Welcome to the Reaction Roundtable, a new feature we are debuting at Maize n Brew. Each Sunday this football season, three of our staff members, Kevin Bunkley, Drew Hallett, and Josh LaFond, will share their instant thoughts, analysis, musings, and (attempted) humor on Michigan’s’ performance the previous day. It will be a free-flowing conversation, like the one you had with your best friend on the couch or the buffoon at the bar yesterday, with no form, rhyme, or reason. And, by the end, we will wrap up what you need to know before the next game week.
Drew Hallett: Well, hello, hello. I’m reporting from Dallas, where I may need some eye drops immediately after staring at those all-mustar...all-maize uniforms for three-plus hours. Make sure to wear proper eyewear, folks. However, my retinas were not damaged enough to prevent me from witnessing the Wolverines earn their first season-opening win away from Ann Arbor since 1991. No. 11 Michigan utilized a strong second half to finish off No. 17 Florida, 33-17, and force Jim McElwain to eat his words.
Let’s get right to it: what is your main takeaway from this? What stands out the most?
Kevin Bunkley: The maize uniforms weren't as intense from the upper deck, Drew!
We found out Michigan is still going to have an elite defense. Devin Bush was everywhere, and four forced fumbles is an encouraging sign. Don Brown didn't take his finger off the nitro button late in the game, and they closed it out. That pass rush just got more intense <insert shark joke here>.
Josh LaFond: Man, what a game! The biggest takeaway for me was also that defense. Good lord, they were cooking. Whether it was Rashan Gary coming off the edge, Mo Hurst racking up multiple tackles in the backfield, or Chase Winovich’s great day overall --culminating in that strip sack late in the 4th -- the D-line was outstanding.
The secondary played much better than I expected to see on opening day. Lavert Hill was everything I hoped he'd be, and the combination of David Long and Brandon Watson was a welcome sight.
As Kevin just mentioned, Devin Bush was unstoppable. Outside of his questionable hit early in the game, he played excellent. He really showed a nose for the ball whether that was on a blitz, in coverage, or helping to seal off the edge. I think Michigan finally has that sideline-to-sideline linebacking core that has somehow escaped the Wolverine defense for some years now.
I'll end this by agreeing with Kevin again. This defense is still going to be elite, and it'll keep Michigan in a lot of games this season. If the Wolverines have the success that many have (especially now) expected them to have this season, this top-tier defense will guide them down that road.
Drew: You both are correct in noting the defense’s performance as your main takeaway. The Wolverines were excellent on that side of the ball, limiting Florida to 192 total yards (3.6 YPP). It was the ninth time in 27 games under Jim Harbaugh that Michigan has held its opponent to fewer than 200 total yards. The Wolverines did it four times last season with one of the nation’s best defenses, and now after losing 10 starters on that unit, the new-look defense did it again.
However, I am always hesitant to put too much stock into one game, especially when Michigan is so inexperienced and Florida has a penchant for being so inept offensively. The Gators were not expected to move the ball well against Michigan, especially after the suspensions of top running back Jordan Scarlett and top wideout Antonio Callaway. And that was certainly the case any time Florida tried to run the ball. With a three-man line of Maurice Hurst, Rashan Gary, and Chase Winovich and the linebackers circling like hawks from various spots, the Wolverines stuffed anything that the Gators tried, whether it be inside runs, read-options, or end arounds. Florida had no space to run, and it showed with 57 yards on 21 non-sack carries (2.7 YPC).
But I am still not sold that this defense is elite … yet. I still have questions about Michigan’s corners. Lavert Hill had a stiff neck for the first half, failing to turn his head around when Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks took some shots down the sideline, including that first big completion for 34 yards. Hill did almost have an interception when he turned his head on one pass thrown in his direction, but it is something to keep an eye on. Michigan no longer has a Jourdan Lewis-type talent in the secondary, and that can keep the Wolverines vulnerable in the back, if their menacing pass rush (HELLO DEVIN BUSH) does not get to the quarterback first.
KB: Malik Zaire threw two pretty out routes that the receiver just went up and got, but Florida didn't even crack 200 yards through the air. That is acceptable for an entirely new secondary, and Brandon Watson made an awesome pass breakup down the sideline that made me forget about Lavert Hill getting picked on early.
Josh: I think the defensive line helped mask a lot of potential problems in the secondary -- particularly the corners -- but that unit still played much better than I thought. Brandon Watson made a great play on the ball with that swat in man to man coverage in the second half, and I think he will be a steady contributor throughout the year. Although Hill did get picked on early, and could have made better plays on the ball, I still see him as being the heir apparent to the island that Jourdan Lewis built. Having match-ups on defense that won't keep you up at night over the next few weeks should only help this young unit gain more and more confidence before leading into the gauntlet of Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
KB: Also did you notice Khaleke Hudson zipping all around the field doing his best Peppers impersonation? Don't think we’ll need to worry about the viper spot, at least not yet.
Josh: Yeah, Khaleke was definitely a force to be reckoned with. It'll be fun to watch #7 fly around the field making those highlight reel plays throughout the season.
