Yes, things didn’t go perfectly. But, all things considered, Michigan’s 33-17 victory over Florida in the season opener at AT&T Stadium was a win the Wolverines could be proud of. For some reason, Jim Harbaugh just seems to have Jim McElwain’s number. Now, a young Michigan team whose main detriment may be inexperience can finally say it’s a little less inexperienced — especially after a top-25 win at a neutral-site venue.
Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s game:
1. There isn’t a quarterback controversy
Yes, Wilton Speight did get benched following the rarest of occurrences — consecutive pick-sixes, of which only the latter was his fault. Harbaugh said after the game that he wanted his starting quarterback to ‘reset’ mentally.
The move seemed to pay off: Speight’s first drive of the second half saw him complete 5-of-7 passes for 52 yards and lead Michigan down the field for a touchdown that allowed it to reclaim the lead.
“I thought Wilton did a good job of getting calmed down and started off hot and then hit the rough patch,” Harbaugh said, “and then really finished strong and led our offense very well.”
Of course, Harbaugh never benched Speight when he struggled last year, and John O’Korn did look better than he has in the past when he ran the offense for two series. But there isn’t any debate: Speight is — and will be — Michigan’s starting quarterback for the foreseeable future, and deserves to be so.
While many might point to the interception on which he badly overthrew junior receiver Grant Perry, Speight did just fine — and better than just fine occasionally. There was the 46-yard touchdown pass to freshman receiver Tarik Black, or the numerous completions in the short passing game where he took what Florida’s defense gave him, or the late deep ball to redshirt freshman tight end Nick Eubanks. Speight even showed promise on one of his late miscues — an overthrow of what would’ve been a touchdown — by audibling into the play in the first place.
Perhaps the best indicator of what type of player Speight is, and can be on a more consistent basis, was his 28-yard pass to junior wide receiver Grant Perry on the opening drive of the third quarter. Perry was between two defenders, but Speight threaded the needle and placed his throw perfectly. It was a tough play, even more so considering Speight had been benched just before. The throw, and Speight’s willingness and capability to bounce back after a couple tough breaks, could certainly portend good things for the future.
2. The defense looks elite once again
The game was never more than nine points out of distance for Florida until the final few minutes, but those nine might as well have been 50 considering how stifling Michigan’s defense was.
This was a unit that lost nine to 10 starters from last year — and yet, somehow, looks like it hasn’t taken a step back at all. The Wolverines looked eerily similar to last year’s elite unit as they swarmed to the ball, created havoc in the backfield and imposed their will on Florida’s offense.
The stats tell it all: the Gators passed for just 133 yards and ran for a measly 11 yards. There were several chunk plays given up by the young secondary, but Florida was unable to capitalize and turn any of them into points besides a 34-yard pass on the first drive that led to a field goal.
But that unit will have time to mature over the year, and the Big Ten will never be confused with the Big 12. There aren’t many elite passing attacks that Michigan will see this year.
And even if the secondary does experience more growing pains, realistically, that won’t matter if the front seven is making life hell for the opposing quarterback and offensive line anyway.
3. Michigan looks deep at running back
Sophomore Chris Evans earned the majority of carries, rushing 22 times for 78 yards. But the two other running backs to find playing time — fifth-year senior Ty Isaac and junior Karan Higdon — certainly played like they were the feature back as well.
Isaac received 11 carries and turned those into a productive 114 yards. He ripped off several long runs, including a 36-yarder on Michigan’s first drive of the game. Perhaps most impressive was an 18-yard scamper on a fourth-and-one that showed the ability that made Isaac so coveted as a five-star recruit: He picked up the first down easily, bouncing outside, before displaying agility unnatural for his size by juking a safety and tacking on another 10-plus yards.
Higdon, meanwhile, toted the ball just seven times, but made the most of every carry. His speed was apparent on one play when he bounced the ball outside and outran a defensive back to the first-down marker.
Former running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley showed a predilection towards giving other backs carries even with an undisputed starter in De’Veon Smith last year. And from the looks of it, Jay Harbaugh — the position group’s current coach — may do the same with this year’s rotation and with similar success.
4. Young tight ends could be special
While redshirt junior Ian Bunting and redshirt sophomore Tyrone Wheatley Jr. are the most experienced members at tight end and earned their fair share of snaps Saturday, it was two of their younger running mates in sophomore Sean McKeon and redshirt freshman Nick Eubanks who flashed the most potential.
McKeon caught three passes, second-most on the team, for 25 yards, proving to be a reliable option in the short and play-action passing game for Speight. He runs well for his size and showcased good balance, breaking a tackle to rumble his way for a first down. Perhaps most tantalizing for Michigan’s coaches was his blocking: McKeon consistently executed his assignment in the run game, helping pave holes for his running backs. Blocking can be the hardest aspect of the position to grasp — even former All-American and Mackey Award winner Jake Butt struggled with it at times — which makes McKeon’s performance all the more impressive. If he can be effective in both phases of the position, that gives his coaching staff flexibility; they won’t be tipping run or pass whenever they put McKeon in the game.
His counterpart, Eubanks, looks more like a receiver. But if you’re going to look like a receiver at tight end, you’re going to have to play like one, and Eubanks certainly did so.
In the fourth quarter, he lined up as the tight end, ran down the seam past a defensive back after Speight faked a handoff, and then reeled in a difficult over-the-shoulder catch as two Gators tried to break the pass up.
Eubanks had a reputation as a recruit for being raw — he played a lot of receiver in high school — but immensely talented. It was thought he would take a couple years to develop mentally and physically. Saturday — when Eubanks finished as Michigan’s second-leading receiver — suggested he may be progressing faster than many anticipated. Couple that with McKeon’s ability and the veterans, and Michigan’s tight end group could do better in replacing Butt better than initially expected.
5. Bold prediction: Tarik Black finishes as Michigan’s leading receiver
Former star Mario Manningham’s 2005 season remains the gold standard for freshman campaigns in Ann Arbor — and he tallied just 27 receptions for 433 yards and six touchdowns, a relatively modest season by most standards.
Tarik Black, though, appears poised to break that record and more. After earning praise from teammates and coaches all offseason, Black was finally able to prove that his performance on the field could match the considerable amount of hype. He led Michigan with 83 receiving yards and one touchdown Saturday, hauling in a pair of deep balls. He displayed a willingness to block, ran crisp routes and was able to win one-on-one matchups.
Given the opportunities Black should receive as one of the starting outside receivers, it’s more than safe to say he should break Manningham’s record. And, judging from Saturday, it seems like he’ll be Michigan’s No. 1 option this year.