We asked Detroit News beat writer Angelique Chengelis for her take on the Wolverines going into Saturday’s game against Illinois at Memorial Stadium:
There was talk in the preseason that Michigan was a playoff contender. Was that realistic?
Here’s the thing: those covering Michigan on a regular basis get no access to practice, but we do talk to players and coaches a significant amount from spring ball through camp, and we have to take their word for everything they discuss. So with that background in mind, the talk from the moment Josh Gattis was hired as the new offensive coordinator and from his first “speed in space,” expectations were very high for this offense with a returning starting quarterback, Shea Patterson, who had played in a similar system at Ole Miss, a handful of really talented receivers and an offensive line that improved last season in Ed Warinner’s first season and returned four of five starters. Everyone was more than aware the running backs lacked a lot of experience, but the word from the players was this would be a super-efficient offense with the potential to score every time it had the ball. And on defense, coordinator Don Brown has had so much success, minus, say, last year’s Ohio State and bowl games, and the defensive players made a pretty solid case for not having a drop-off despite the losses of Devin Bush, Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich and David Long. All of that coupled with a schedule featuring the rivalry games — Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State — all at home, gave people confidence in picking Michigan to win the Big Ten East and being in the playoff conversation.
What did the win against Iowa mean for the program?
It absolutely wasn’t pretty from an offensive standpoint, but Michigan got the win against a top-15 team in what many thought a pivotal game for Jim Harbaugh and his players. Michigan is 4-1, 2-1 in the Big Ten and everyone has been asking the players since the Wisconsin loss what this team’s identity is. This win over Iowa might have shed some light going forward that the identity rests with the defense. The eight sacks and holding Iowa to 1 yard rushing produced a defensive swagger that hasn’t been seen since mid-November. The win gave the team confidence on defense. Can’t say the same for the offense after scoring only one touchdown, but it was an important win over a team Michigan respects.
How are the fans feeling about Jim Harbaugh these days?
Frustrated is fair to say. The response after the Wisconsin loss was a constant stream of negative, mostly directed at him. This is his fifth year and most thought that by now Harbaugh would have Michigan firmly in the Big Ten championship hunt, and to see the Wolverines lose the way they did at Wisconsin in EVERY phase, was hard for them to take. And on top of that, Harbaugh gave an honest assessment saying they were outcoached, outplayed and out-prepared, which was hard to grasp considering they had a bye the week before as did Wisconsin. The thing is, though, Michigan is 4-1, 2-1 in the conference and record-wise is in the mix. But the sluggish, inconsistent production from the offense has fans very much doubting this offense and Harbaugh at the moment. It’s one thing to put up 52 points against Rutgers and quite another to look commanding against top-notch defenses.
What is he like to work with as a reporter? Can you share a story about your dealings with him?
I have covered Michigan since 1992, so Harbaugh is the fifth coach I’ve covered and has been the most challenging. Not saying that in a bad way. It has been interesting, from the first season when it was like covering a rock star to this season when fans want more and are demanding more. This is one thing about him that struck me from the beginning — you have to ask a well-worded question. If you ask him something he can answer with a “yes” or a “no”, he will take that option. Always. He can be extremely frustrating to deal with and also very entertaining. A few years ago after Wilton Speight was injured at Purdue, Harbaugh went on and on for about 10 minutes during his news conference touching on the lousy visitor locker room facilities there. I posted a video and said it was a portion of his “rant.” Not long after, he sent me a text saying that wasn’t a rant. I laughed and looked up several dictionary definitions and had plenty to back me up. I saw him that night at his radio show and informed him of my research and he sort of rolled his eyes and said coaches can never win because people say they either use coach speak or it’s a rant, and I said that’s because those are the two options. Pretty sure he rolled his eyes again at me.
Looks like Brandon Peters might not play. Has there been much talk about going against him?
Oh, for sure. Linebacker Jordan Glasgow is a good friend of Peters but said he wants to knock him down as much as possible. Jon Runyan, Michigan’s left tackle, was a roommate and said he was very much part of Peters’ world as he searched for a school to transfer. They all want him to do well at Illinois. But they all want to beat him.
Who’s going to win?
Michigan, 35-7. This is only the second time this season Michigan will play on the road, but I can’t see this game unfolding like their Big Ten opener at Wisconsin. Michigan’s defense is on a high after that performance against Iowa, and this is the type of defense that will give Michigan’s offense a chance to find its stride.