ANN ARBOR, Mich. — You’ve got to hand it to Jim Harbaugh.
In 15 games at his alma mater, King Khaki Pants has put such a charge into previously moribund Michigan football that his team is earning the one compliment some programs go years without — the nitpicking of blowout victories.
At times Saturday against Central Florida, the Wolverines sputtered more than purred:
» UCF rushed for 275 yards against a defense considered better than the unit that ranked fourth nationally last season. Among the carries were four of 26 yards or longer, including an 87-yard touchdown burst.
» Michigan ran for 119 yards, averaging 2.9 yards a carry.
» Michigan senior tight end Jake Butt, an All-America candidate, dropped two passes. That equaled the number he flubbed in his first three seasons combined.
Yet at game’s end, a look at the scoreboard revealed Michigan ahead by 37 points, 51-14. It was almost startling. When a team plays OK and still throttles an opponent with nice athleticism, which UCF has, it shows you’ve got something.
“I wouldn’t call it dominating,” Harbaugh said. “But we took care of business.”
One way to overcome some fair-to-middling play is to minimize mistakes. Championship teams do that, while simultaneously clubbing opponents over the head with theirs.
Michigan, which committed one turnover in its opener against Hawaii, had none against Central Florida. The offense has run 141 plays in two games without being penalized.
The Wolverines bolted to a 34-7 halftime lead in part by blocking one field goal, partially deflecting two punts and recovering a fumbled kickoff. The field-position discrepancy those plays created tilted the game quickly.
Michigan’s struggle to run the ball against Central Florida’s run-blitzing defense turned into a positive. It put the offensive burden on quarterback Wilton Speight, and he sparkled in his second collegiate start.
The 6-foot-6, 243-pound junior from Richmond, Virginia, completed 25 of 37 passes (67.6 percent) for 312 yards and four touchdowns (3, 45, 14 and 30 yards).
“He hit two post routes, the hardest routes to hit in my opinion, having played the position and watched it all my life,” said Harbaugh, who played four years at Michigan and 15 seasons in the NFL.
Speight (rhymes with eight) took two sacks but faced nearly nonstop blitzing. His strength showed in avoiding another sack. After taking a hit and then having another defender dragging him to the ground, Speight freed his arm to dump a pass to the fullback for 8 yards.
“He had some good ‘courage’ plays, where he had to stand in the pocket, knew the blitzer or rusher was coming,” Harbaugh said. “He even made an improv play. That was a smart play.”
Something else Speight displayed was a sense of humor.
Split end Jehu Chesson had four catches for 84 yards, leading to a question of whether Speight favors the speedster.
“Well, he’s really fast,” Speight deadpanned. “I like throwing to guys who are open.”
Speight went through spring practice and fall camp in a three-way battle at quarterback with senior Shane Morris and Houston transfer John O’Korn.
Butt, the tight end, is a close friend of Speight, and saw him take command as fall camp went on.
“It was like night and day,” Butt said. “You could see him really coming into his own. He took his preparation and concentration to the next level. You could feel it like a strong wind.”
That’s the feeling blowing through Michigan Stadium and Ann Arbor as a whole. Harbaugh has brought the swagger back to the program with the most victories in college football history.
Michigan isn’t unbeatable. Mobile quarterbacks continue to cause problems, as Central Florida’s Justin Holman did before leaving for good in the second quarter with a leg injury.
But the defense is relentless, the offense is highly efficient with just enough big-play ability, the special teams are nails and toughness abounds.
Harbaugh told a story about five-star defensive line recruit Rashan Gary dislocating a finger early in fall camp. During X-rays, a trainer said, “Man, what is that?”
Gary’s reply: “That’s football.”
In another practice, cramps forced Gary to the sideline. Harbaugh said he noticed six plays later that Gary had returned, noting: “A real football player. Doing a great job.”
UCF coach Scott Frost went against Harbaugh when Harbaugh was coach at Stanford and Frost was offensive coordinator at Oregon. Frost knows Harbaugh doesn’t mind stepping on toes to win.
“Jim is unique,” Frost said. “But you can’t really argue with the success he’s had. I admire the approach he takes. He’s always going to have a tough and disciplined team. That’s a big step in the right direction.”