Attitude Adjustment Leads Michigan To Performance It Needed

The team was humbled after its season-opener loss.

Will Burchfield
September 08, 2018 - 7:03 pm

© Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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After Michigan's clean, clinical 49-3 clubbing of Western Michigan on Saturday, Jim Harbaugh commended his team for taking "nothing for granted." Running back Chris Evans said the same thing. Fellow leaders Shea Patterson, Karan Higdon and Chase Winovich talked about the collective desire to wash away the bitter taste of last week's loss to Notre Dame. 

From the head coach to the star players, a picture was painted of a team that underwent an attitude adjustment after being humbled the first game of the season. It began Monday at practice and continued throughout the week. 

"More mental focus," said Evans, who turned 10 carries into 86 yards and 2 touchdowns Saturday afternoon. "We’re not allowing those little smiles and stuff no more. We’re strictly business unless we’re outside the lines after practice. Other than that, strictly business. Notre Dame punched us in the mouth because we were laughing and took everything for granted, but this week we were a lot more focused." 

Evans walked back his initial comment when pressed for more. 

"Not laughing, we weren’t like that," he said. "But everybody was excited for the season, having a good time, smiling and all that, and we had to lock down and get focused." 

Any way you slice it, it's clear Michigan got a wake-up call at Notre Dame, and responded by turning up the intensity at practice. The senior Higdon, who piled up 157 yards and a touchdown versus the Broncos, spoke to a higher level of urgency inside the team facility. 

"The guys attacked this week with the proper mindset, knowing, like Shea said, that we had a sour taste in our mouth so we had to take advantage of every opportunity. We only get four hours a day in the facility to practice and have meetings, and guys showed up ready to work and were really keyed-in and focused. It really showed today on the field," said Higdon. 

Michigan entered the season ranked No. 14, despite finishing 8-5 a year ago. Maybe that give the team a sense of validation it hadn't yet earned. Maybe it spawned a feeling of invincibility in the locker room, particularly as so much preseason raise was being thrust in the direction of Patterson and the defense. 

Maybe Michigan traveled to South Bend expecting to win buy virtue of showing up. 

Then Notre Dame scored on three of its first four drives, and Michigan spun its tires on offense until it was far too late. The Wolverines fell seven spots in the AP poll as a result. 

When they arrived for work on Monday, those smiles had been replaced by scowls. 

"No question about it, the week of practice was really good," Harbaugh said. "There was a feeling that everybody wanted to get rid of. Took nothing for granted, worked really hard all week, and that’s what we want to be as a football team: One week at a time, put in the work and play start to finish.

"Another thing, I think our team started faster in this ballgame and really played with their wits about them." 

After falling behind 14-0 in the first eight minutes at Notre Dame, a deficit that swelled to 21-3 in the second quarter, the Wolverines pounced early and often on Saturday. They were up 21-0 after the first quarter, 35-0 at halftime. They scored touchdowns on five consecutive drives. This is where it's necessary to pause and point out the quality of their opponent -- "We have to take this game with a grain of salt," Higdon acknowledged -- but the Wolverines did exactly as they intended. 

They were businesslike and efficient, just as they had been all week. 

"Just wanted to start the game fast, set the tone and dominate -- not just win," said Patterson, who completed his first five passes and finished 12-17 with three touchdowns. 

If Michigan deserved to pay for its performance at Notre Dame, the punishment came in the form of sweltering heat at practice on Tuesday and Wednesday. The players took their penance in stride. No one flinched or asked for a breather, Harbaugh said. No one gave in. The urge to improve was earnest across the board. 

Motivation stemmed from the sting of defeat, a feeling Michigan plans to hold onto for the rest of the season. 

"Coach Harbaugh brought this up afterward in the locker room, basically saying maybe that’s how we have to move forward every week. Keep what’s happened to us in the back of our minds and just keep working," said Winovich, who returned for his senior season to be a part of a championship team and still has every intention of achieving that goal. 

There were plenty of smiles following Saturday's win, beginning when Patterson and Higdon sat down at the interview podium and patted each other on the back. Even Harbaugh was in a jaunty mood, his eyes twinkling as he recounted the way Patterson leapt into the air and smacked the Michigan banner as he ran onto the field at the Big House for the first time, the realization of a childhood dream. 

"He looked like he went up and kind of did a reverse dunk. He had a little sugar on the flakes going up and touching the banner," Harbaugh said. "That was neat, I wanted to see that. It's awesome when it means something to somebody." 

Those smiles will last the rest of the weekend. Come Monday, though, they'll harden into something more serious, with Michigan preparing for its next opponent in SMU. There's loads of work to be done, and no more time to waste.