What a difference a week makes.
Sure, Michigan ended up winning easily, and you can chalk up the sloppy mistakes to youth, or coming down from the high of a big opening week, or even that the players had just gone through their first week of classes.
To me, though, those all sound like excuses.
Week 2 against Cincinnati was far from the blowout that most had predicted, including Vegas, but in the end the Wolverines got the job done — that wasn’t, however, until we learned some pretty clear lessons about this 2017 team.
Lesson 1: One game can’t erase this team’s inexperience
“You can’t get experience without playing.”
That’s what Jim Harbaugh had to say after Saturday’s win against Cincinnati. He said this in his opening remark, without needing to be asked by reporters about his team’s youth showing in the home opener.
The season-opening victory against a ranked Florida team — with authority, I might add — went a long way to make fans forget about all the inexperience on this roster. I’ll admit it certainly did for me. But Saturday’s game brought it all back to the forefront of the conversation.
Repeatedly, the offensive line got beat around the edge, giving an average Cincinnati defense a sack and five tackles for loss.
And then there was the miscue on the punt return that led to Cincinnati recovering deep inside Michigan territory. It came down to a freshman return man not waving off a freshman blocker, who then was hit by the ball.
And finally, on Cincinnati’s second scoring drive, the Wolverine defense surrendered a 46-yard run by quarterback Hayden Moore right up the center of the field, finding a Michigan weakness and exploiting it. Two plays later, two first-year starting defensive backs — Tyree Kinnel and Brandon Watson — didn’t communicate on a receiver out-pattern that led to a touchdown pass.
These are all very common mistakes for an inexperienced football team, but the good news is that they’re also very correctable. Let’s hope the Michigan coaching staff can fix things sooner rather than later.
Lesson 2: Michigan continues to live on big plays (and opponent miscues)
There’s a reason it never felt like Michigan was in control of this game. Mostly because it wasn’t.
At the end of the day, Michigan won this game because it made four big plays — two pick-sixes and two long touchdown passes. The mistakes by Cincinnati also helped.
In a 17-14 ballgame with five minutes left in the third quarter, Moore missed an open receiver on what would have likely been a go-ahead score for the Bearcats. On Cincinnati’s first possession of the fourth quarter, already inside Michigan territory, Moore floated a perfect pass down the sideline that went right through his receiver’s hands inside the 10 yard-line. On the Bearcats’ next possession, after Michigan had added a field goal, an errant snap to the punter led to a Michigan safety.
In each of Michigan’s two games so far this season, the defense has scored a touchdown and Speight has connected on a touchdown pass of more than 40 yards. Can these trends continue?
One thing’s for sure: It’s a dangerous way to keep winning football games.
Lesson 3: The clock is ticking on Wilton Speight
The stat sheet looked pretty decent for Speight in this one. He went 17-of-29 for 221 yards and two touchdowns and threw zero interceptions. But that only tells part of the story.
Again, for the second week in a row, he missed open receivers. He made some bad reads. Then, of course, there was the fumble on the exchange from him to Kekoa Crawford, a timing issue. He just doesn’t look as comfortable running the offense as he did a year ago.
Is it focus? Or inexperience around him? Or maybe he’s just going through a slump? Regardless, the fanbase has been far from quiet about its displeasure with his performance through two contests this season, and he only has a couple more weeks to get it figured out.
Even with a struggling Speight, Michigan should be able to get past Air Force and Purdue, but when the Spartans come to town in early October all bets are off. Michigan State has been known to play the Wolverines tough, regardless of who is favored. To me, he has two more games to get himself back on track. If he cannot do that, this could be a very long season.
Lesson 4: The defense is still really good
When the going gets tough, the best teams can rely on their defenses to pick them up. That’s certainly what Michigan did on Saturday.
After Cincinnati scored early in the third quarter to narrow the Michigan lead to just three points, the Wolverine defense went to work. This is how the Bearcats’ final seven possessions of the game ended: punt, punt, punt, punt, safety, pick-six, punt.
Sure, there were moments in the middle of the game when the Michigan defense looked vulnerable — particularly the final drive of the second quarter and the first of the second half. In those two drives, Cincinnati ran 20 plays and gained 138 of its 200 total yards, culminating in a missed field goal and a touchdown. (Its first touchdown came on a short field following a Michigan miscue on a punt return, if you recall.)
But down the stretch, the Michigan defense stepped up. This, if the Wolverines expect to compete for any sort of title this season, needs to be a trend.
Lesson 5: Michigan fans have very little patience (and that’s a bad thing)
This one may not be a new lesson. Michigan fans are an impatient bunch.
Sure, the program has been through some tough times over the last decade, and after what Harbaugh has done in his first two seasons the expectations are sky-high for Year 3. But let’s not forget that this is still a young squad on the field, and youthful teams go through plenty of rough patches as they gain valuable playing time together.
With 6:20 left in the third quarter, the Wolverines ran a drag route on a third-and-long, only for Tarik Black to be stopped at the line of scrimmage as he caught the ball. By this point in the game — a game in which Michigan was supposed to dominate — there was plenty to be frustrated about: Two lost fumbles, only a three-point lead, a stagnant offense, a boring play call and a poor read by a quarterback in his 14th start.
That’s when the boos came.
“Listen to them now,” ESPN color commentator Brock Huard said. “There is a cascade of boos.”
They were so apparent, in fact, that one Wolverine took to Twitter following the game to voice his displeasure.
“Nothing like being booed by your fans at home in a win,” Grant Newsome tweeted. “It really does impact the game.”
Michigan fans would be wise to heed his words, take the win and move on. Patience, after all, is a virtue.