Moments before Michigan’s football season began Saturday, coach Jim Harbaugh was excitedly banging the shoulder pads of Wilton Speight, his newly starting quarterback.
And after Speight’s first pass, Harbaugh likely wanted to bang on something else.
But this is why you open against Hawaii, a team that would have been overmatched if it had walked across the street to Michigan Stadium, let alone having flown 19,000 miles in little over a week, thanks to its season opener in Australia.
So when Speight, on U-M’s first offensive play, threw a floater too late and too soft toward tight end Jake Butt — and it was picked off by Hawaii’s Damien Packer — nobody panicked.
Not Speight, the redshirt sophomore. Not the offense. And definitely not Harbaugh, the former Michigan quarterback.
“(Harbaugh) just grabbed me and hugged me and was kind of laughing,” Speight said after the eventual 63-3 blowout win. “He was like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get it next drive.’ ”
That next drive came four plays later, when a punt landed on the Michigan 2-yard line. Speight led his team 98 yards, threw a touchdown, and like the rock guitarist who fixes his initial amp feedback, it was all beautiful noise after that.
One under the belt.
Speight, who won a three-way competition for starter, finished his afternoon with precision, hitting wide-open receivers in the end zones and finding nice seams in between. He finished 10-for-13, 145 yards, three touchdowns and the one pick. He looked good. But everybody looked good. If you’re being honest, it was a hung jury on Speight’s Big Question — How good can he be all year? — because Hawaii’s defense is not worthy of projection analysis. And, if you’re being really honest, there was another player who caught your eye…
I’m talking about Chris Evans, a true freshman running back, who shares a name with the Captain America actor, and who looked, on Saturday, like Captain Fantastic, stretching himself through holes with the balance and instincts of an older runner. He saw early action after senior De’Veon Smith went out with a rib issue. And it might be a case of A Star is Born.
Many new collegiate rushers think the outside is their friend; they make bad cuts, figuring to run past everyone the way they did in high school.
Evans looked to the middle first. The shortest path. Burst and go. Coaches love that instinct — if the kid is quick enough to make it work. And on Saturday, Evans was. He was through the Hawaii defense faster than a breeze through palm leaves.
Evans, who is being groomed by running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley, was not a huge name as a recruit. But as Speight said, “By the second day of training camp, we all knew who Chris Evans was.”
Here was the 5-foot-11 tailback, on his first three college plays, picking up 3 yards, then 5 yards, then 7 yards — back to back to back — and on his next series going 21 yards on a beautiful display of upfield running.
Each series, he grew like an understudy given another scene. He scored his first Michigan touchdown in the second quarter, on a beautiful 18-yard sideline run and dive. And on the first series of the second half, he shot through the line like a raft shooting the whitewater rapids — 43 yards untouched to the end zone.
He would finish with more than 100 yards — only the third U-M freshman to ever do that in his first game. Nerves? What nerves? When Michael Jordan addressed the team Friday, it was Evans who asked the first question. “I asked him about the flu game,” he said.
Not sure why that topped his list. But I’ll tell you this: If Evans had the flu on Saturday, the rest of college football better watch out.
One under the belt.
Now of course, when a game ends 63-3, you’d better lift up the defense. And the Wolverines, picked by many as the toughest defense in the country, did not disappoint. They held Hawaii down near negative yards for a good part of the game. The pass rush was dominant. The run stuffing was as advertised. Jabrill Peppers was all over. And the secondary was tight and broke up passes all day — despite the absence of Jourdan Lewis — scoring two pick-six touchdowns.
“Not even a stance misalignment,” Harbaugh said, unable to find a single criticism. “Their feet were perfect.”
Their feet were perfect? How often do you hear that? Were they up against the New England Patriots? No. But you can only beat the teams you play. These nonconference mismatches are mostly one-sided and often dangerous — they are crushing if you lose (hello, Appalachian State) and offer little credit if you win.
Still, on a day that the Michigan marching band created a Michael Jordan logo formation, this was clearly a time to witness new things. Speight, the defense, and this Evans kid, offered nothing but a gleam, as bright as a Hawaiian sunrise.
One under the belt.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.