The anxiously awaited 2016 Wolverine Football season finally arrived Saturday on a beautiful afternoon, as it has on so many Saturday afternoons. There was a two jet flyover, the usual spectacle of band, cheerleaders, dancers, and luminaries such as Honorary Captain Michael Jordan, and former Michigan greats. The stands brimmed with over 110,000 fans.
But this year it was different. It was too early for the smell of burning autumn leaves, but after the game started there was the faint odor of 17 burning redshirts as 17 freshman committed themselves to using their first year of eligibility. What! Unheard of!
This year expanded fan expectations and a ton of hype roared down the tunnel along with the Wolverines. The Wolverines started the season projected as seventh nationally in the AP poll, but second to Ohio State in the Big Ten East race.
The demolition of the Rainbow Warriors Saturday will not diminish expectations, but maintain and encourage them. Even after careful consideration of the Rainbow Warriors many football shortcomings this year, this was an outstanding opening performance by the Wolverines, by both the youngsters and the old guard. The defense as a unit had ten TFLs, four sacks, two pick sixes, and a forced fumble. Hawaii was 1 for 11 on third downs. LBs Mike McCray, Jabrill Peppers and Ben Gedeon combined for 24 tackles.
Post-game, Harbaugh lauded the defense in these terms: “I’m watching our defense go into the first half (and) even into the third quarter There wasn’t an alignment mistake made, a stance alignment mistake made through the first half or first part of the third quarter. Everybody exactly knew what they were really doing. It really showed. The meeting time, the practice time, it really showed in our guys.”
EXPECTATIONS: To say that Wolverine Fan expectations have soared with the return of many experienced players, including superstars such as TE Jake Butt, Corner Jourdan Lewis, and Renaissance Man Jabrill Peppers, together with the Harbaugh aura, is stating the obvious.
Coach Harbaugh has helped fire those expectations in many ways, some of which were unexpected. It was not expected that he would laud this year’s freshmen as continuously and strongly as he has this pre-season, even if the class did include the number one recruit in the country for this year, DE Rashan Gary. In his second year at the helm, Harbaugh has amassed his best overall recruiting class so far. As a group, they seem to have, a positive work ethic, high athletic talent, football smarts, size, speed, and the physique’s to play early.
All the 2016 Wolverines have been swimming in a highly charged pool of competitive waters that Harbaugh avers has been very hot. The newcomers have been prospering, as this week Coach Harbaugh indicated that as many as 15 frosh may secure playing time. At the post- game press conference expanded the number to 20. 17 played Saturday, burning any redshirt opportunity they possessed.
One of them was not highly regarded Freshman Amir Mitchell, who was in Harbaugh’s doghouse for the season for unnamed offenses. He is gone from the M Football program. He declined an M redshirt, and transferred to Rutgers. Probably the Durkin connection played a part in his choice.
On Monday Harbaugh had waxed eloquent with a biblical quote regarding the high value he continues to place on competition, stating “Iron sharpens iron”. Some players, including Jourdan Lewis, have stated in interviews that this fall camp was even tougher than last year. Sadly for Hawaii, the Bows could not provide the competition to produce a nail biter Saturday, although stiffer competition would have made the game more interesting.
MORE ON THE NEWCOMERS: They have spent the summer with serious attention to studies, not concentrating on only learning football. They soon will be thoroughly indoctrinated on the football stuff according to their boss. Obviously, getting used to school, studies, and a new way of life, plus football, is a lot to sort through. Apparently the newcomers are learning fast.
Many felt that perhaps there would be a couple of freshman starters, and more might have significant roles in the two deep, or in other roles, such as special teams. Among those lauded, in addition to those mentioned above and below, are WRs Eddie McDoom (maybe the second fastest on the team), Nate Johnson, and Kekoa Crawford, OL/DL Michael Onwenu (350, and nimble), LB Josh Uche, and Mbem-Bosse Elysee.
McDoom had a couple of notable receptions, one being a slant pattern on which Harbaugh felt he was held, but McDoom still made the play.
Again, it is remarkable that Coach Harbaugh has praised the newcomers to the degree he has before and after the first game. But to date it has not stopped. They must be for real. He knows.
Both Harbaugh and DL Coach Greg Mattison have lauded Rashan Gary’s mature physique, athletic ability and his football mental acuity. He fits in well with the team, which shows his mental maturity. He plays the SAM or strong side LB, which is now called the anchor position. He played well Saturday in spite of a stupid penalty.
Freshman OL Ben Bredeson, 6’5″ and 310 lbs., had battled Sophomore Grant Newsome for the critical Left Tackle spot, but Saturday, showing his virtuosity, he rotated with Patrick Kugler at the Left Guard slot. Usual starter Ben Braden was injured.
Freshman slot Chris Evans had attracted notice in camp, and again on the field Saturday. He was simply the Wolverines best running back, amassing 112-yards on 8 carries, and two TDs. He broke a spectacular 43-yard TD run in the third quarter. If he can keep it up, he may become the Wolverine’s best back.
Harbaugh continued his hype of the newcomers, on game week Monday afternoon, averring as follows: “I’ll tell you this. David Long (Corner) covered a go route at practice as good as it can possibly be covered”. “From press coverage to competing at the point of the catch — it was as good as it can be covered. He’s going to be an outstanding, outstanding football player”. Whew!
