ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Despite being 3-0 and No. 7 in the country, Michigan still lacks a certain level of cohesiveness on offense, which raises a few concerns.
Consistent rhythm has been absent for the Wolverines through the first three weeks. They have scored one offensive touchdown in 10 red-zone appearances — but they’re 9-for-10 with the right foot of freshman kicker Quinn Nordin, who tied a school record Saturday with five field goals.
Defense and special teams are meant for support, not as the sole providers for points.
On or off. Yes or no.
Is and isn’t.
“Yeah, yeah, like you said — it’s hot and cold,” said quarterback Wilton Speight, who completed 14 of 23 attempts for 169 yards during a 29-13 win Saturday over Air Force. “You know, we started with Florida, then we started last week with Cincinnati with two long touchdown passes — and it didn’t show today. But yeah, it’s just something as a young group, that we’ve got to keep learning from, keep building on and getting better.”
Through it all, Speight, now in his second season as the Wolverines’ starter, has remained calm and collected while running the show for coach Jim Harbaugh. Heavily criticized by pundits and talking heads, Speight remains 12-3 as the every-day QB (just six points from being 15-0).
He has been patient, too. Both personally and with teammates. Smooth, high-flying offenses, like UM’s 40 point-a-game assault in 2016, take time to form — often times more than two or three games, especially with a new passing game coordinator in Pep Hamilton and a new set of receivers.
In 2016, Speight helped Michigan jump to a 9-0 start, so he’s clearly capable of doing the same this year — once everyone gets used to each other.
Good news for Michigan?
It appears that Speight and freshman receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black could be close to being on the same page as the Wolverines prepare for Big Ten play. One year ago, Speight was one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, finishing in the top three in pass completion percentage, rating and fewest interceptions.
Of course, he did all of that with senior receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. He also had tight end Jake Butt, one of the best to play the position at Michigan. The Wolverines also had three all-conference offensive linemen, two on the right side.
Essentially, Speight has had to hit the reset button in 2017. Same goes for Harbaugh.
“It was good to see Donovan go and make a big play offensively, make a big play special teams-wise,” Harbaugh said. “So it was great thing to see him be a factor in the third game of his freshman year. Just terrific. Just like Tarik has done, those freshmen who are playing in there, it’s their third ballgame — and they’re huge factors where we are, 3-0, and the ballgame that we had today.”
Black had five catches for 55 yards against the Falcons, who allowed 40 passing yards during their 62-0 win over VMI in Week 1. Against Florida, Black had two receptions for 83 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown.
On Saturday, Peoples-Jones had a 25-yard punt return and a 79-yard return for a touchdown, an explosive play that gave the Wolverines a 16-6 advantage in the third quarter.
Sure, there have been several miscues and missed opportunities. Nobody is debating that fact.
In Week 2, Harbaugh said his team felt that it left a lot on the table against Cincinnati. Speight seconded that thought. But neither are panicking, and that’s because they’re aware of what could be possible with two of the Wolverines’ best true-frosh receivers in recent memory.
“It’s pretty cool that (Peoples-Jones) was playing high school football last year, Tarik was playing high school football last year,” Speight said. “You know, we went down to Dallas (vs. Florida), it was a big-time venue, and then it’s two (wins) in a row at The Big House. I think you saw Donovan kind of settle in a little bit today, and realize what he’s truly capable of with catching passes, making people miss, catching a punt return and taking it — what was it, 70-something yards? And those are the strides and the steps that we need to take — that everyone needs to take — and we are.”
Despite struggles and their reliance upon defense and special teams, the Wolverines have averaged nearly 33 points and 17 first downs per game. They’ve won all of their games. The run game has been reliable, putting up 30 of Michigan’s total 52 first downs.
Wolverines fans shouldn’t be.
It hasn’t been pretty or perfect, but the offense has done enough to give the Wolverines a chance to win — and winning, regardless of stats and scores, is always the objective.
“You know, heading into Week 4, I think the ball will keep moving in the right direction,” Speight said.