Wojo: UM’s young guys on 'D' flex their strength
Arlington, Texas — They got sick of hearing it, again and again and again. They were too young to be dominant, too new to be ready. With only one returning starter, surely Michigan’s defense would be dialed down, right?
They took it to heart, and then they took it to Florida. The Gators were outnumbered, with 10 players suspended, but Michigan made sure its SEC opponent also was thoroughly outmanned. Michigan’s 33-17 victory over Florida at AT&T Stadium Saturday didn’t come remotely close to reflecting how lopsided it was.
At first everything went horribly wrong for the Wolverines, as Wilton Speight threw back-to-back interceptions for touchdowns, and Florida grabbed a 17-10 lead. And then the Wolverines did what they’ll probably have to do often this season — they unleashed their defense and hammered away at a wobbly target, with no regard for style points and no blinking.
This might not be Jim Harbaugh’s preferred blueprint, to spot the opposition two touchdowns and also get a punt blocked, but even he seemed wowed by his defense’s energetic attack.
“Our guys were really relentless up front,” Harbaugh said. “Our linebackers were running sideline to sideline. Our secondary played really well. … Those guys stepping in, some in their first college football game, it’s outstanding. Really, really proud of them.”
Coordinator Don Brown had warned everyone the Wolverines were fast and fierce, just in need of their moment. And here they came, in maize rotation waves, churning through Florida’s shattered offense.
You could argue the Gators were primed for this pummeling, without their leading rusher and receiver, and with a redshirt freshman, Feleipe Franks, starting at quarterback. But the Wolverines still had to execute it, and they sacked Franks and Malik Zaire six times, forced three turnovers and held Florida to 11 yards rushing. The Gators were missing skilled players but they were supposed to be stout in the trenches, and they were tossed aside.
Michigan was faster, led by linebacker Devin Bush, who raced across the field like a kid from Florida is expected to.
“I know there was a lot of talk about, we lost a bunch of guys to the league,” Bush said. “So we came out today just playing with a chip on our shoulder. You know? This whole season, we got something to prove. Youth don’t mean nothing.”
That was the unspoken theme all camp, loudly revealed in the opener. Harbaugh brought it up again in a team meeting the night before the game, when he read a letter he’d received from a Marine named Anthony Riddle, from Jackson. Riddle described how he fought alongside 18-20-year-old Marines in Iraq, and reminded the Wolverines age is irrelevant.
It was an emotional, inspirational message, and they got the point. As Bush said, youth don’t mean nothing. The Wolverines will have more opportunities to confirm this, but for openers, this was impressive.
Last year’s defense ranked No. 1 in the country but 10 starters departed, eight to the NFL. It was kind of a silly statistic — one returning starter, Mike McCray — because many others played a lot. But it stuck, and the Wolverines struck back.
“For our D-line, a lot of people just called us backups, and it’s insulting to us,” senior tackle Maurice Hurst said. “You use that as motivation, to show we’re better than that. I’ve never seen a group of young guys be so professional and so in tune to the game, making some unbelievable plays.”
Fourteen players made their first starts on offense and defense, although Bush and Rashan Gary had previous experience. (Conversely, only five total Florida players made their first career starts). Michigan’s new cornerbacks, Lavert Hill and David Long, weren’t beaten much, and sophomore safety Josh Metellus was all over the field, making a great play to force a key Franks fumble in the third quarter.
But Michigan’s strength is up front, and the Gators realized it quickly. They thought their strong offensive and defensive lines could compensate for the suspensions, but not even close. Florida finished with nine first downs and was two-for-13 on third-down conversions.
“Their guys were bigger and stronger,” coach Jim McElwain said. “They whupped us, plain and simple.”
It was almost as bad a whupping as Michigan delivered two years ago, when it beat Florida 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl. The notion of the Wolverines as a stodgy team is so outdated, they can’t believe anyone still believes it.
They were particularly peeved by a quote from Florida running back Jordan Scarlett, the leading rusher. Before he was suspended, this is how he described Michigan’s defense: "They hold their ground well, but they don't move well from sideline-to-sideline.”
This is how defensive end Chase Winovich responded after the victory: “I just really didn’t understand why Florida would come out and say all these negative things about us. They didn’t respect us last time, and we beat them pretty bad. It’s kind of sad. I don’t know why they’d think that, with our front being so athletic.”
Just for fun, Winovich got to add the exclamation, sacking Zaire and knocking the ball loose in the end zone in the closing minutes. Noah Furbush jumped it on for the final score, after Michigan’s offense struggled to officially put the Gators away.
Speight’s inaccuracy was a major issue, finishing 11-for 25. If not for first-time starter Quinn Nordin nailing a couple of field goals from 50-plus yards, it could’ve been trouble.
But Speight also hit some deep strikes, and Michigan’s running game — Ty Isaac had 114 yards — was effective when needed. Florida’s defense is good, so it’s premature to ring the alarm ball. But Harbaugh had to yank Speight for John O’Korn to settle him down, and Speight did a nice job shaking it off.
He can’t make this a habit, and he knows it. One of the interceptions tipped off receiver Kekoa Crawford’s hands, but the other was a wild overthrow. Harbaugh sounded more encouraged about Speight’s rebound than discouraged about his mistakes, but in the end, the defense rendered it irrelevant. Kind of like age.
“After those two picks, we didn’t go in the gutter,” Bush said. “We didn’t start pointing fingers. Our job is to get us out of this hole. As a team, you got to pick the offense up when they need help. So that’s all we did.”
They did it with force, with a purpose. Basically, they did it like a defense that was sick of hearing they were too young to do it, against an opponent that apparently didn’t realize what was coming.