Kevin Santo: Flirting with danger

Redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight fumbled the ball at the start of the second quarter.

Redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight fumbled the ball at the start of the second quarter. Buy this photo
Sam Mousigian/Daily

 

Saturday, September 9, 2017 - 4:42pm

The boos or the scoreboard, you could have picked either. Each told the same story.

For sophomore receiver Kekoa Crawford and the Wolverines, they only needed the latter.

With as little as three minutes left in the third quarter, Michigan led by a mere three points against Cincinnati — a team that nearly lost its season opener to Austin Peay, a perennial doormat of the FCS.

According to Crawford, nothing needed to be said. The Wolverines already knew.

“Like Harbaugh said, every game — even if we win, lose, draw — it doesn’t matter as long as you come out there and are on top of your stuff,” Crawford said. “Once you see that you’re only up three, I guess that kinda kicks in too. We should never let it get like that.”

Crawford is correct. They never should have let it get like that — not against Cincinnati at least.

But on Saturday, for the home opener in Ann Arbor, they did. The Wolverines were put on upset alert, and it was their own fault.

Michigan lost sight of the little details. Against Cincinnati, the consequence was walking away with just a scare. But the line between that and a season-jeopardizing loss is a fine one.

The first blunder was the most problematic of all.

Michigan opened the game with a 43-yard touchdown pass and a pick-six, before forcing Cincinnati into its second three-and-out of the game. The Wolverines were on pace for the blowout that everyone expected.

Instead, the ensuing punt from Cincinnati’s James Smith was a short one, bouncing off the leg of Michigan’s Benjamin St-Juste before the Bearcats recovered the fumble. But it wasn’t truly St-Juste’s fault.

The blunder was a mistake on the part of freshman punt returner Donovan Peoples-Jones. He simply needed to communicate with his blockers. And yet, he didn’t — at least not well enough.

Cincinnati didn’t waste its opportunity — turning what was Michigan’s chance to go up by three touchdowns into a score of its own that cut the Wolverines’ lead in half.

Michigan could have put the game to bed within the opening quarter. Instead, it handed the Bearcats opportunities to seal an upset, time and time again.

To start the second quarter, redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight fumbled a handoff on first and goal, forcing the Wolverines to eventually settle for a field goal.

As Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh explained after the game, it wasn’t an issue of communication. Speight simply tried to hand the ball off with one hand, instead of using two. He did what Harbaugh has cautioned him against doing. He ignored the details.

“He’s taking the other hand off the ball, trying to do one-handed (handoffs),” Harbaugh said. “I’ve been telling him, ‘It’s a matter of time until the ball slips out of your hand.’ Today was the day. It just slipped right out of his hand. That’s a bad habit. … It got us today.”

Five minutes after the first gaffe, Speight fumbled again on first and 10, with the Wolverines on Cincinnati’s 30-yard line. This time, the Bearcats recovered and Michigan had squandered another scoring opportunity.

Of course, there were the punts too. With just over five minutes left in the game, sophomore Will Hart mustered two 20-yard punts within 10 minutes of each other.

Despite all these errors, the Wolverines managed to escape the upset. Afterwards, Harbaugh was uncharacteristically honest in his outlook. He admitted that he needs more patience with this team, and that the group will only get experience through, well, experience.

He hedged that with another truth, though — that he can’t “dumb it down Barney style” either.

That leaves Michigan in an unenviable situation. The Wolverines need to maintain a sophisticated playbook, while also ironing out even the smallest of details, and each is equally integral to winning football games.

If Michigan can accomplish both of those tasks, Crawford believes this team has no ceiling.

But if they don’t, a lot of Michigan’s games this season are going to look like Saturday’s. And if that’s the case, the ceiling won’t only materialize — it will come crashing down.

Santo can be reached at kmsanto@umich.edu or on Twitter @Kevin_M_Santo.