The question wasn’t finished when Wilton Speight cut it off.
Standing in the Crisler Center media room for a postgame press conference, Speight had his elbow and shoulder wrapped after an especially tough game.
“Is this a team,” a reporter started, “that, two years ago, or even last year, would have been equipped to fight through —”
“Fold?” Speight asked.
A few hours earlier, Speight and his team had gone down 14-0, and then 21-7, in the first quarter against Colorado. By the start of the second quarter, the Buffaloes had the ball, the momentum and 110,000 fans sweating for the first time this season.
The pressure was all on Michigan, and Speight pinpointed the question of that moment perfectly. Would the Wolverines fold? Already?
The previous nine times Michigan trailed by 14 or more, the answer was yes. In fact, the last time the Wolverines came back from a deficit of 14 was September 2013, against Connecticut.
The tension that elicited was palpable in the student section Saturday. It spilled over into vocal frustration. But it didn’t turn into full-on panic. Trailing 21-7 in the second quarter, fans wondered aloud “what is happening?” and “what the f*** was that?”
Senior Mitch Trost was in the thick of the crowd as it unfolded, and he captured the sentiment as well as anyone.
“We’ve all been hoping for something better, so we’re all expecting better,” Trost said. “And then when (Colorado went up early), we’re all like, (we) don’t want to be reminded of the Hoke years.”
But, Trost added, “I still have hope.”
It was still 21-7 as Trost spoke. He insisted he wouldn’t resign to defeat until the Wolverines had lost. As tempting as it could have been to turn pessimistic, he wouldn’t. But he had to concede, “I didn’t think they’d come out swinging so hard.”
Minutes later, the Buffaloes lined up to punt. One voice yelled out, “Block this punt, let’s do it!” And they did, sort of. Colorado punter Alex Kinney fired it too low and deflected it off one of his own players. But the effect was the same. Michigan took possession at the Buffaloes’ 38-yard line, and fans continued willing the team down the field.
“Booty, booty, booty,” one yelled, just before Speight found senior tight end Jake Butt for 21 yards. On the next play, fifth-year senior receiver Jehu Chesson ran the ball into the end zone on a sweep.
By now, you know the rest. Michigan added a field goal and then took the lead on a 45-yard touchdown reception by fifth-year senior Amara Darboh. Colorado briefly regained control at the start of the third quarter, scoring on a 70-yard touchdown pass, but it was all Wolverines from then on. After trailing at one point by 14, Michigan won, 45-28, providing an answer to the question in Speight’s press conference.
“That’s just from this coaching staff coming in and building a callus,” Speight later explained. “Coach always talks about building a callus and being tough, and we didn’t really let it faze us. I never really said, ‘Oh wow, we’re down by (14).’ Like, ‘Oh gosh, these guys are giving us a good game.’ It was just, ‘This is fun. This is an opportunity to be in a game.’
“The first two we played weren’t that fun come the fourth quarter, because it was already over.”
Be it the team or the fans, there’s no doubt Harbaugh has instilled a confidence in the last 19 months. It’s a confidence born from expectations, and at this point, for this team, that’s not a bad thing.
Around the country, many of the nation’s top teams have been tested early. No. 5 Clemson was held close by Troy last week. No. 6 Houston was in a tough one against Cincinnati before it pulled away late Saturday, and No. 1 Alabama needed a big comeback to beat Ole Miss.
Like those teams, Michigan passed the test and survived, and it now enters Big Ten play undefeated.
To be fair, the Buffaloes aren’t at the level of the Rebels, and they further exposed the Wolverines’ deep-play weakness. They forced Speight into his worst game of the season. But as Butt was quick to point out after the game, the season wasn’t going to be a fairytale from start to finish.
Now on the cusp of Big Ten play, the tests aren’t stopping anytime soon. Eight of the Wolverines’ next nine opponents are ranked higher than Colorado in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings this week. Michigan tops those ratings, a sign that this is a team that’s come a long way since two or three years ago.
It proved that with Saturday’s comeback. The Wolverines didn’t fold. They punched back and they stood on their callus.
Now, they’ll see how long it can hold.
Bultman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @m_bultman. Please @ him.