New-look defense roaring for No. 8 Michigan

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2017 at 5:41 pm.

Sep 2, 2017; Arlington, TX, USA; Florida Gators quarterback Malik Zaire (8) is tackled on a run by Michigan Wolverines cornerback Lavert Hill (23) at AT&T Stadium. Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 2, 2017; Arlington, TX, USA; Florida Gators quarterback Malik Zaire (8) is tackled on a run by Michigan Wolverines cornerback Lavert Hill (23) at AT&T Stadium. Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan’s core of predominantly new starters showed last week it could handle the pressure of facing a ranked opponent in front of more than 100,000 fans at a neutral site.

This week, the task for the Wolverines will be demonstrating if they can handle prosperity against what appears to be an overmatched opponent at home.

Following an impressive 33-17 win over Florida last Saturday in Arlington, Texas, No. 8 Michigan opens the home portion of its schedule at noon ET on Saturday as a 33-point favorite over Cincinnati.

The Bearcats opened their season with a 26-14 win over Austin Peay on Aug. 31.

Despite having to replace 10 starters on defense from last year’s unit that was one of the best in the nation, Michigan’s defense has been getting accolades from around the country ever since beating Florida.

The Wolverines’ defense gave up only three points, held the Gators to 11 yards rushing and 192 total yards, and recorded six sacks. Sophomore middle linebacker Devin Bush has two sacks in his first career start.

An article in the Detroit Free Press already suggested that this year’s defense could be just as good as the defense Michigan had in 1997 when it won its last national championship, one that was led by Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson.

Always one to promote his players, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh certainly couldn’t hold back about how good his defense looked against Florida.

“It was the best since I have been here coaching that I’ve seen our defense run to the football,” Harbaugh said. “Holes opened up and they closed. Pursuit, nobody on the ground and everybody getting up off of the ground and running.”

Harbaugh was equally pleased with his team’s offensive line, which allowed senior running back Ty Isaac to rush for 114 yards on 11 carries and sophomore Chris Evans to run for 78 yards on 22 carries.

But there was a noticeable negative for Michigan against Florida, one that will no doubt be monitored throughout the season.

Junior quarterback Wilton Speight threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns, and he might find himself on a short leash if he continues to turn the ball over.

For now, though, Speight is the man for Harbaugh.

“If you can’t handle that type of position when something goes bad, it’s the wrong position to be playing,” Harbaugh said.

“I thought he did very well. Sometimes that breaks a guy. Sometimes they can bounce back it from the next game, sometimes they can bounce back in the same game and sometimes they can’t. If you can’t, and it affects you to the point where you can’t go execute and you are unwilling to take any chances or risk, that’s the sign you can’t handle it really well. He kept firing.”

First-year Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell is very familiar with Michigan Stadium and the Michigan program, given that he was on Ohio State’s coaching staff for 14 years before being hired as the Bearcats’ head coach last December.

However, Fickell has done his best to downplay any familiarity.

“This is about our team and our program,” Fickell said.

“It’s not about me or the history I’ve had with the University of Michigan, but really truly try to focus on our team and our opportunities and the things we are doing. Just like me, just like every coach and every one of our players, we are extremely excited for this opportunity this week.”

In the win over an Austin Peay team that now has lost 28 straight games, the Bearcats actually were outgained in total yardage, 313-248, and had only 22 minutes of possession.

But behind two forced turnovers and 100 yards on 19 carries from senior running back Mike Boone, the Bearcats managed to survive and give Fickell a victory in his first game with the program.

Now, the Bearcats will prepare for an ultimate measuring stick game against the Wolverines.

“We take incredible pride in the way we work, the way we train and the way we prepare,” Fickell said. “There’s no better way to do that than to have an opportunity on national television to go play against a top-5 team in the country. Everyone is excited.”