The Michigan football team’s mid-September loss to Wisconsin was more than a defeat.
For the Wolverines, it was a look in the mirror. Tabbed the preseason Big Ten favorite just a month earlier, Michigan came out on the wrong side of a three-touchdown blowout — the latest underwhelming road loss in the Harbaugh era. In the Badgers, U-M saw how far it was from reaching its lofty goals. Wisconsin eventually eased off the gas pedal after stretching its lead to 35-0, but not before the Wolverines’ dormant offense and porous defense were exposed on the national stage.
Similar to the days leading up to the game, there was plenty of talk following the loss — though it was to a very different tune. But talk only goes so far. Michigan needed real adjustments from within, starting on the practice field.
Harbaugh and his staff delivered. Since returning from Madison, the Wolverines have adopted a new practice routine — one that includes a 30-minute scrimmage between the starters to begin each Tuesday practice. Prior to the Wisconsin game, that wasn’t particularly ordinary. But after a near-lifeless showing, the previously-seldom scrimmage became a necessity.
The starters have felt an impact from the standpoint of sheer talent since its implementation, particularly in the trenches.
“That’s helped us,” said offensive line coach Ed Warinner, “because (the defensive linemen) need to see Mike (Onwenu), (Ben) Bredeson and Cesar (Ruiz) block them just like we need to see Carlo Kemp and (Aidan) Hutchinson and (Kwity) Paye go against us because those are the caliber of players you see at our level. … When those guys compete against each other everyday, that’s a positive. … It forces guys to develop that toughness.”
While the competition has absolutely gotten lighter, Michigan has played much better football in the three games since the birth of the weekly starters-only scrimmage. The Wolverines have outscored opponents 104-28 in that span and out-gained teams by an average of over 180 yards per game.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the weekly scrimmage is Warinner’s group. Since turning a corner nearly a month ago, Don Brown’s defense has tallied 16 sacks over the last three games. The starting offensive line’s exposure to such quarterback pressure has paved the way for rapid improvement, which was punctuated by a zero-sack performance in Champaign. Looking at the three weeks at large, Warinner will be the first to point out such dominance is rooted in practice.
“Competition of good players against good players, like I said before, it’s all about the practice,” Warinner said. “If you practice well, you’ll play pretty darn well. And so by practicing the best we have against the best they have on defense, it raises the level in practice and raises the level of your work.”
For senior Michael Onwenu, the ascension of the unit has accelerated his own individual growth. The 6-foot-3, 350-pound right guard was an All-Big Ten honoree last season and has taken his play to the next level so far in 2019.
On Monday, his efforts earned him a spot on Pro Football Focus’ Midseason All-American team. Per PFF, Onwenu has allowed just six pressures on 225 pass-blocking snaps, while U-M’s ball carriers are averaging two-plus yards before contact when rushing behind him — a better mark than any other gap on Michigan’s offensive line.
“(Onwenu) got himself in great shape in the offseason, and so he’s in better condition to play faster, harder (and) longer,” Warinner said. “He practices better now because of the condition he’s in and the better you practice, the better you play. All the great ones will tell you that … you practice hard, you will play well. Mike is practicing better, and because he’s practicing better, it’s showing up in games.”
For the rest of the unit, the new practice routine provides an opportunity to square off against the same level of talent they encounter against the country’s upper echelon. With a pair of night games against No. 7 Penn State and No. 8 Notre Dame next on the schedule, there’s no better time to pawn the benefits into sustainable high-level performances under pressure.
Now, the very goals Michigan looked so far from achieving against Wisconsin are hanging in the balance.