Wolverine Watch: Michigan Learning Hard Lessons

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Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell entered the week talking about facing a “big game” in The Big House.

The fact that it remained a big one well into the second half has to annoy Jim Harbaugh’s players tonight, if not the boss himself. Other than the check Michigan wrote to get the Bearcats in the building, nothing about this match-up qualified as sizable.

Fickell’s crew roared off a 26-14 win over Austin Peay last week. The Governors, mind you, aren’t governing anything, having lost 28 straight. But they gave the Bearcats a battle, setting the stage for what would surely feature the Wolverines pounding the Bearcat out of the visitors.

This marked the afternoon Harbaugh’s No. 8 crew would double down on its second-half flogging of Florida, crushing Cincinnati and building depth for much bigger days ahead. The backup quarterbacks might get a quarter apiece on the field, fans fretting only about their choice of entrees in the post-pounding repast.

Sorry, anyone seeking domination. Michigan is not ready for that yet.

Instead, 42 minutes into a 60-minute game, the Wolverines clung to a three-point lead, their disbelieving fans digging screeching fingernails into their metal benches. Fumbles, penalties, special teams gaffes, you name it … Michigan gave Cincinnati reason to hope, until its sheer talent advantage snatched it back.

Now, 36-14 doesn't sound like a cliffhanger, but consider the fact that the Wolverines’ offense scored only 20 of those. U-M’s defense stepped up once again, cashing in a pair of pick-sixes, while CU punter James Smith might have been watching himself on an end-zone video board as a snap sailed by him.

Smith herded the football out of the end zone for a safety, furthering Fickell’s Follies down the stretch.

The Wolverines’ seamless transition from a senior-laden 2016 squad obviously isn’t so seamless. They’re a work in progress, which Harbaugh readily admitted afterward.

“We’ve got to get experience playing,” the coach stressed. “It’s guys’ first time playing here in The Big House, first time going through a week of school. We’ve got to be patient, coach ‘em up. Long road ahead, but you can’t get experience without playing. That’s the theme.”

Redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight has experience, but not leading a crew with almost all freshman and sophomore wideouts, compared to fifth-year seniors and an All-American tight end in 2016. That doesn’t excuse at least one of his two costly fumbles on the day, but the transition is obvious at times.

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Freshman wideout Donovan Peoples-Jones gets pulled on punt returns in favor of junior wideout Grant Perry after a few tentative adventures fielding the ball. One set up a short-field touchdown by the Bearcats.

“Donovan will be really good, but needs more experience,” Harbaugh said. “Things go bad where you’re not confident.”

Freshman wideout Tarik Black made some solid plays, but later came up a half-yard short of the sticks on a third-down catch when the Wolverines needed to keep them moving.

Sophomore wideout Kekoa Crawford snagged a touchdown bomb, but found himself involved in a mishandled exchange on an end-around, on which Harbaugh questioned the timing.

The offensive line blocked well enough for fifth-year senior tailback Ty Isaac to rush for 133 yards, but too often got blown up.

“I could document it and go through it play by play … but that’s the cause of it,” Harbaugh said. “Guys are taking turns [making mistakes]. We’ve got to have all 11 execute. That’s on us as coaches and the players, to evaluate what’s causing it and how to get our offensive into rhythm, because we can move the ball. We had the feeling coming out of this game we stopped ourselves on occasion. That’s the challenge for our team.”

Harbaugh noted he’s a cadaver regarding nervousness at age 53. He knows that’s not the case with players 35 years younger.

“I’m dead in here,” he said, tapping his chest. “It’s like burnt wood in terms of nervousness, butterflies and emotions that way. But guys doing it for the first time, second time even, it takes some time on task.”

He’s trying to remember that, while he guides a team into contention.

Mike McCray Sr., father of U-M fifth-year senior captain Mike McCray and one-time Ohio State captain, summed it up well.

“People don’t see that effort that they put in — all summer, all spring, camp,” he said. “They just see the product on Saturday. What kid wants to go out there and mess up? They don’t want to do that on purpose.

“People don’t see that. When things don’t go the way we want them to go, we kind of beat them up a little bit.”

If they don’t improve, opponents will beat them up a little bit. But that hasn’t happened yet, and they’re very much alive in their chests, in ways both good and bad.

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