Ann Arbor — Way back in July, before camp had begun, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said he had never before coached a team with so few returning starters — five — and such an abundance of youth and inexperience.
He said then the learning and building process would take patience.
The Wolverines entered the game as enormous favorites but had to overcome two fumbles and an uneven performance by quarterback Wilton Speight and the offense. They had a second-half surge and after defeating Cincinnati, 36-14, in the home opener, Harbaugh brought up the need for patience.
Eighth-ranked Michigan is now 2-0 and relied on a heavy presence from its defense for the second straight week — the Wolverines’ defense has scored three touchdowns in two games — this time before 111,384 at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.
"You can’t experience it until you experience it,” Harbaugh said after the game. “There’s handling your emotions, handling a week of school for the first time. Being in that environment, that atmosphere, there’s nerves, there’s butterflies, and you get experience on how to handle it at some point.
“Me, I’m 53, it’s gone dead. I’m dead in here (pointing to his torso). It’s like burnt wood in terms of nervousness and butterflies and emotions that way. Guys that are doing it for the first time, or the second time even, it’s time on task. It takes experience. We got some more of that. It’s a good thing.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh explains why a number of freshmen played in 36-14 victory over Cincinnati. Angelique S. Chengelis
Receivers Kekoa Crawford and Grant Perry had touchdown receptions, and the defense provided two scores, first from safety Tyree Kinnel who had a 28-yard interception return in the first quarter and then from Lavert Hill on a 24-yard interception return in the fourth. Quinn Nordin added two field goals.
Michigan finished with 414 yards, while Cincinnati had 200, including 68 yards rushing. Ty Isaac led the Wolverines running game with 133 yards on 20 carries. Crawford had 83 yards on four catches and Perry had 66 yards on four catches.
Speight was 17-of-29 for 221 yards and two touchdowns, but there were some issues. He had a glaring overthrow of wide-open Donovan Peoples-Jones on a third-and-short in the fourth quarter and poor timing on a handoff to Crawford that resulted in a fumble. He recovered his fumble in the second quarter. But also in the fourth quarter, Speight threaded a pass to Crawford on fourth-and-eight for a 20-yard gain.
In explaining his decision to go for it on fourth down, Harbaugh also discussed some of the growing pains of a young team.
“The decision to go for it on fourth and eight, we were at about the 33-yard line, would have been a 51-yard field goal, punting it could have gained you only eight yards,” Harbaugh said. “Decided to take the chance there.
“There was a lot of good and there was a lot of times the screen’s going a little fuzzy and we’re not doing our assignments. The fumbles, those hurt and ball handling. Wins are tough to come by. We’re happy to have this one.”
Michigan coach discusses strategy in win over Cincinnati. Angelique S. Chengelis
The Bearcats, whose running back Mike Boone earlier in the week had said they would “shock the world”, took early advantage of an uninspired Michigan offensive performance. Cincinnati pulled within 17-14 on the first drive of the second half on an efficient 85-yard, 10-play drive that included quarterback Hayden Moore sparking the Bearcats with a 46-yard run.
Michigan’s next two possessions accumulated 7 yards on nine plays. The Wolverines broke out of their doldrums with an 80-yard, seven play scoring drive that got a boost from a 36-yard pass play from Speight to tight end Zach Gentry. Perry gave Michigan a 24-14 lead in the third quarter on a 33-yard reception.
“That was a no-huddle call where we got up to the line of scrimmage, assessed the defensive look and Grant kind of made eye contact with me knowing it was going to be open,” Speight said. “Sure enough, it was.”
“Pre-snap I thought the ball was going to go to Ian (Bunting) who was inside of me,” Perry said. “That look, that route for him had been opened most of the game. And then it cleared out. Me and Wilton made eye contact and he threw it.”
In the final seven minutes, Michigan added a safety when the punt snap sailed into the end zone, and was batted out for a 33-yard loss. And the defense added a final score when Hill intercepted Moore and returned it 24 yards for a touchdown.
Michigan led 17-7 after a first half that began with a well-executed 80-yard touchdown drive and ended with the Wolverines’ final five drives that went like this: fumble, field goal, fumble, three-and-out, punt.
After gaining 155 yards in the first quarter, the Wolverines had 17 plays for 44 yards in the second.
While much was made of the defense only returning one starter, the defense has played well in two games, holding Florida and Cincinnati to an average 196 yards and an average 39.5 yards rushing, while also adding three touchdowns.
The offense is where there have been issues, and Harbaugh said it’s not just one player.
“Guys are taking turns,” he said. “We’ve got to get into a rhythm. All 11 have gotta execute, and that’s on us as coaches and the players to evaluate what’s causing it and how to get our offense into the rhythm because we can move the ball, and we had the feeling coming out of this game we stopped ourselves on occasion. That’s a challenge for our team.”
Harbaugh will continue to draw on patience as he coaches the players.
“Some people like to say stubbornness, I like to say patience,” he said. “We’ll continue on that path. Striving for perfect. Striving for perfection, that’s the goal.”