Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has had a few sideline outbursts through two games this season, but really, he’s been rather subdued, almost nurturing on the sideline.
He is cognizant that this is a young team. A calm demeanor more often than not is the way to lead and guide players who are still learning their way as they play bigger and bigger roles, and it’s also his way to approach a starting quarterback who has not yet blown away defenses and had some significant stumbles along the way.
Harbaugh was asked recently on a national radio show if having a coach yell at a quarterback is the way to go. He immediately answered with a definitive, “No.”
The Wolverines are 2-0 and are moving up the rankings, including No. 7 in the most recent AP poll. But they were 34-point favorites over Cincinnati in the home opener last Saturday and came away with a 36-14 victory, including two pick-sixes, two field goals and a safety.
An offensive juggernaut the Wolverines are not, but Harbaugh said he understands that second-year starting quarterback Wilton Speight has had his share of struggles, and his young players are learning to balance school and football. Speight, who threw back-to-back pick-sixes in the opener, was 17-of-29 for 221 yards and two touchdowns against the Bearcats but ranks 109th nationally (of 124 ranked) in completion percentage (51.9 percent). The Cincinnati game had the potential of giving Michigan an opportunity flex some offensive muscle, but instead the Wolverines looked sluggish after an efficient opening scoring drive.
Harbaugh’s message after beating Cincinnati was very simply about patience.
“There’s nerves, there’s butterflies, and you get experience on how to handle it at some point,” Harbaugh said. “Me, I’m 53, it’s gone dead. I’m dead in here. 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.”
This is the youngest team he has coached, Harbaugh said before the season, and he’s clearly accentuating the positive as he massages their confidence. He also is balancing the right way to handle the players. He needs to figure out who can handle what, but there’s also not a lot of time to hand hold and oversimplify.
“You can’t dumb it down Barney style either, just line up in two tight ends and a balanced line and think you’re going to 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 (from Cincinnati),” he said. “They’re going to get it. I feel very confident.”
Running back Ty Isaac is a fifth-year senior who has been an offensive highlight through two games, running like a guy who has only a season of eligibility remaining. He has seen a complete change from last year to this season in how Harbaugh is handling things and preaching patience.
“That’s not a bad thing,” he said. “There’s certain guys who don’t have as many game reps or have not played college football as long. It’s not to say you’re not a good player or not prepared. If I’ve never done something before you can’t yell at me like I’ve been doing it for two or three years.”
Still, Isaac, echoing Harbaugh, understands that youth and lack of experience can’t excuse away turnovers and lackluster play.
“We’ve got to clean up our own mistakes,” Isaac said. “We talk all the time we’re going to be the ones who beat us. We’ve got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot. I know we’ll clean it up."
The good news for Michigan is its defense, which has scored three touchdowns so far.
It is ranked tied for 31st nationally in scoring at 15.5 points, but the reality is, subtract the two pick-sixes from the opener, and the defense has allowed two touchdowns and a field goal for an average 8.5 points. That would rank the Wolverines tied for eighth.
Safety Tyree Kinnel, who returned an interception 28 yards for the Wolverines’ second touchdown against UC, said the defense is not feeling additional pressure while the offense continues to find its footing.
“We just stay calm,” said Kinnel, who led the team with nine tackles, including a sack. “We believe in our offense. We just try to stay together as a group and play for each other.”