Even with two losses, Michigan’s season-defining test awaits

Football

When a reporter asked Ben Bredeson whether Saturday’s game defines a successful season for Michigan, there wasn’t much uncertainty in his answer.

“Absolutely,” said the senior captain and starting left guard. “I think this is a huge part of both of our programs. … Obviously there are other games on the schedule, but we know which one is most important.”

In mid-September, it was nearly impossible to predict this season ever approaching such a climax. After finding themselves on the wrong side of a blowout in Madison, the same Wolverines that came into the year tabbed as the Big Ten favorites stood at an early-season crossroads.

It was, in all respects, a low point. Senior tight end Nick Eubanks didn’t mince words after the loss, insisting Michigan was still searching for its offensive identity. Whether it was the uncomfortable growing pains of first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ spread offense, the seemingly incurable fumbling woes or a miscalculation of talent, the Wolverines looked lost.

That, however, is no longer the case. Gattis’ offense has since looked like a reborn version of itself — a trend which can be traced back to his move from the skybox to the sideline. He first made the switch on Sept. 28, and his offense promptly posted 52 points against Rutgers.

“Everybody was very bought-in (during the low point),” Bredeson said. “There were some times when everyone got a little frustrated (with) not seeing the results because we knew what we could do, but everyone stuck to the course and we stuck together and we’re getting spoiled with it now.”

Less than a month later, Michigan stood on the precipice of a monumental comeback win at Penn State, but instead suffered a season-crushing second loss. But the gut-wrenching defeat didn’t derail the season — rather, it had an opposite effect. Since leaving State College, the Wolverines have played their best football.

A win against Ohio State would further underscore the gravity of this season’s inflection point. With the way Gattis’ unit is performing, there’s reason to believe it can move the ball against the Buckeyes’ staunch defense. Including the game against the Nittany Lions, Michigan has out-gained its last five opponents by a combined 868 yards. During that stretch, they’ve toppled then-No. 8 Notre Dame, lowly Maryland, in-state foe Michigan State and a much-improved Indiana, all by margins of at least 25 points.

Over the last two weeks in particular, senior quarterback Shea Patterson has elevated his game to a near-Heisman level. He completed 68% of his passes for 750 yards, nine touchdowns and only one interception against the Spartans and Hoosiers en route to consecutive Co-Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week awards.

To Bredeson, that makes all the difference.

“Obviously, Shea’s had some career days in the last two weeks,” Bredeson said. “This offense can be whatever we need it to be.”

Despite adjusting to a new coach and a transfer quarterback, this year’s Ohio State team hasn’t missed a beat. Currently ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll, the Buckeyes lead the conference in nearly every major statistical category.

Even with U-M’s preseason aspirations of a Big Ten title and College Football Playoff berth all but out of reach, capitalizing on a chance to derail Ohio State’s bid for a perfect season is plenty to play for this weekend.

“There’s no other team I’d rather play in my last game at home,” Bredeson said.

For Jim Harbaugh, bouncing the Buckeyes from the College Football Playoff would be a heck of a way to score his first win in the rivalry. For this season’s team, it would be a fitting way to further flip the script on a regular season that once looked destined for disaster. For the program at large, it’s another opportunity to dispel the narrative of flopping on the big stage.

With the way Michigan has moved the ball and stymied every offense in its path over the last month and change, it’d be reckless to write this Michigan team off on account of the two losses it suffered before the little things began to click.

To the players, it’s more than a game — it’s an opportunity to finally make a season memorable for the right reasons.

“We know how big this game is,” Bredeson said. “We know what it means to us. Really, we’ve been taking this game personally all year. We’ve been preparing for it since last year. Very excited to have that chance to go play.”

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