There was an air of youthful defiance floating through the Michigan locker room Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, after the Wolverines took No. 17 Florida behind one of the world’s fanciest woodsheds and handed them what Jim McElwain declared to be a “whooping.”
McElwain and his team caught the brunt of Michigan’s ire on Saturday, but the Wolverines don’t appear to have exhausted their supply of prove-you-wrong exuberance yet. Michigan’s defense spent an offseason stewing in a broth of doubt. Members of the group took note of questions about their ability to replace 10 starters without taking a step backward. They took note of the pregame slights coming out of Gainesville and talk of Florida’s expectations for the season opener. They took them to heart.
“Being told you’re too young is an insult,” defensive tackle Lawrence Marshall said Monday afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “I can play college football just like anyone else can play college football. We got to prove on a bigger stage that we’re here, and we are meant to be here.”
Marshall wasn’t the only one who said he felt insulted in the lead-up to Saturday’s debut. He and his teammates turned that into a performance that included as many tackles for loss (11) as Florida had rushing yards. There seemed to be plenty left in the tank to help fuel the early makings of a new identity for a group that shouldn’t have to take a step backward after consecutive 10-win seasons to start Harbaugh’s tenure. This Michigan team may be unseasoned, but it sure is salty.
No fresh face embodied that attitude better than middle linebacker Devin Bush. With a team-high seven tackles and two sacks in his first career start, the sophomore blossomed into a leader on the field despite almost being ejected for targeting on the first play of the game.
“That’s just what I do. If they want to eject me, eject me,” Bush said Saturday night in the clipped tone of someone who still had plenty of adrenaline flowing through him. What did he make of all this talk about his pack of underclassmen not having the goods to take over for the star-studded, veteran group from last year?
“Young don’t mean nothing,” he said.
Part way through August’s camp, a couple of members of Michigan’s famed Fab Five basketball team visited to share some pearls of wisdom. After that day’s practice, Bush said he knew all about what the hoops stars did as freshmen and sophomores even though he wasn't even born when they took college basketball by storm in the early 1990s. He certainly knows how to channel their confidence.
“We’re a confident unit,” Harbaugh said Monday. “We thought we were going to be good, and we were good.”
Exactly how good they can be still is far from answered. Florida’s history of ineptitude on offense makes them an unreliable measuring stick. Don’t confuse that mention of the Fab Five with a comparison. Right now, the only thing the football team has proven it has in common with the legendary Wolverines from a generation ago is that it’s unafraid of its own age.
Harbaugh found plenty of faults to highlight after reviewing the season’s first bit of film. He called the effort by Michigan’s offense to stop two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the second quarter “atrocious.” He addressed some areas that need improvement in the running game and on special teams.
Quinn Nordin, for example, set a school record by kicking two field goals of 50-plus yards in his first college game, yet missed two other attempts. His impressive, imperfect day was a good microcosm for what we know about this team so far.
“I think he responds to the moment and to the pressure. I think he’s got that wonderful quality about him,” Harbaugh said of Nordin before noting the misses. “That’s a bit of a theme that we have. It wasn’t perfect. There are definitely things to coach and we’ll see if we can improve.”
The Wolverines have a little leg room to get better after getting past the lone Power 5 opponent on their nonconference schedule. They are a four-plus-touchdown favorite in their home opener against Cincinnati this weekend and should be laying comfortable point spreads for the next several weeks while working out the kinks of inexperience.
Harbuagh said he’s looking for “a season of increases.” That applies, he said, to everyone on the roster -- the coaching staff, the starting quarterback, players on both sides of the ball and even the rookie kicker who carved a zig-zag pattern into the back of his hair last week as an ode to the closer mentality of Rick Vaughn.
Yes, that would be Charlie Sheen’s heartthrob, fire-throwing, near-sighted ex-con character from "Major League" -- yet another reference that predates the referencer’s existence on this planet. Nordin said he had to show YouTube clips to a couple of his teammates for them to understand what he was going for. When asked Saturday if the similarities between him and Vaughn stretch beyond their hairstyles, Nordin smiled. “Yeah, I think so,” he said. Then he turned and walked back into the locker room.
Even the damn kicker on this team has some attitude.