive before his injury in 2017. John O’Korn was abysmal in his time at Michigan. Brandon Peters has gone from starter to third-stringer. And Jake Rudock could win you games, but he stood no shot against Ohio State and a fumbled punt stripped away his only chance to beat Michigan State.
Sure, saying Michigan’s quarterback play is the difference in changing Harbaugh’s second half woes is the easy answer, but it’s the right one.
In Patterson, a junior transfer from Ole Miss, U-M’s got the guy to alter the script. That being said, the eccentric play he brought to Ann Arbor had to be, not changed, but evolved. It needed to stay loose while staying smart.
According to Howard, it was a simple message that Michigan’s staff embedded in Patterson’s mind that’s led him to 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
“He’s a gamer. Shea is very athletic and very competitive. His teammates really like him a lot. It’s natural for a guy like that to want to go out there and make a difference,” Howard said. “(Pass Game Coordinator) Pep Hamilton and Coach Harbaugh are pretty good with quarterbacks. They had to just try to help him understand that … you don’t have to do everything on your own. You’ve got teammates out there, just rely on these guys and the big play will come.
“As an athlete, you want to go out there and make the big play, but sometimes, you got to let the game to come to you. That’s probably the most important message that they’ve been able to get across to Shea Patterson.”
The glaring narrative of Michigan’s season – both currently and leading up to Week 1 – was its quarterback play. What remained was a ridiculed unit that had to improve to change the tide for U-M – its offensive line.
Allowing zero sacks against Maryland, and only three total since Week 1, it’s been the o-line’s improvements at the forefront of Patterson’s rise to the upper echelon of America’s best college quarterbacks.
“Shea is benefiting now from the offensive line play being better – he’s getting more comfortable. Just watching him, seeing things number can’t tell you, he’s getting more comfortable,” Howard said. “He’s starting to look like that kid you expected when he transferred from Ole Miss.”
“The offensive line play is better – (center) Cesar Ruiz has come into his own – that opens up the playbook.”
The illustrious, orange, set of College GameDay sits near the epicenter of Ann Arbor’s downtown district. Awaiting its weekly flagship television show to host a mix of Michigan and Wisconsin fans on Saturday morning, the stars of the show will garner the fan base’s attention, as it does at every campus.
But Ann Arbor’s biggest stage isn’t on the vibrant set of college football’s signature television show. It’s at the stadium down the street that will host over 110,000 fans in primetime.
Saturday’s memorable moments will take place inside The Big House — where a junior quarterback from Toledo, Ohio has his second audition to shift the narrative of modern-day Michigan football from consistent pretenders to a legitimate contender.