Michigan defense stuffs Florida to capture season opener, 33-17

Saturday, September 2, 2017 - 3:27pm

ARLINGTON, Tex. — The first pick came, then the second.

Suddenly, the Michigan football team was trailing by a touchdown with its starting quarterback taking a seat on the sideline. Then came a blocked punt, and the game was at risk of spiraling out of control.

And yet, the 11th-ranked Wolverines (1-0) — a team ample with youth after returning, at best, five starters — threw their inexperience out the window, recovering to score 20 second-half points and defeat No. 17 Florida, 33-17, in the AdvoCare Classic at AT&T Stadium.

“I mean, we didn’t hang our heads,” said freshman wide receiver Tarik Black. “You know, when we face adversity, we just got to get back to it, get back up.

“Really, Coach just emphasized coming out and pretty much clearing our heads and just coming out and doing what we do, and that’s play Michigan football. And I think that’s what we did.”

The second-half resurgence started with redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight, as he went 5-for-7 with 52 yards to set up junior running back Karan Higdon for a three-yard touchdown rush on the opening drive.

Redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin slowly built Michigan’s lead for the rest of the third quarter, nailing a 30 and 50-yard field goal after two fumble recoveries to put the Wolverines ahead, 26-17, entering the final frame.

Then the defense took over, as it had the entire game.

Florida (0-1) failed to score a single point in the second half, eventually replacing Feleipe Franks with Malik Zaire at quarterback.

The Wolverines’ defense tallied stop after stop — holding the Gators to just 192 yards, conceding just three points and capping the day off with a sack of Zaire that turned into a fumble recovery in Florida’s end zone.

“I seen a bunch of guys play like men today,” Bush said. “… We just had a bunch of guys rise to the occasion. I can’t express how happy I am and proud of those guys I am.”

And if not for the defensive unit, the first half could have easily gotten out of hand.

Though he eventually returned, linebacker and defensive captain Mike McCray started the game on the sideline for unknown reasons, and sophomore linebacker Devin Bush was nearly ejected for targeting on the first play of the game.

Roughly 12 minutes later, after finding freshman wide receiver Tarik Black for a 46-yard touchdown to give Michigan a 10-3 lead with just over three minutes left in the first quarter — going 75 yards on three plays in just 43 seconds — Speight’s day took a turn for the worse.

The Gators turned his two pick-sixes into a 17-13 lead, despite failing to score a single offensive touchdown and tallying just 91 total yards in the first half.

And with the pick-sixes came the quarterback controversy. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh went with Speight to start the game, but two consecutive interceptions landed him on the bench with just under 11 minutes left in the first half.

Fifth-year senior John O’Korn took over, only to watch sophomore Will Hart have his punt blocked after O’Korn’s first offensive drive ended with a three and out.

O’Korn was given only one more offensive drive after the punt block, as Speight reclaimed his duties under center for the remainder of the game and finished 11-for-25 with 181 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

“There’s a lot to learn from it,” Harbaugh said. “There’s really good things to learn from it. We already have talked about some of them, and there will be more to learn from it. But he’s experiencing it. That’s big.

“And then, you know, it’s always astonished me, you know, with quarterbacks. It’s a sign. It really is a sign when a quarterback can have something really bad go, something really bad happen, and come back from it.”