'They took it to us': Michigan defense clamps down on Gators

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Florida quarterback Malik Zaire is sacked by Michigan's  Mike McCray, under the pile, and Khaleke Hudson in the fourth quarter.

Arlington, Texas — Michigan players had said this season-opening game against Florida would give them an immediate, out-of-the-gate gauge of just how much the Wolverines achieved in preseason camp.

In a nutshell — the defense was dominant, the offense put up balanced numbers, 215 yards rushing and 218 passing but was scarred by a couple critical turnovers, and the kicking game has a real weapon.

After a dismal second quarter when Florida scored twice on interception returns, the Wolverines snapped back in the second half to win, 33-17, before 75,802 at AT&T Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

BOX SCORE: Michigan 33, Florida 17

“It was awful disappointing,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “But they took it to us. It was pretty obvious.”

There had been so much talk of Michigan’s defense returning only one starter, but the defense was stifling and strangled the Gators’ offense led by redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks and, later, Malik Zaire. They also were without its leading receiver and running back, suspended with eight teammates.

Michigan’s defense held Florida to 192 total yards, including 11 rushing. The Gators were 2-of-12 on third down.

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“I know there was a lot of talk we lose a bunch of guys to the league, we lose a star player, so we came out today and played with a chip on our shoulder,” said linebacker Devin Bush, who led the team with seven tackles, including two sacks and three of Michigan’s 11 tackles for loss. This whole season we’ve got something to prove — young don’t mean nothing. Football is still football regardless of who is there or not.”

The defense added one final blow when Chase Winovich sacked Zaire in the end zone, and Noah Furbush recovered for the final score, a fitting finish for an outstanding defensive performance.

“It was kind of my strategy going into this,” Winovich said, explaining that play. “I talked to my dad and my brother-in-law before the game, and I have a tendency of sometimes just going out and exerting all my energy early. We wanted to make sure we played it and we felt it out. Kind of like how Floyd Mayweather picked apart Conor McGregor in the fight.

“We’re learning as we go. That’s kind of what I did. I kept running around and trying to work the edge. He was starting to overstep me every time, I could feel it. Finally, I just said, ‘This is my shot,’ and I took it and it felt great. It was a whole lifetime in the making for that one play, so it was an honor.”

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Wilton Speight started at quarterback and sat for two series in the second quarter after the two interceptions returned for touchdowns. Three straight Michigan drives in the second quarter went like this: pick six, pick six, blocked punt. Speight’s two interceptions — the first a high throw that deflected off Kekoa Crawford’s hands, the second was an overthrow of Grant Perry — were returned 48 and 41 yards, respectively, for back-to-back defensive scores for the Gators.

More: Wojo: UM’s young guys on 'D' flex their strength

“After those two picks, we didn’t go in the gutter,” Bush said. “We didn’t start pointing fingers. We put it on us. It’s our job to get us out of this whole. As a team, we have to pick up the offense when they need help.”

Florida took a 17-10 lead at that point, and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh decided to give Speight a breather and have backup John O’Korn take over.

“Just wanted to (have him) calm down a little bit,” Harbaugh said. “And that was a rough circumstance, and I thought John did a nice job coming in and hitting the ball. We got a field goal out of a drive.

“Wilton went back in and calm, played within the offense and played to his talent, which is a lot of talent, you know? He's got a lot of skill. He throws extremely accurate, throwing the high balls, a couple of the high balls he did today. That's out of character. He's really talented, and I thought he did a good job reeling it back and getting under control and playing winning football from then on.”

Speight said Harbaugh told him he directed the “vibe” of the team and had to keep focused and positive. He responded by starting the second half with a well-orchestrated 10-play drive to regain the lead. The drive was highlighted by Ty Isaac’s 18-yard run, and a nicely thrown ball from Speight to Perry for 28 yards to the Florida 10. Speight was 5-of-7 for 52 during the drive and gave Michigan a 20-17 lead.

“I knew I had to come out ready to go like the first half or those last two passes didn’t even happen and make some throws,” Speight said. “And that’s what I did.”

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The Wolverines never trailed again, but clearly had plenty of opportunities to pile on points before settling for field goals.

Redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin was four-for-six on field goal attempts — he made his first four — including kicks of 55 and 50 yards to become the first Michigan kicker to make kicks of 50 yards or more in a game. He missed kicks from 52 and 32-yards in the fourth quarter.

Michigan’s offense simply couldn’t keep Nordin off the field. After that touchdown drive to open the half, the Wolverines settled for back-to-back field goals, a punt and then Nordin attempted two more that he missed.

The Wolverines broke in a new offensive line, with three new starters — Patrick Kugler at center, Michael Onwenu at right guard and Nolan Ulizio at right tackle. Isaac led the run game with 114 yards on 11 carries and Chris Evans had 70 yards on 20 carries. Michigan had 215 yards rushing and averaged 4.4 yards a carry.

“Up front, I thought really, really good job,” Harbaugh said. “Michael Onwenu, his first start, (Nolan) Ulizio, his first start. (Patrick) Kugler did a nice job. Mason Cole, what a standout he is at all times. Ben Bredeson. They were locked in, serious.

“Really, really played even better than we thought. We’ve been going against the Michigan defense all camp. And, man, I think we got a really good defense, but they are relentless. It helped us. You could see today that we’ve been playing against that front four and those linebackers all camp, and I think it really helped. The pass protection was outstanding. I thought they did well in the run game.”