ARLINGTON, Tex. — One win into the Michigan football season has revealed so, so much. We learned who is starting at almost every position, where the team needs to improve and who has upped their game since the Wolverines (1-0) last played in 2016.
After Michigan’s 33-17 win over Florida (0-1), coach Jim Harbaugh talked about a season opener filled with both highs and lows. The Daily breaks down the Wolverines’ turnaround victory over the Gators at AT&T Stadium:
Most importantly, redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight bounced back after a devastating stretch of drives that resulted in two pick-sixes. Harbaugh took Speight out to calm him down, and after a couple of unconvincing drives from fifth-year senior John O’Korn, Speight returned to command the game. The Wolverines scored 20 unanswered points and tallied 230 yards of total offense in the second half. The game could play a major role in Speight’s development moving forward.
Looking more specifically at the position groups, wherever on the field Michigan graduated players, somebody new stepped up. The defensive linemen and linebackers looked almost as good as last year. The D-line of sophomore Rashan Gary, fifth-year senior Maurice Hurst, senior Chase Winovich and senior Bryan Mone pressured Florida’s offense all game.
At the start of the game, the Wolverines’ defense had zero players on the field that started for Michigan last year. Fifth-year senior linebacker Mike McCray watched from the sideline, to the surprise of many. He eventually entered the game, but the young linebacker unit, including Devin Bush (seven total tackles with two sacks) and Devin Gil (one tackle), was playing well anyway.
Michigan’s defense allowed just 11 rushing yards and only gave up three points Saturday. It even capped the game off with a touchdown of its own after forcing Florida’s quarterback to fumble in the end zone.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan’s offensive position players proved they are ample with depth. At running back, sophomore Chris Evans, fifth-year senior Ty Isaac and junior Karan Higdon combined for 231 rushing yards. The trio helped the Wolverines escape a handful of tricky third-and-long scenarios, and Higdon also notched his first touchdown of the season.
Sophomore tight ends Nick Eubanks and Sean McKeon displayed their speed and catching ability in the second half. McKeon made three catches for 25 yards, and Eubanks made two catches for 61 yards, all of which came in the second half. The tight ends combined well to fill the hole left by former All-American Jake Butt.
The receiving core is also solid. Starting for Michigan this year are sophomore Kekoa Crawford, freshman Tarik Black and junior Grant Perry. Crawford’s day was uneventful, but Perry made four catches for 46 yards, and Black made two for 83. Freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones got into the mix as well, but for now it seems like he’ll mostly be used to return punts.
Finally, it’s impossible to evaluate Michigan’s scoring weapons without looking at its newest kicker, sophomore Quinn Nordin. Nordin, who originally committed to Penn State, flipped and committed to Ann Arbor after Harbaugh slept over at his house a few years ago. The efforts clearly paid off. Nordin went 4-6 on field goals against Florida, hitting a 50-yarder and a 55-yarder in the process.
The offensive line returned just two of five starters, senior left tackle Mason Cole and sophomore left guard Ben Bredeson. Unsurprisingly, the left side of the line looked just fine in protecting Speight’s blind side. The right side, however, struggled to contain Florida’s imposing defensive ends. The Gators sacked Michigan’s quarterbacks five times Saturday.
Harbaugh complimented the new starters on the O-line after the game, including fifth-year senior center Patrick Kugler, sophomore right guard Michael Onwenu and redshirt sophomore right tackle Nolan Ulizio. Redshirt sophomore Jon Runyan also stepped in for a few downs at right tackle.
Harbaugh emphasized the importance of improving on the offensive line from week one to week two, and that playing against Michigan’s strong defensive line throughout fall camp has helped them progress.
The obvious choice here is Speight’s two interceptions. The first pick, though, may not have been as bad as the ensuing Florida touchdown seemed. Speight actually threw a pretty decent pass, but receiver Kekoa Crawford couldn’t corral the ball, and ending up batting it straight up for the Gators’ secondary to pick off. Speight’s second pick-six, though, was worse. He sailed a pass well over Perry’s head right to a Florida cornerback who easily strolled into the end zone.
Speight has thrown some big interceptions before — two against Ohio State and one on his first pass in the season opener in 2016. The Wolverines can’t afford those kinds of mistakes if they want to get over the hump this year and compete for a Big Ten championship.