The Wolverine

October 2017

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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74 THE WOLVERINE OCTOBER 2017 N ot since head coach Lloyd Carr retired before the 2008 season has Michigan football been on such solid ground. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has won 10 games in each of his first two years, and was only a few plays away from the Big Ten title game last season. He's recruiting extremely well, fields a defense that appears to be among the nation's best for the third year running and will lead the Wolverines to a championship at some point. Yet there was plenty of grumbling following U-M's lackluster 36-14 win over Cincinnati. "The offense should be further along," some complained. "How can they still be struggling with turnovers?" others lamented … or, "Why can't they run between the tackles?" Previous coaches had different methods for explaining or for preach- ing patience. Rich Rodriguez said during his initial, 3-9 campaign, "Our problems weren't created overnight, and they won't be fixed overnight," implying U-M had a talent issue. Brady Hoke was in a similar situa- tion a few years later, left with eight scholarship offensive linemen and feeling the brunt of it during his third year, when young recruits were playing before they were ready. These weren't excuses, anymore than Harbaugh's words were in ex- plaining the offensive woes follow- ing the Cincinnati win. "We've got to get experience play- ing," he 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 and coach 'em up. It's a long road ahead, but you can't get experience without playing. That's the theme. "I could document it and go through it play by play … but that's the cause of it. 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." It makes sense. For years the Wol- verines were a well-oiled machine, starting veteran offensive linemen with a few special underclassmen sprinkled in, highly acclaimed re- ceivers who had been in the system for a while, learning from the all- conference (or All-American) play- ers before them. That changed, of course, when then-athletics director Bill Martin chose to radically modify the iden- tity of the program and go with Rodriguez's high-octane offense, defense-optional approach. The program has been struggling to get back on a title track since. Freshmen wide receivers are ex- pected to play key roles this year, when in the past they'd be easing into college ball. Anthony Carter, Braylon Edwards, Mario Manning- ham … none of them was close to being "The Man" in their first years (though Carter was close), so the ex- pectations were a bit lower. This group doesn't have that luxury. Harbaugh insisted some of them were feeling the pressure, and that it was natural. "I'm dead in here," he said, tap- ping his chest. "It's like burnt wood in terms of nervousness, butterflies and emotions that way. But guys do- ing it for the first time, second time even, it takes some time on task." Time for redshirt junior quar- terback Wilton Speight (who, yes, needs to be better — period) to become familiar with his young re- ceivers and their tendencies. People forget that fifth-year senior Jake Rudock needed several games to get acclimated to his group of pass catchers two years ago before be- coming only the second quarterback to eclipse 3,000 passing yards in a season (3,017), joining John Navarre (3,331) in Michigan's exclusive club. He wasn't good from the beginning. None of Michigan's running backs had been starters before this year, and the Wolverines had to replace three starters on the offensive line. It takes time to jell, and there will probably still be more growing pains. The problems are magnified, of course, by a young defense that continues to dominate despite roll- ing out 10 new starters. Coordinator Don Brown has provided instant fan gratification on his side of the ball, but that's unique. This fan base, too, is understand- ably hungry for a championship. The Wolverines haven't won one since 2004, and the program hasn't endured a similar dry spell since the 1950s. Bo Schembechler provided an end to it starting in 1969, inheriting a loaded roster and having the ben- efit of 100-plus scholarship players. Harbaugh's task is a bit tougher and includes a Big Ten championship game plus a much tougher confer- ence, top to bottom. But he'll get there, and it might even be this year. The ebbs and flows will continue, but stability is right around the corner … and after a 14-year drought, what's a little longer to wait? ❏ Chris Balas has been with The Wolver- ine since 1997, working part time for five years before joining the staff full time in 2002. Contact him at cbalas@ and follow him on Twitter @Balas_Wolverine. INSIDE MICHIGAN   CHRIS BALAS Patience Is Tough, But Necessary Freshman wide receiver Tarik Black is expected to play a key role this year, but head coach Jim Harbaugh noted young play- ers like him need some time to settle in and get comfortable playing at the college level. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN

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