Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh praises QB Shea Patterson in 42-7 win over Rutgers, Nov. 10, 2018.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Even the compliments are competitive.
Standing next to each other with wide grins and a ninth straight victory, Rashan Gary and Shea Patterson began bouncing props at one another at a rapid rate after Michigan football’s easy 42-7 win at Rutgers on Saturday at HighPoint.com Stadium.
Upon learning that senior captain Karan Higdon hit the 1,000-yard mark for the season, Gary started pumping his fist, genuinely thrilled for a teammate on the other side of the ball.
Minutes later, when Gary started telling reporters how his injured shoulder was feeling better, Patterson interjected with praise for the 6-foot-5 defensive end — explaining how easy it would’ve been for Gary to shut down his season and put himself ahead of the team.
“He could’ve sat the rest of the season out and (focused) on his goals and dreams,” Patterson said. “But it’s all about the team with Rashan.”
“I appreciate you, man,” Gary said.
Patterson nodded. They hugged.
And with that, the Wolverines’ focused march through the Big Ten was off to its next destination.
After three straight emotional games against higher-end competition, Michigan found itself with the task of keeping an edge against the worst team in the Big Ten. Avoid pitfalls. Don’t pick up bad habits. Play the way title contenders are supposed to play. And do it for each other.
Check, check, check, check.
Every team is unique, but the ones forged by fire are often the toughest out. And with two games left between itself and an elusive Big Ten title game appearance, it’s going to take a great effort from someone else to stop this Michigan group.
Mental toughness, physical toughness and togetherness; Michigan has all three.
Indiana is next and the Hoosiers, by standard definition, probably count as an infamous “trap game.” Indiana played Michigan tough last season, as has been the case in each of Jim Harbaugh’s first three years. Ohio State, the biggest stop on the revenge tour, is just around the corner.
But Michigan doesn’t have the feel of a team that gets caught in trap games. Michigan has the feel of a team soaking up every minute it has together. Player to player, player to coach. During games, at practice and everywhere in between.
Last week after blowing out Penn State, Patterson told reporters he took the game personally because he’d heard about the Nittany Lions’ decision to try to run the score up on the Wolverines a year prior.
Patterson was living in Mississippi at the time. He didn’t know these guys. But after spending 11 months with this group, he said he felt like that offense had happened to him personally, because it happened to his teammates. His friends.
Or, as Gary often puts it, his brothers.
“I just like seeing my brothers (perform), man,” Gary said. “Just seeing, after a whole game, seeing what my brothers are able to do. It’s ridiculous.
“I’m just happy to see my brothers eat.”
The collective group wins together and it loses together. Michigan found out the latter a year ago and, apparently, hasn’t forgotten a second of it. This team was booed inside its own stadium last year. Fans and media members thrashed poor performances and cast doubt on whether or not any of this would work.
Michigan has responded.
Most important, it has responded together. This, as Harbaugh would say, is a “ball club.”
The whole sideline erupted when Patterson hit Oliver Martin on a scramble touchdown in the third quarter, not just because it was a great individual effort, but also because it was Martin’s first touchdown.
The same thing happened in the fourth quarter, with the game completely out of reach. Ambry Thomas, a sophomore, caught his first career interception. Michigan’s radio broadcast picked up audio on the field after the play.
It sounded like a family that had just won the lottery.
It would’ve been easy for Michigan to take this one off. To play in the slop. It would’ve been easy for the Wolverines to relax at practice this past week, and look right through the league’s worst club with bigger goals in front of it.
But this team likes each other way too much to do that to itself.
“You can feel it,” tight end Zach Gentry said. “We’re kind of riding the wave, got some momentum going.
“But we’ll take it week to week.”
That old Bo Schembechler speech, when the words are truly lived, works every time.
Believe in each other. Don’t criticize each other. Don’t talk about each other. Encourage each other.
The old season’s almost over. It may well end up with Michigan on top.
And if that happens, it’ll be all about the team.
Contact Nick Baumgardner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.
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