THE QUARTERBACK BATTLE: Obviously, Wilton Speight won the battle that has raged all camp over John O’Korn and Shane Morris, as he started Saturday. Speight was 10 of 13 for 145-yards and three TDs.
I honestly thought it would be O’Korn until lately. The Fort keeps its secrets. This start does not mean the battle is finished. Wilton Speight made some mistakes including an interception on his first toss, but he recovered magnificently with a 98-yard TD drive on the Wolverine’s next possession, finding Grant Perry for a 12-yard TD. Speight tossed three TD passes in the first half and sat the second. Coach Harbaugh was pleased with his performance. John O’Korn and Shane Morris carried the load in the second half, and the score kept building up, with the defense contributing another pick six interception.
The QB competition will continue to rage for the next few games, but it appears Wilton Speight is the man. The Wolverines are in far better shape at the position than they were last year. Staff has had more time to work with the two frontrunners than they had with Jake Rudock last season.
It appears there are three QBs who can lead the team to wins.
THE COMPETITION FROM OVERSEAS: Hawaii’s Rainbow Warriors did not play particularly well in their season opener in Sydney, Australia in which they took a 51-31 pummeling provided by a not so highly regarded University of California Golden Bears contingent. The Bows played hard and presented a high scoring and close first quarter, but an interception and 4 fumbles proved too much for them to overcome.
Whether having played a season opener would further the Bows cause was a source of speculation. Their game strategies were a more open record, while Michigan’s are still hidden pre-game. Their DC is a Dr. Blitz protégé, Felix Lempa, which was an advantage to the ‘Bows. They present a spread offensive system, which too often has been problematic in M’s past. Obviously, none of this changed results Saturday. The Bows were at a distinct size and talent disadvantage.
A sure disadvantage was flying from Sydney to Ann Arbor during the weekend before game week. I have done that a time or two and it takes a while to recover afterwards. At one time it was 22 hours with a stop in Hawaii. Now, its around 14 hours direct from Sydney to LAX, but understandably the Bows stopped over in Hawaii. Still major air mileage.
For a week after those trips, I always had “sinking spells”, several times a day. Would set down in a chair and was immediately, and involuntarily, snoozing. Never felt that going to Sydney, just coming back.
Hawaii has some talented players, including QB Ikalka Woolsey. He threw for 248-yards against Cal, and is capable of the big pass play. Running Back Deocemy Saint Juste is a very good back. The Wolverines held him in check, allowing 15 net yards on 12 carries. The pass defense excelled per Harbaugh post game.
Saturday, the Wolverines took a step toward becoming the elite college football defense they have been striving to become. They took a step towards that goal Saturday, but there is more work to be done. Most of the season’s serious challenges remain.
BOWS v WOLVERINES: M won the toss and elected to defer receiving until the second half. Wilton Spieth trotted out as the starting QB for the first time. On M’s first possession, his first pass was a miserable mistake, resulting in an interception. Recovering on the next series, he conducted a great 98-yard drive, and the score rapidly mounted during the remainder of the first half.
Chesson and Darboh fueled the drive with great catches and runs. Amara caught a poorly thrown Speight pass by leaping high and collaring that pass,preventing a possible carom and interception. It was outstanding play by the veteran receivers that changed the tone of the game to the right direction.
Wilton hit TE Butt with a 19-yard TD (Butt’s first catch of the year), and then threw to WR Amara Darboh, who snagged a five yard TD.
Early in the second quarter, Safety Delano Hill snagged an errant Bows quick slant pass, and quickly returned it twenty-seven yards for six. Suddenly it was 28 to zip. Chris Evans sped 18-yards for six more. He is elusive and fast, and appears to have quite a Wolverine future. The first half ended 35 to zip.
The Bows had not mounted much offense in the first half, but they rallied towards its end, and threatened to score. With under a minute to play in the 1st half, Hawaii was called for an intentional grounding infraction and according to rule the remaining seconds on the clock were erased and the half ended with the Wolverines thus preserving their shutout for the half. This rule was news to me.
At the beginning of the second half, Chris Evans was at it again, as he ripped a beautiful 43 yard TD. This was a stunner. It was a remarkable run.
Channing Stribling then provided an equally stunning defensive play, gathering in a Rainbow pass, and streaking into the end zone for six. The Wolverines were up 49 to zip.
With 18 seconds left in the third quarter. a 10 play, 74-yard drive with John O’Korn at the helm was completed by a 4-yard Kahlid Hill run.
There were many M substitutions in the second half, and finally Hawaii managed a 7 play, 38-yard drive which culminated in a dandy 55-yard FG by the Bows. Michigan still led 56 to 3, but the shut out had evaporated.
The Wolverines finished the scoring on a 5-yard Karan Higdon TD run with Shane Morris at QB. A 10-play 72-yard drive, sustained by a 7-yard McDoom catch and a Kekoa Crawford grab for 19-yards sealed the deal in Michigan’s favor. The 63 to 3 victory was in the books.
The Wolverines are a well-disciplined, well drilled team with great esprit de corps. They will only get better, but so will the competition. It will be an interesting season.