The fledgling 2017 Wolverine Football team traveled to meet Florida’s Gators in Jerry World for their high profile season kick off on Saturday, September 2nd. Known officially as AT & T Stadium, and by some as Jerry World, it is also known as the Death Star by some rabid Fort Worth (DFW) area fans.
The Gators and Wolverines had met three times prior to this one, and the Wolverines had prevailed each time. Now they needed more of the same. They fought hard to produce the win.
THE HARBAUGH DILEMMA: AP had the Wolverines ranked 11th in the country and the Gators 17th. The outcome of this game has impact on those rankings, and much more. This third season is probably the most crucial season yet for flamboyant Wolverine Coach Jim Harbaugh as the Wolverine’s headman.
Harbaugh has managed an off field scenario that has been an outstanding success as a result of his innovative ideas and outstanding inventiveness. His recent Rome trip was superb, his camps in SEC country have twisted tails there, and aided recruiting in that fertile recruiting region, and the stands are full with waiting lists. Recruiting has been lights out.
If circumstances dictate it necessary, one can actually sell tickets again for what they cost. Wholesale fan enthusiasm has returned. Despite all the Kool Aid that has been dispensed this pre-season, I am firmly on board with this season’s prospects. It seems enhanced athleticism and determination is there, even if the Wolverines and their Head Coach have drawn the short straw on experience.
Yet beginning this third season, his on field record is only one win better than that of Brady Hoke. The Wolverines have not recently prevailed over the team south of the border, and the Wolverines have NEVER participated in the playoffs that determine the Big Ten’s Champion, let alone won it.
This is a season that the off field coaching and performances, and on field coaching and performances have to achieve parity with each other, with on field performance rising to match off field. If they ever match, it will provide quite a ride for coaches, team and fans. The first step was a win over the Gators. The Wolverines dominated the Gators and surmounted their own offensive and special team’s mistakes.
THE VENUE: This world class NFL venue is the home of the Dallas Cowboys. It seats 84,000 and features an electrically operated, retractable roof to close off the elements. Memories of a fans experience, the ambience of the stadium and venue, cannot close off the elements of football defeat for the losing team, and repair the fan morale of the losing side. The fact that it had not rained on fans or that it provided a view of the 24th biggest high definition video screen in captivity (stretching from twenty to twenty on two sides), with 300 more TVs scattered in the venue, provides no solace to the loser. That stuff fades into insignificance when the final minutes tick off the clock, if it permanently records a disappointment. The Wolverines had never experienced a win at this location until now, but there is this one Arlington competition that Wolverine fans can treasure.
THE VOCAL GATORS LIKE TO CHOMP THE OPPOSITION: Their fans emulate a Gator chomp with arms and hands in the stands, and their coach is SEC loud, even if he did not call the Wolverines slow as SEC partisans are prone to do. Their idea was that they would prevail offensively after a fierce three sided QB competition, possibly using three QBs. They only used two.
The Gators imported a talented quarterback graduate transfer from Notre Dame, Malik Zaire, who was noted for his wheels. Luiji Del Rio, from last year, was in the mix as well and noted for his experience. Feliepe Franks has the best arm of the triumvirate, and he was the named the starter. He was also the least experienced before the game, but both are more experienced now as the Wolverines sacked them 6 times. Zaire replaced Franks in the third quarter, and he finished the game.
M DEFENSE DOMINANT: The Gators have a stable of above average running backs, and the Gator offensive line is deep, capable, and experienced. Pre-game it was considered the strength of their team.
The Wolverines played outstanding defense, which dismantled the Gators offense. The Gators had 192-yards of total defense with just 11-yards on the ground. Devin Bush was outstanding at Line Backer. He was all over the place and got to the right place. He had 5 solo tackles and 2 assists.
The Gators had 9 players in the doghouse, and they did not play, but this was still a good litmus test of the Wolverines’ defensive mettle. They played like well-oiled parts. They were outstanding in most respects. They caused three Gator turnovers. One is described later in the Special Assessment Section. Another was caused by a Josh Metellus strip of the ball from Quarterback Franks. The ball was recovered by Lawrence Marshall at the Gator 37. This enabled Nordin to hit another FG.
Later in the game another recovery, this time in the end zone, provided a Wolverine TD. This one salted the game away on a heavy hit by Chase Winovich on QB Zaire. Noah Furbush gathered it in for six to cap the scoring.
While M will get better, they are good now. Fast, agile, and focused. They have an appropriate mean streak. Nonetheless, the Gators were a strong opponent for this season’s richly talented, but significantly inexperienced Wolverines. The best Florida receiver, Anthony Calloway was among the Gator players disciplined.
