|It took perhaps a bit too long, but the final nail eventually came, fittingly, from the defense. |
(Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier/DFP)
All summer, the focus was on what was missing, the ten starters on defense gone, the opportunities at the end of the season lost because of a failure to be able to close out with a lead. It makes sense, they were, after all, things that were objectively true. But at the same time, they were also misleading. Michigan was missing a lot of starters on the defense as it headed down to Arlington, true, but Maurice Hurst and Rashan Gary were not starters last season, to focus on one really positive interpretation of facts as Michigan headed down to Arlington to face Florida and perhaps exorcise some of the demons of JerryWorld. After all, it was five years (and one day) since "The Hammer".
We quickly were reminded of the joys of targeting calls on the first play, when Devin Bush hit a Florida player late out of bounds, and then it was determined that he did not, in fact, lead with his helmet. That ten-minute delay as we sorted things out lead to a big Florida passing play, and while the defense stiffened in the red zone to hold the Gators to a field goal, it was not a welcome potential portent of how the day would go. It also turned out to be a false reading of the defense's abilities.
Michigan put together a solid opening drive that ended in a Quinn Nordin field goal, which came only after the officials called an ineligible man downfield penalty that was misidentified on Khalid Hill, who had motioned out of the backfield. That Michigan fan doubt crept in, would it be a loss where all of the moments could be written down in a bullet pointed list that led to a game that just slipped away? Shortly after Wilton Speight found Tarik Black for 46 yards on a busted coverage for a TD, it felt like that was just all paranoia.
Until it didn't. Two pick sixes, one off a deflection from Kekoa Crawford's hands, the other from a Speight overthrow of Grant Perry, all within 79 seconds of each other, and it really began to feel like Michigan was going to give Florida the win rather than use their aggressive defense to stifle a Florida offense that never really got moving and was missing a bunch of playmakers due to suspensions.
One of the things I most love about the Harbaugh era is that I know halftime adjustments are coming. I know they are coming like the article of faith that it was in my youth, that Bo's teams were second half teams, they would adjust at halftime and the depth would wear you down, and they would seize control again. For a long time, even going back to the Carr era, this was not as much the case. Scholarship limits played a role in that, but it also comes down to having a staff that can see things and finding ways to adjust, knowing that the other team will be adjusting as well. When Michigan came out and took the opening possession of the second half 75 yards on ten methodical plays and took a lead they would never relinquish, it felt like things were going to be OK. Nordin's steel toe was bombing field goals from beyond 50 yards, and while it would be nice to turn these drives into touchdowns, Florida wasn't exactly moving the ball, even with a switch the Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire at quarterback.
But Michigan was stuck on a nine-point lead for 23+ minutes of game time. Nordin missed a couple of field goals that would have made it a two touchdown lead, but Florida's offense ran 21 plays for 36 total yards before a series where a Michigan punt had pinned them deep in their own end of the field. Finally, the combination of Khaleke Hudson (with the sack), Chase Winovich (with the strip), and Noah Furbush (with the recovery for the TD) attacked Zaire one last time, and Michigan put the game away, one in retrospect they had dominated save a terrible 80 or so seconds.
It is our nature to want to draw conclusions from the limited data we have at this point, it's only slightly less foolish than making predictions based on the data we have on paper about teams. But this was one of the four big tests (on paper) Michigan was looking at this season, and it passed it. It was not perfect, but the errors made were not uncorrectable. This can be a great team if it can correct those errors and if the innocent freshmen turn into experienced veterans sooner rather than later. I trust that they can and will. Michigan comes home to face Cincinnati next week and hopefully cleans up the mistakes.