Ann Arbor — Jim Harbaugh keeps telling himself they’ll grow out of this, eventually.
But until then, everyone can probably agree on this: Whether it’s the fumbled exchanges or the erratic line play or the missed throws or the red-zone inefficiency, Michigan’s offense is rather painful to watch at the moment.
And that was a big reason why the eighth-ranked Wolverines allowed a five-touchdown underdog to hang around and hang around Saturday, forcing the crowd of 111,384 that showed up for Michigan’s home opener to do the same.
So while Wilton Speight tried to call it a “positive step forward,” and Harbaugh was careful to tread lightly in his postgame comments — mindful of his team’s relative youth as he discussed the Wolverines’ indiscretions — it was sophomore receiver Kekoa Crawford who probably offered the most honest assessment.
Asked about fitful performance Saturday, which left them nursing a 17-14 lead late in the third quarter against a team that struggled to put away Austin Peay in its opener, Crawford acknowledged, “that’s all you need to know.”
“I mean, we respect every opponent we play,” he added. “But we should’ve never let it get like that.”
Yet it’s games like this that should remind us what we already knew. This Michigan team may be loaded with talent, but it’s also relying heavily on inexperienced starters across the board.
That may not have slowed Don Brown’s dominant defense, which produced two more touchdowns on its own Saturday while limiting Cincinnati to 2.9 yards per play and forcing 10 punts.
Not so special
But elsewhere, it certainly showed, as the Wolverines struggled to find a rhythm offensively for much of the afternoon and cost themselves with their special-teams misadventures, including a pair of shanked punts and a fumbled return.
Yet while Harbaugh did replace freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones with Grant Perry after one too many near-misses on the punt-return unit, and there was some minor shuffling elsewhere Saturday, the head coach was busy preaching restraint after the game. Because as he explained again at length, you can’t teach experience.
Michigan coach discusses strategy in win over Cincinnati. Angelique S. Chengelis
“You can only do it by playing football,” Harbaugh said. “So there’s definitely a certain level of patience there. And stubbornness. Call it either way. Some people like to say stubbornness, I like to say patience. And we’ll continue on that path.”
That’s easier said than done for some, obviously. Like the restless fans who were booing at one point Saturday, probably a first at Michigan Stadium in the Harbaugh era. And likely for some of the players, too, as they stumble their way through some of these growing pains.
“I mean, it’s like … me, I’m 53, it’s gone dead — I’m dead in here,” Harbaugh said, smiling as he pointed to his chest. “It’s like burnt wood, in terms of nervousness and butterflies and emotions that way. But guys that are doing it for the first time, or the second time even … it takes some time on task, it takes some experience. And we got some more of that today, and that’s a good thing.”
Now, it’d be better, obviously, if his quarterback — a fourth-year junior and second-year starter — was playing with a steadier hand right now. For those clamoring for a change after two shaky outings this fall, Harbaugh clearly feels Speight is his best — and only — option. And Speight’s final numbers Saturday weren’t terrible: 17-of-29 for 221 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.
“Not bad,” Harbaugh said. “Could be better.”
But there was another glaring overthrow on Michigan’s opening drive of the second half, as Speight airmailed one over Peoples-Jones on a deep crossing route. (“Sometimes I get a little sloppy with my feet,” he said.) And there were a pair of fumbles by the quarterback, the first one on a careless one-handed exchange with Isaac in the red zone that Speight fell on himself.
“I’ve been telling him, ‘It’s a matter of time until it slips out of your hand,’ and today was the day,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a bad habit. Keep working hard to break him of that.”
The other on a jet sweep on Michigan’s next possession probably was a three-pronged miscue — a late snap, Crawford’s depth as he came across in motion, and another awkward exchange from Speight.
But there was plenty of blame to spread around Saturday in the wider view of Michigan’s offensive struggles. In a span of five possessions from the start of the second quarter through the first 10 minutes of the second half, the Wolverines generated just 58 yards on 23 plays, including four punts and that lost fumble.
Some of that falls on the quarterback, obviously. But there were missed assignments up front and confused alignments that Speight had to frantically fix before the snap, not to mention some play-calling that had heads shaking in the stands and probably some others spinning on the field.
Harbaugh readily admits there’s too much thinking and not enough playing right now. But all that uncertainty was to be expected, wasn’t it?
“I mean, there’s a lot of it right now,” Harbaugh said. “There’s a lot of ‘Who’s really got this?’ and you don’t know for sure.
“But the other thing is, you can’t dumb it down Barney-style and just line up in two tight ends and a balanced line and think that you’re just gonna run off-tackle play after play after play, when they have five defensive linemen in the game and they’re doing a nice job, as the case was today.”
So what do you do? Well, for starters, you get back to work.
“It’s the same for any mistake,” said senior Ty Isaac, who rushed for 137 yards on 20 carries Saturday. “Whether it’s a fumble or a missed block or whatever it may be, we need to fix it with the same urgency, regardless of what it is. I’m sure it’ll be taken care of this week in practice.”
In the meantime, you remember. Or at least you try to as a coach. You remember that “it’s hard to execute,” as Harbaugh said Saturday. And then you remember it’s still early — the second week of September, the first full week of classes — and this Michigan team should improve dramatically as this season progresses.
“Experience has taught me, they just gotta go do it,” Harbaugh said. “I know what these guys are made of and they’re gonna get it. I feel very, very confident about that.”