Wojo: Speight’s game needs less drama

Bob Wojnowski

Arlington, Texas — The opening test for Michigan’s defense? Not a problem, and frankly, not a surprise. We tried to warn you, Michigan has been stocking fast, athletic players primed for an opportunity.

The opening test for Michigan’s quarterback? OK, that was a problem, and frankly, a bit of a surprise. Wilton Speight is in his second season as the starter, and once again showed why he wins the job, but is often challenged.

Michigan’s 33-17 dismantling of Florida bodes well for the season, as long as the youngsters on defense don’t think they have it all figured out. But the early narrative is apparent — the defense will compensate for the offense — and it’s up to Speight to change it.

Jim Harbaugh certainly isn’t going to bail on Speight, and he shouldn’t. He probably can’t. But here comes the most obvious commentary ever: Speight can’t make gigantic mistakes and keep the job forever. Florida’s defense was good but his inaccuracy was troubling, with more work to do than expected.

Harbaugh yanked his junior quarterback after back-to-back interception returns for touchdowns, and John O’Korn provided more of a pause than a spark. The Wolverines need Speight for his big arm, his size, his experience and his knack for evading a pass rush. They also need him for his composure, and after that awful start, he showed it.

By the end, I don’t think Harbaugh and the coaching staff were overly discouraged by Speight. Concerned? Sure.

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“It’s always astonished me with quarterbacks,” Harbaugh said. “It really is a sign when a quarterback can have something go really bad and come back from it. … A lot of guys go into the tank. The really good ones got the ability to start the second half and reset like that didn’t happen in the first half. But sometimes it gets so horrifying, some guys just can’t bounce back from it.”

Unraveling commenced

It doesn’t get much more horrifying than this. With Michigan leading 10-3 in the second quarter, Speight threw a deep middle pass that was high and glanced off Kekoa Crawford’s hands. It was picked off by Duke Dawson and returned 48 yards for the tying touchdown.

On Speight’s next pass, he wildly overthrew Grant Perry, and it was picked off by CJ Henderson and returned 41 yards for a touchdown. Despite defensive domination by the Wolverines, they trailed 17-10, and it seemed as if their entire early-season fortunes were teetering.

In a way, they were for Speight. He sat the next two series for O’Korn, as Harbaugh tried to settle his starter down. At halftime, the seriousness of the situation was made clear.

“Basically, (Harbaugh) was just telling me that the vibe of the team is following me, and I can’t go out there and hang my head or have a bad attitude because people feed off this position,” Speight said. “Coach Pep (Hamilton) and Coach Harbaugh said, your next move is crucial, and it can go two ways. And I made sure it went in a positive direction.”

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One way would’ve been for Harbaugh to go back to O’Korn, or even try redshirt freshman Brandon Peters. But it must have been apparent in training camp that Peters wasn’t ready, and O’Korn’s pocket presence isn’t ideal.

So here came the first crucial drive of the second half, and Speight’s necessary response. He was accurate and poised, completing five of seven as Michigan marched 75 yards for a touchdown and a 20-17 lead. The signature throw was a perfect 28-yarder to Perry between defenders to the Florida 10.

That’s what Harbaugh had to see, and exactly what Speight had to show. With upcoming home games against Cincinnati and Air Force, there’s no excuse if he doesn’t keep it going.

“Wilton went back in calm, played within the offense and played to his talent, which is a lot of talent,” Harbaugh said. “He throws extremely accurate, and a couple of the high balls, that’s out of character. I thought he did a good job reeling it back and getting under control.”

Alarming gaffes

This is the appeal of Speight, that he’s tough enough to shake off just about anything. This is the concern about Speight, that he’s prone to huge mistakes that require shaking off.

He threw two interceptions at Ohio State last season, including one returned for a touchdown. On the first snap of his career against Hawaii, he threw an interception. Overall last season, Speight was very effective — 61.6 completion percentage, 18 touchdowns, seven interceptions — although a few big moments snagged him, and a shoulder injury definitely hampered him.

Now healthy, he needs to show more on a regular basis. If not, the coaching staff likely won’t just settle for admirable bounce-back ability.

“I think certain people thought I might have just gone in a shell,” Speight said Saturday. “The first pick, we just couldn’t connect with Kekoa, and I wasn’t going to get down about that. I kind of kicked myself for the second one because it was completely my fault. But going into halftime, I really completely blocked it out, did not remember it whatsoever.”

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It helped that Michigan displayed a solid running game, and the revamped offensive line held up well against Florida’s talented defensive front. Speight completed 11 of 25 passes for 181 yards and was sacked three times, but on the interceptions, he wasn’t under intense pressure. The Gators didn’t provide much push on either side, and Jim McElwain liberally dropped the word “whooped” in his news conference.

Florida was missing 10 players due to suspension, but not key defensive guys. And lest anyone forget, Michigan was missing 10 defensive starters from last season, although after this smothering performance, I doubt that angle gets touted anymore.

The primary variable going forward is Speight, who might have found his big-play receiver in freshman Tarik Black. As an experienced player, Speight has to lead the way, and he knows it. And Harbaugh will keep pushing it.

“There’s really good things to learn from it,” Harbaugh said. “There’s things we can do better. We’ll address them and see if we can’t get there.”

Speight will have to get there, to a more-comfortable place, for Michigan to go anywhere special. A knack for getting out of trouble is a fine trait. Avoiding trouble is a better one.