Before Saturday, it would have been easy to laugh off Cincinnati running back Mike Boone’s “shock the world” comment.
For a Bearcat team coming off a dangerously close win over FCS laughing stock Austin Peay to think they could strike fear into the hearts of the No. 8 Michigan football team would have been highly suspect, to say the least. But then Saturday happened.
And almost halfway through the second half, the theoretical became a reality, as they stood within just three points of the Wolverines.
At that moment, with boos raining down across Michigan Stadium, the final score of 36-14 would have been hard to fathom. While the “shock” Boone alluded to never fully materialized, the crowd of 111,384 certainly sensed that it very well could have.
Saturday against Cincinnati, the Wolverines almost suffered a loss that, for all intents and purposes, would have sunk their season. And that’s no exaggeration.
The hard truth is that everyone would have said the Bearcats beat Michigan. But in reality, the Wolverines would have only had themselves to blame.
The real shock of Saturday was that Michigan still hadn’t learned its lesson.
Over the course of the offseason, the Wolverines opened up about how the pain of losing three of the final four games of 2016 by a mere five points had shaped their outlook for the future. They insisted the experience taught them that they couldn’t afford to make those same mistakes again.
But in the first two games of their 2017 season, there have been so many that you would need to use both hands to count them.
Against Florida, redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight threw two pick-sixes and sophomore Will Hart had his punt blocked on three consecutive possessions. Suddenly, Michigan faced a 17-10 deficit, and the finger could only be pointed back at the Wolverines.
On the first interception, sophomore receiver Kekoa Crawford should have caught the football. On the second, Speight’s throw sailed way over his target, and he took a seat on the bench because of it.
But they weren’t the only two at fault. Michigan’s offense should have been chasing after Gator defensive backs Duke Dawson and CJ Henderson on the interception returns at full throttle. Instead, the Wolverines looked like they couldn’t even be bothered.
At his press conference the following Monday, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh made it clear that he was “chomping at the bit” to address it. He knew those interceptions turned the tide in Florida’s favor. He knew they could have been a fatal error.
The Gators may have been ranked 17th at the time, but if the Associated Press had known 10 of them would be suspended from the contest, Florida surely wouldn’t have even made the cut for the Top 25.
The Gators had no business having the lead, just like Cincinnati had no business being down just three.
And yet, against the Bearcats a week later, Speight fumbled the handoff on back-to-back series and Hart shanked back-to-back punts out of bounds. Somehow, neither of those were the biggest blunder of the game.
That came courtesy of the punt return unit, spearheaded by freshman returner Donovan Peoples-Jones. With a two-touchdown lead already in hand near the end of the first quarter, Michigan should have been well on its way to victory. But then Peoples-Jones didn’t call for a fair catch.
The punt bounced off the foot of the Wolverine who was blocking for him and into the path of an oncoming Bearcat. Cincinnati took over at Michigan’s 38-yard line and took the gift right into the end zone.
After that play — with the Bearcats suddenly back in the game — came Speight’s fumbles.
On the first, he was all alone in the backfield, with plenty of time to fall on top of the loose ball and contain the loss of yardage. But the damage had already been done. The Wolverines were pushed back from the three to the 10-yard line, and the promising drive came to a crashing halt. Two more incompletions followed, and Michigan settled for a 28-yard field goal.
Speight received a second chance on the next series, but he made the same mistake. After the game, Harbaugh explained that Speight had a bad habit of handing the ball off with one hand instead of two. Speight played with fire, and that time, he got burned.
Cincinnati’s defense broke through the line of scrimmage and hit the turf before he could recover. The Bearcats picked up the ball at their 30-yard line, and even though they didn’t score on the ensuing possession, neither did the Wolverines.
Michigan didn’t put Cincinnati away when it should have, just like it put Florida ahead when it shouldn’t have.
These were games the Wolverines not only couldn’t afford to lose, but that they had to win convincingly. They may have ended up with double-digit victories, but the jury is still out on the latter judgment.
“We had the feeling coming out of this game that we stopped ourselves,” Harbaugh said Saturday.
After such close calls derailed a 2016 season that could have amounted to much more, Michigan should have learned its lesson.
The Wolverines might have been forgiven for losing to Florida, but a loss to Cincinnati would not have been forgotten.
If Harbaugh’s message wasn’t received last week, maybe it will be now.
Ashame can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.