Like the Wolverines, the Gators seemed a little less confident regarding their defensive backfield as they lost players to the NFL after last season. Like Michigan, the back end of their defense was rebuilding. The Wolverines have had their own bumps and bruises, some of them to the defensive line, but none of them have been season ending, including Saturday’s Mo Hurst was nicked in late fall, and returned healthy to play and outstanding game, where he was nicked again, and watched as the game finished. There is no doubt he could have been in if needed. Two DBs left the game at the same position. Injuries didn’t seem too serious. Brandon Watson was nicked after replacing the starter at corner, who also left the game. There may be an update at the presser tomorrow. If there is, I will update this section, if pertinent information is provided at the presser.
The inexperienced defensive backfield survived their first challenge, but a couple suffered some nicks.
QUARTERBACK COMPETION HEATS UP AGAIN: That Wilton Speight had a terrible first half is a matter of record. After he hit a beautiful 46-yard TD Pass to Taric Black, a couple of subsequent high throws resulted in two pick sixes by the opposition. The first was to Kekoa Crawford. It seemed to me Crawford should have collared it, as he had it hit both hands, but it was deflected and transported forty-eight yards to the end zone by the Gators. The second was to Grant Perry, and was too high. It was returned 46-yards to football’s Promised Land by the Gators, and it put them in the lead.
This was reminiscent of Speight’s performance in last years’ OSU game, and caused considerable worry in the first half. John O’Korn replaced Wilton for a couple of series, and he completed a nice pass. Wilton returned to start the second half, and used the short passing game along with runs to produce a seventy five yard TD drive.
This Speight performance, while still worth-while, seems to indicate his grasp on the position is not quite as solid as some thought. You can bet that Harbaugh will quash this idea at his earliest opportunity, like on Monday, but if similar circumstances occur again, then the controversy could heat.
Wilton was 11 of 25 for 181-yards, a TD, but threw the two nasty pick sixes. He has to be credited for recovering from the first half by playing a pretty good second half, and coming from behind to engineer a victory away from home, before rabid fans in a bowl like atmosphere.
THE REST OF THE OFFENSE: Offensive Line: The offensive line was not perfect but played a decent game. The left side was strong and much of the rushing yardage occurred there. Mike Onwenu did well at right guard. Nolan Ulizio, the starting right tackle had a couple of false start penalty calls, but did all right. As a unit they are improved, but need to keep working.
RUNNING BACKS: Ty Isaac had his best game as a Wolverine. He was impressive and led all RBs with 11 carries for 114-yards. He ran hard and was difficult to stop. He had a whopping 10.4 yards per carry average. He broke several long runs that facilitated scores, including some of Quinn Nordin’s field goals.
Karan Higdon ran 7 for 28-yards and a TD.
Chris Evans carried 22 times for 78-yards, with a long of 29.
RECEIVERS: Overall Tarik Black was outstanding. He caught the Wolverines’ first TD. He had 2 completions for 83-yards. Tight End Nick Eubanks nabbed 2 for 61-yards with a long of 48. Grand Perry grabbed 4 for 48-yards. It should be noticed that all these receivers made catches for significant yardage.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Special accolades go to Place Kicker Quinn Nordin. Nordin booted four field goals, two 50 yards or more, with his longest being 55-yards. He set a Michigan record with a 50-yarder and one for 55 in the same game. This kid has proved in his Michigan debut that he is an extraordinary asset. He hit 4 of 6 attempts. I was surprised he missed his last two.
Donovan Peoples-Jones received punts, ran a couple back for short yardage but made some very athletic moves in the process. He easily secured the ball each time. It looks to me that it is just a matter of time before he hits a big one.
Will Hart did not have outstanding punting stats. He hit 3 for 82 yards but secured the snaps.
James Foug did a great job with the kick offs. When the Gators finally did run it back it spelled disaster for them as Freshman Ambry Thomas forced and recovered a fumble putting the ball at the Gator 16-yard line. Nordin then hit a 30-yard FG.
SOME TAKEAWAY: The Wolverines played with fierce intensity, tired out the opposition, and showed skills beyond their years. They were the bigger, stronger, faster team, and yes, the better coached team. I thought it was right for Harbaugh to give Wilton a little time to reflect on the bench, although he will likely paint it that he was going to use John O’Korn anyway.
Still, nice move, something I was surprised wasn’t done against OSU last season when Wilton threw a couple of interceptions against them. Wilton should be credited for stopping the damage, and engineering a win in the second half.
This was a good opener. A great Bowl atmosphere, large crowd, and hard fought game against a ranked foe. All in all a great day for M coaches, players and fans.
The work has just begun for this team. There will be sterner tests down the road, whether in the maize uniforms or the traditional uniforms. I thought the maize looked great, but also love the traditional.