“Me? I’m 53. It’s gone dead,” said Jim Harbaugh, pointing to his stomach. “I’m dead in here. Burnt wood. No nervousness. Butterflies. Emotions that way.
“But guys that are doing it for the first time or the second time…”
Exactly. Harbaugh, with his theatrical gut check, had just given the best explanation for the Wolverines home-opening performance , one that had U-M fans wondering, “What happened to last week’s team?”
Last week, you recall, Michigan went to an NFL stadium in Texas and, on national TV, squeezed then No. 17 Florida to a pulp, didn’t allow an offensive touchdown, and dominated the stats and score.
On Saturday, against, ahem, Cincinnati, at home, in the Big House, they were only up a field goal deep into the third quarter, looked jittery, were making mistakes, and fell behind on first downs and time of possession.
“You’ve got to be patient,” Harbaugh said. “…You can’t get experience without playing.”
And so they kept playing. And Grant Perry took a pass and burned 33 yards for a touchdown. And Ty Isaac scampered free for 53 yards, which led to a field goal. And Cincinnati blew a punt and took a safety. And U-M’s defense clamped down, allowing next to no yards in the fourth quarter and taking a pick six into the end zone.
So the final score looked like a respectable beatdown, 36-14. But it was not a thorough victory. It was not a steady drive. It was a hiccupping engine that kicked into gear late in the race.
In other words, a young team.
Puppies grow over time
Here’s the thing to remember with college football. It resets all the time. It’s not the NFL. In the NFL, you expect excellence from the first game — at least from excellent teams. And the second and third games should be no different.
In college, things change week to week. Many a national champion has looked sketchy in September. It’s the great programs and great coaches that can turn sketchy into works of art.
Harbaugh has his work cut out for him. Let’s begin with his quarterback. Wilton Speight has real talent, but he’s still learning.
In the first quarter, Speight overthrew a very open Donovan Peoples-Jones. In the second quarter, Speight missed high again near the end zone. In the third quarter with the game close, he again sailed a ball over an open Peoples-Jones and almost had it picked off.
These were not passes where he was under heavy pressure. These were not passes that needed a ball threaded between defenders. These were clear lanes, visible targets. Last week, against Florida, Speight did similar things and had two interceptions returned for touchdowns.
To his credit, he was straightforward when asked about it.
“Sometimes when I avoid or move around in the pocket, I get a little sloppy with my feet and that causes the ball to sail or go a little low. And that’s just something I’ve been working on every day and will continue to do.”
And he will. And he’ll get better. That’s the thing about college players. It’s like watching puppies; the growth, over weeks, is noticeable. You worry and say, “If the Wolverines play like that against Ohio State, they’ll get killed.” But by the time Ohio State comes around, they won’t be the same players.
Neither will the Buckeyes. The college game is a week-by-week evolution. Sometimes a half-by-half evolution. Saturday was. Midway through the second half, U-M’s defense stepped up. The offense stopped making mistakes.
The win was secured.
“The theme is we gotta get experience,” Harbaugh repeated. “You’re playing guys, first time playing here in the Big House, first time going though a week of school. Got to be patient.”
Good luck with that in today’s world.
‘A positive step forward’
True, the Wolverines made mistakes this week that they avoided against Florida. A special teams turnover. A muffed punt. A fumbled handoff on a jet sweep. Some badly timed penalties. And, after allowing no offensive touchdowns to a nationally ranked Gators squad, they allowed two TDs to Cincinnati, a team most recently seen struggling to beat mighty Austin Peay.
“Obviously there were times where maybe we weren’t all on the same page,” said Speight, who finished the day with respectable passing numbers, 17-for-29, 221 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions. “…But those are simple fixes. We’ll look at the film…I think overall it was a positive step forward.”
Most wins are.
So Air Force comes in next, and U-M should feast on them, and blades will be sharpened and then the Big Ten season starts and we’ll see where all of this goes.
Much to like. Much to improve on. Harbaugh may be dead in the bread basket, but as long as his alarm clock works, so will he, so will Speight, so will the rest of them. Enjoy the ride. Prepare for bumps.