MINNEAPOLIS — The air surrounding TCF Bank Stadium stood still. What began as excitement over a big hit turned to respectful silence. Michigan fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock had been hit hard on a scramble and was slow to get off the field.
But for Wilton Speight, the calm meant it was time to warm up. As the backup quarterback, the redshirt freshman didn’t get to be picky about when his chance would come.
If he did, no one would have blamed him for passing on Saturday night’s offer. The 15th-ranked Wolverines weren’t playing like two-touchdown favorites, the team’s top-ranked defense looked leaky and the game looked like another one of those college football road night games that can make even the most experienced quarterbacks crumble.
Michigan was down, 23-21, and had a quarter and a half to play. Any Wolverine momentum left the field with Rudock, and the Golden Gophers were licking their lips.
But Speight didn’t have a choice. So with the game, quarterback situation and Michigan’s season looking murkier by the second, Speight trotted on to the field.
Behind him, Shane Morris took his helmet off. The junior who competed toe-to-toe with Rudock for the starting job in August had been officially supplanted as the second-string quarterback, and it was now Speight’s game to win.
“He’s been performing really well at practice,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh of Speight. “It just struck me a couple weeks ago that when Wilton was throwing the ball I wasn’t nervous anymore about where it was going. … I used to be nervous when he threw the ball and didn’t know where it was going to go. I was confident every time he went back that he was going to make the appropriate throw and felt like he had earned it and he was good to go.”
Despite his intentions to provide clarity, Speight’s first two series only muddied the waters even more. It was Speight’s first meaningful playing time since Nov. 16, 2013, when he was in high school, and it showed. In frighteningly fast fashion, the quarterback turned the wrong way on a handoff, missed reads and nearly threw a costly interception.
As Speight struggled, eyes turned to Michigan’s bench. Morris, Speight and, after a checkup in the locker room, Rudock were analyzed for their body language, which players and coaches they talked to and whether or not they were warming up. One of those three had to muster a comeback, but no one, maybe not even the coaches, knew which one.
So with the roar of 50,000 fans replacing the quiet night air with joy and Minnesota extending its lead to five, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh gave his new leader a wake-up call.
“First couple plays, he had some mental errors,” Harbaugh said. “So I just started pounding on him, hitting his shoulder pads, hitting him in the chest to say ‘Hey’ … He just needed to get hit a few times.”
Like a satellite TV or a slow computer, simply hitting Speight did the trick. After starting the game 0-for-3, Speight found junior tight end Jake Butt on a corner route. A few plays later, redshirt sophomore tight end Khalid Hill brought down Speight’s second completion, and the Wolverines were in the red zone.
Michigan was far from smooth on offense without Rudock. Minnesota stacked the box, smartly expecting a run, and redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers’ wildcat plays were the closest Michigan came to deception.
But on 3rd-and-8, when the Wolverines needed a breakthrough, Speight delivered, shifting in the pocket before finding redshirt junior receiver Jehu Chesson for Speight’s first career touchdown and his first taste at being Michigan’s hero.
“As soon as I ran into the huddle I said, ‘Guys, this is going to be a good one,’ ” Speight said. “As soon as I saw the release and did the job, I knew it was going to be there.”
Moments later, Speight struck gold again, tucking to run before finding redshirt junior wide receiver Amara Darboh for a two-point conversion to give the Wolverines a lead.
Speight’s numbers (3-for-6 for 29 yards and a touchdown) weren’t pretty, and Michigan fans will welcome Rudock back whenever he returns with open arms. But as Speight trotted off the field after giving the Wolverines a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, the familiar silence throughout TCF Bank Stadium had a new meaning: mission accomplished.