Drew: Definitely not. Khaleke Hudson is a fantastic fit for the VIPER position, and he demonstrated frequently on Saturday how much he enjoys knocking the air out of people.
I think we all agree that the defense was the star for Michigan against Florida, particularly the front seven and Don Brown’s schemed blitzes, even if the secondary may still have questions.
However, I want to address an area that is absolutely a question (and likely a concern):
...no, not Wilton Speight, though I know we will be discussing him shortly.
I am talking about Michigan’s offensive line, specifically the right side. I will admit that it is difficult to gauge and evaluate the offensive line without reviewing the film first unless you have an eye trained to pick up the nuances of blocking in real time. But you did not need to have a trained eye to see that right tackle will be a red flag all season. Nolan Ulizio had more than his fair share of struggles in all phases. He routinely permitted Florida defenders to shoot inside to stuff Michigan’s runs up the middle, and he too easily was beaten to the edge by Gators pass rushers, allowing at least one sack -- and maybe two -- if I recall correctly. In the second half, Michigan began to use a tight end on the right side to chip defenders and provide Ulizio some assitance. However, I would not be surprised if the right tackle competition continues this week.
Josh: Whew, the elephant in the room. I can't remember the exact numbers, but I won't forget the graphic ESPN had up towards the end of the game. The left side (Mason Cole and Ben Bredeson) had something like 130 yards of the total at that time, which was the VAST majority of the run game numbers. So yes, outside of Cole and Bredeson, I think the line play was concerning to say the least.
KB: What group was out there most of the game? I didn't see Cesar Ruiz or Jon Runyan, Jr. out there much. I would have expected the coaches to shift the tackles around to play with pairings a bit, but maybe they wanted to avoid getting Wilton Speight killed. At least the left side held up with Mason Cole and Ben Bredeson opening some holes.
Drew: Starters (left to right): Mason Cole, Ben Bredeson, Patrick Kugler, Michael Onwenu, and Nolan Ulizio. Jon Runyan, Jr. got some run at right guard for Onwenu in the second quarter.
There really were not many gaps or open lanes between the tackles. Chris Evans had some misreads, but almost every time a running back went into the hole, Florida’s fierce defensive line swallowed him whole. Those runs were typically generating no more than three yards, which put Michigan into passing situations on second and third down. However, what really, really worked for the Wolverines was the element of surprise it had running on those passing downs. Michigan enjoyed feeding the ball to Ty Isaac in those situations, and he certainly capitalized, picking up huge chunks on the ground to keep drives alive en route to 114 rushing yards on 11 carries. It was one of Isaac’s best games of his Michigan career, and it also revealed to Jim Harbaugh and Tim Drevno that any success on the ground would come outside the tackles. Florida’s corners had some lapses with their contain and lost the edge, which allowed Evans, Isaac, and Karan Higdon to reel off some nice runs. The Wolverines finished with 215 rushing yards (4.4 YPC), which is solid against Florida’s strong defensive front, but they need to be able to run the ball up the middle in the future. They cannot rely on trying to bounce everything on the ground.
KB: I think I'm more pleased with the fact that the coaching staff called some running plays that catered to the strength of these backs -- the edges! Drew is right, though. They're going to have to go between the tackles at some point, especially during a conference game. Maybe Karan Higdon can be the inside guy, but Saturday just reaffirmed that Ty Isaac and Chris Evans can beat people on the edges.
Josh: I'm with you guys 100%. Chis Evans and Ty Isaac really showed that they can be game breakers (on the edge in particular) despite the lack of blocking. But getting to the edge won't work every time. Eventually they have to get the play out of the center, right guard, and right tackle for this to become a truly dominant offensive line.
Nolan Ulizio played well in some spots on Saturday but too frequently was seemingly unaware of what was going on. He was beat off the ball all too often and didn't show anything that would cement himself as the starting right tackle. I think the competition at right tackle could go all the way up until Big Ten conference play.
Drew: Ultimately, the running game did enough not to put the entire onus on the quarterback.
So...let’s stop dancing around everyone’s favorite, non-polarizing topic: Wilton Speight!
Speight completed 11-of-25 passes (44.0%) for 181 yards (7.2 YPA) and three touchdowns -- one to Tarik Black and two to Florida defensive backs. I have been a defender of Speight. He was unfairly criticized during the offseason for his performance at the end of last season, whilst injured, and he was unfairly criticized for his performance in the first half. Let’s just say that, during halftime, Michigan fans on Twitter were not pleased with Speight after he threw pick-sixes on back-to-back drives, which would end up being Florida’s only touchdowns of the game. There is no question that the second one, when he overthrew Grant Perry on an out, was all on him. However, the first one was really not his fault. Yes, Speight may have fired it slightly high, but that ball hit Kekoa Crawford squarely in the hands right above his helmet. It is not as if Crawford’s arms were fully extended. It was not a perfect pass, but it was quite good and one that Crawford absolutely needed to haul in for a first down. In fact, Speight was not rewarded with better statistics, in part, because his receivers dropped several balls that should have been caught.
