SportsMonday Column: A letter and a lesson

Saturday, September 2, 2017 - 9:31pm

Head Coach Jim Harbaugh watches on the sidelines during the game against Florida in the AT&T Stadium Saturday.

Head Coach Jim Harbaugh watches on the sidelines during the game against Florida in the AT&T Stadium Saturday. Buy this photo
Sam Mousigian/Daily

Dear Coach Harbaugh,

The letter began.

My name is Anthony Riddle; I’m a 13-year combat veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. I now live just thirty minutes west of Ann Arbor in Jackson, MI.

Michigan’s football coach kept reading.

The reason for this letter is for the last three months I have heard how young this year’s team is, how inexperienced the team is, how many players we have to replace, or lost to the NFL.

Then came the real point.

Let me be clear that sort of criticism is bullshit.

The night before the 11th-ranked Wolverines’ 33-17 victory over No. 17 Florida, Harbaugh shared Riddle’s message with his team — joking that it was “better than anything I could have told (them).”

With the way Michigan played, maybe it was.

Ever since the Wolverines lost to Florida State in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30, the question has been how Michigan would fare after losing all but one starter on the defensive side of the ball.

Saturday, the Wolverines trotted out a defensive lineup with seven first-time starters and gave a definitive answer.

Florida managed just 181 yards in the air, and — even more uninspiring — rushed for just 11 yards. The Gators totaled just 11 first downs, not including penalty yardage.

Michigan forced four fumbles and recovered three, the final of which was a touchdown that proved to be a dagger in the game’s final two minutes.

Sophomore linebacker Devin Bush Jr. led the unit with seven tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss. Junior safety Tyree Kinnel wasn’t far behind, racking up six tackles and 1.5 for loss — each good for second on the team. That’s not bad for two guys making the first starts of their careers.

It’s even more impressive considering the hand they were dealt. Michigan’s defense allowed just three points the entire game. And yet, the Gators held a 17-13 advantage at halftime, due to redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight’s two pick-sixes in the second quarter.

In moments like that, when a team is losing a game it has no business losing, youth conventionally crumbles. The Wolverines’ response was anything but.

“After those two picks, you know, we didn’t go in the gutter,” Bush said. “We didn’t start pointing fingers. Our job is to get us out of this hole. … As a team, you got to pick the offense up when they need help. So that’s what we all did.”

And when pushed further, asked if he was at all worried after the interceptions, Bush spoke without hesitation — “Nah.”

Cool. Confident. And for an inexperienced team, unconventional.

As for the offensive side of the ball, it was the same story.

The Wolverines racked up 215 yards on the ground, and another 218 through the air. They did so with seven players making their first career starts at their respective positions.

Freshman wide receiver Tarik Black and redshirt freshman tight end Nick Eubanks handled their new receiving responsibilities with the poise of veterans — combining for 144 yards on four receptions.

And though he played plenty last year, sophomore running back Chris Evans took his first start in stride, leading Michigan’s backs with 22 carries while notching 88 yards.

When it was all said and done, the Wolverines left the field with a victory to show for it. Undoubtedly, mistakes were made. Two of them came from a veteran in Speight, while the other — a punt block — was a special teams gaffe. Michigan still walked away with a 16-point advantage, and youth was far from the problem.  

After the game, Speight and Harbaugh shared the story of the letter. Then Harbaugh handed it out for all to see. The Wolverines’ coach didn’t equate football to war, but he thought Riddle’s message resonated nonetheless.

Riddle went on to write about his experience serving in Iraq, about being handed the responsibility — at 20 years old — of leading 52 Marines into battle, all of whom were the same age or younger.

He told Harbaugh how every member of that unit completed their mission and returned safely. He told Harbaugh that if his unit could do that, at 20, in war, then this Michigan group could win a Big Ten championship, if not a national championship.

It’s way too early to say that Saturday was any justification of a championship-caliber team. But it was certainly a justification of Riddle’s first point: Against the Gators, the concerns about youth were, in fact, “bullshit.”

Speight highlighted a simple fact in the bowels of AT&T Stadium. Last year, Michigan’s roster was made up of a collection of 22- and 23-year-olds. This year, the Wolverines have a bunch of 18- and 19-year olds.

What everyone saw Saturday was that it really didn’t matter. There wasn’t a single Wolverine for whom the stage was too bright.

As Bush bluntly put it: “Young don’t mean nothing.”

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