ARLINGTON, Texas -- The youngest team in college football has the goods to defend against some growing pains.
Not one of the 11 defenders who started Michigan’s first game in 2016 was on the field for Saturday’s first snap at AT&T Stadium. The defense’s only returning starter, captain Mike McCray, missed the first series, but he and the rest of the Wolverines’ front seven picked up right where the Big Ten’s best defense left off last year. They held No. 17 Florida to 192 total yards (only 11 on the ground) and kept the Gators' offense from scoring after an opening-drive field goal.
Senior Chase Winovich provided an exclamation point in the final two minutes with Michigan's fifth sack of the day. His hit popped the ball loose from quarterback Malik Zaire's hands, and linebacker Noah Furbush flopped on it in the end zone to cap a 33-17 win for the 11th-ranked Wolverines.
"Young don't mean nothing," said sophomore linebacker Devin Bush, who had a team-high seven tackles and two sacks. "Football is still football."
The limited sample size makes it hard to say whether those ugly numbers should be credited more to a defense that to the naked eye looked maybe even a step faster than last year’s group or to the ineptitude of Florida’s first attempt at offense this year. It might be both.
Beyond a two-play stretch in the second quarter, the Gators never presented a real threat to breaching the goal line -- or the first-down line with any regularity, for that matter. Florida moved the sticks twice in its first three plays, and then only five times until the final drive of the game.
The Gators' offense, as it has many times in recent history, came from the defense. Senior Duke Dawson snatched one ball that deflected off the hands of Michigan receiver Kekoa Crawford and returned it 48 yards for a score -- the third pick-six of his career. Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight overthrew his very next pass and Florida freshman CJ Henderson picked it off and streaked down the sideline for another score.
Speight, like the rest of the Wolverines, took his lumps in Arlington but did enough to establish himself as the clear leader of Michigan’s offense. He finished 11-of-25 with 181 yards and one long touchdown throw to freshman Tarik Black. Along with the interceptions, he also missed Crawford for what should have been an easy touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Florida made its share of opening-day mistakes, too, notably fumbling twice to even up the turnover battle in the third quarter. Both of those were converted into field goals for the Wolverines. The biggest mistakes for the Gators, though, came before they arrived in Texas. Suspensions cost them 10 players for Saturday’s game, including top playmakers Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett. Their absence took the teeth out of Florida’s offense no matter who was under center.
Michigan's youth showed itself at times, but the concerns that it could hold Jim Harbaugh & Co. back from competing with the top tier of the Big Ten this season should be all but quelled. The Wolverines should be at least a touchdown favorite in each of their next five games before heading to Happy Valley in October. By then, promising young receivers and defensive backs should be hitting their stride at the college level and handing out more pain than they're feeling.