On the other hand, Speight’s numbers were not as good as they could have been because he made costly mistakes. First, I am not sure yet if it was nerves or technique, but Speight was airmailing his throws. The first interception was slightly high, the second interception was absolutely high, and he put too much juice on too many throws. In the fourth quarter, he could have sealed the game earlier when he had Crawford running all by himself down the far sideline on third down. All Speight needed to do was drop the ball somewhere in bounds, and it would have been an easy Michigan touchdown. However, Speight put too much power on it and led Crawford out of bounds. The Wolverines lined up for a field goal, which Quinn Nordin missed.
Speight is Michigan’s best quarterback. His pocket presence and ability to keep plays alive are outstanding, and he can make some crisp throws. Just look at his strike to Perry over the middle in the third quarter to set up a touchdown and the dime to Nick Eubanks in double coverage. But Speight needs to be more consistent, and he cannot miss gimmes the defense gives him and give gimmes to those same defenses. When that happens, it leaves the door open for inferior opponents to upset Michigan. Speight should be thankful Florida had no firepower to do that in the fourth quarter.
KB: Want to know the point at which I decided Speight will continue to be fine? He sidestepped a Gator pass rusher in the pocket and ran for a first down (I think). He extends plays, bails out when he is supposed to, and makes just enough completions to give Michigan a chance. Tacopants was mysteriously resurrected when he airmailed Crawford twice, especially the second time when that would have put Florida away much sooner. He’s not going to quit being a Jekyl and Hyde quarterback, but he looked like pre-injury Speight from last season more so than not in this game.
Josh: This wasn't a “worst case scenario,” but it was close. I don't care who you are, back to back pick-sixes are a confidence destroyer. Benching Speight for the rest of the first half to rest and “reset” -- both mentally and physically -- was the best move Jim Harbaugh could make. I agree with Drew as well that Speight is the best option at quarterback for now, but he has to start connecting on those gimmes.
The audible from what was probably a called run to a wheel route for Kekoa Crawford was a smart, veteran move, and it paid off. Crawford was wide open. But there's the problem again: Speight led Crawford out of bounds when any throw in bounds would've been a near guaranteed touchdown.
Speight has shown poise in high-pressure situations throughout his career as a Wolverine, but games like Saturday have to be few and far between for Michigan to have real success this year. Speight has plenty of talent. He just needs to hone in on that accuracy and cut down on miscues that plagued him throughout the game.
Drew: We’ll see if Speight can rebound with more consistency against Cincinnati.
Alright, let’s wrap this up with one final topic: did Michigan’s win against Florida alter your expectations for the season and, if so, how? My expectations have not changed one way or the other. Michigan has a great defense, led by its disruptive defensive line and missiles at linebacker, that can become elite if the corners shore up some deficiencies. The offense has some issues that need to be fixed: the right side of the line, running between the tackles, Wilton Speight’s consistency, and the young receivers’ hands (too many drops). The team is talented but inexperienced, and it may take a couple of weeks for everything to click at the same time.
The good news for Michigan is that it had these ups and downs in the opener and still dominated Florida, a team not at full strength but projected to be top 20. The Wolverines had 5.8 YPP to Florida’s 3.6 YPP, they had a first-quarter touchdown wiped out by an incorrect illegal receiver downfield penalty, they missed a 32-yard field goal, and they were in total control of this game when not handing the Gators free points. This win was not perfect — Michigan could have truly won this, like, 40-3 — but it set a positive tone for this season. And now, Michigan has five games it should win easily to find that perfection before it travels to Happy Valley. I’m not quite sure if these Wolverines will be quite ready for that task (or the task at Wisconsin or vs. Ohio State), but I can say that it would be an absolute surprise if this team is worse than 9-3.
Kevin: Didn't you know that, in the Big 12 conference, a fullback in motion is considered an illegal downfield receiver? That conference doesn't know what a fullback is because they don't block or play defense so why would such a bizarre formation be needed gimme 70 points week by week pawwwwwwl.
The overall expectations weren't altered at all. This team is so very talented. I'm still expecting a high ceiling if the coaching staff can get everyone clicking at the same time. However, my confidence in the defense’s ability to close out a game was elevated quite a bit. Too many times Michigan has blown a game because they let an opponent shred them and couldn’t get the ball back in time or have the chance to try to win.
Josh: The Florida game went how I thought it would, honestly. Michigan played great on defense, and the offense needs some time to gel, which is completely understandable. Basically, this means that my previous season projections haven't changed. The floor, like Drew alluded to, has got to be 9-3, and that's a high floor if I do say so myself.
There's just way too much talent on this team for Michigan to go through a, and I quote, “rebuilding year”. The defense can and will carry them to wins in the majority of their match-ups this year. The real question mark, though, is if they can find some serious offensive success, not only at quarterback and on the offensive Line, but throughout that whole side of the ball.
They have the talent all across the board for a potential Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff run, but they need the offense to click. If over the next few weeks in the non-conference portion of the schedule the offense can find that groove, then buddy, we’re in for a heckuva season.