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Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh speaks to the media on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, in Ann Arbor.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep

Getting a college football coach to give an honest assessment of a team’s problems is a struggle as old as time.

Michigan assistant Michael Zordich has never been one of those coaches.

And Wednesday in Ann Arbor, he had no problem sharing his thoughts on the path the Wolverines have taken over the past two years.

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“Last year, we were just so young and, I think, a little fragmented,” said Zordich, ahead of Saturday’s showdown with No. 10 Wisconsin (7:30 p.m., ABC) at Michigan Stadium. “We weren’t feeling quite together, the togetherness (of a team). Maybe it was from inexperience. That’s my personal opinion. 

“But now, seeing the way these guys are comfortable with each other and playing together (is progress).” 

More: Michigan football has loosened up and wins have followed

The point: A year ago, U-M had a problematic offense and a defense that tried to mask those problems. Eventually, it wore the Wolverines out. And as they looked back, they began to see they never were really close to  to being a unified  team with complementary pieces. 

Now? 

They’re starting to feel something different. 

“You can feel the team coming together. Leadership has helped and you can see it, you can start to feel it,” Zordich said. “The togetherness of the team. They’re becoming a football team. It’s not just offense, defense, special teams. It’s three groups coming together to form a team. 

“That’s important.” 

And it’s not always easily achieved. Football’s a team sport that’s played in sections. And trust between those sections is difficult to master. If a defense constantly has to dig its offense out of a hole,  quarter after quarter, week after week, the trust begins to fade.

That’s not a team

Michigan’s players are older now. They’re better at holding each other accountable, and sticking together.

And they’ve also got a quarterback in Shea Patterson who has changed everything.

“When (the offense) comes off the field, it’s smiles now. Shea comes over and says ‘get me the ball back’ and (offensive lineman) Ben (Bredeson) is over there encouraging us,” junior linebacker Devin Bush Jr. says. “(That’s) way different (than last year). When you’ve got a quarterback and a captain like Ben telling us to get them the ball back because they’re going to put points up, it encourages you to go harder. 

“This is the first time (it has been like that) since I’ve been here.” 

The most challenging portion of Michigan’s schedule starts Saturday against Wisconsin. A year ago, the Wolverines entered games against top-level Big Team foes as a bad offense, a good defense and not much else. 

Now? They believe they’ll be walking into the stadium as a football team. 

What I’ll be watching Saturday: 

Big men

This always was going to be a big game for the big guys, and with some injury situations, that’s probably going to crank up. Bryan Mone, Lawrence Marshall and Donovan Jeter  must be at their best inside for Michigan’s defensive line. 

We’ll see whether Carlo Kemp or Aubrey Solomon play. Michael Dwumfour’s injury might not be as critical as Jim Harbaugh initially thought, but it still looked pretty significant. Rashan Gary’s shoulder is banged up. Things are thinning out a bit along the defensive front. 

Wisconsin’s ability to mash people between the tackles is its trademark, and Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor is very patient and plays with great burst. If Michigan can prevent blockers from reaching Bush and the other linebackers, then the Wolverines are in business. 

If not? Problems will happen. 

Don’t be bashful

Michigan’s at home at night, the crowd will be into it and Wisconsin’s secondary is not great. Harbaugh has won the toss and accepted the ball the past two games. This would be one where I might do the same thing, as long as he enters the game in attack mode. 

Wisconsin’s a lot like Michigan. It’s not built to play from behind. If Michigan is willing and able to take some shots down the field, everything will open up. 

And points will follow.

The OL

Wisconsin’s pass rush hasn’t been ferocious, but the Badgers have just five sacks and 25 tackles for loss. Michigan’s offensive line has been improved over the past few weeks and that needs to continue Saturday. 

Iowa moved the ball well against Wisconsin, and BYU rushed for 191 yards. Michigan can win this game with its offense, but the line must show it’s on a better path than it was in the season-opening loss to Notre Dame. 

Red zone

Wisconsin’s defense has had its issues, but it is No. 2 in the Big Ten in the red zone, allowing just eight touchdowns in 15 attempts. 

Michigan has to get points down there. The play calling has to work and any chance Harbaugh takes has to come through. Empty drives against a clock-possession team like Wisconsin may as well be a turnover. 

Contact Nick Baumgardner: nbaumgardn@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickBaumgardner.