ANN ARBOR, MICH. - Michigan’s football players have consistently said they work harder than any team in the country.
They said their fall camp would prepare them like no one else.
So when Michael Jordan told them Friday night that’s how he became a great player — “the actual GOAT” as U-M linebacker Mike McCray called him — it reminded the Wolverines their coach wasn’t crazy and a payoff was coming.
Michigan Stadium’s 110,222 fans saw it Saturday in the No.7 Wolverines’ 63-3 domination of Hawaii, U-M’s largest margin of victory since 1975.
“You get good at football by playing football, and (Jordan) said, if you love it, you want to do it every day and you want to do it as much as you can every day,” U-M coach Jim Harbaugh said. “That’s what resonates with me because that’s what our football team has been doing for the last month.
“It’s just good that they could go out and show that.”
Over and over again.
New starting quarterback Wilton Speight showed it in a little more than a half of play, running the Michigan offense like a maestro, quickly moving past his intercepted first pass to lead the Wolverines (1-0).
He completed eight of his next nine passes for 116 yards and three touchdowns, all in the first 20 minutes, validating Harbaugh’s decision.
“I finished spring ball last year on top and was told going into camp that I would start there and it was my job to lose,” Speight said, “so I made sure to stay there.”
First was Grant Perry on a left corner, a soft touch over a pair of Hawaii defenders, a pass Harbaugh said could not be thrown any better, capping a 98-yard drive.
Next was All-American tight end Jake Butt on a rollout right that Butt took to the corner, diving for the pylon.
And the third score came on a five-yard dart to a wide open Amara Darboh in the end zone, a rapid read-and-react.
The early interception was quickly forgotten — Harbaugh laughing when Speight hit the sideline kept him loose — and Speight showed all the skills that earned him the job.
“He responded in tremendous fashion, to lead the touchdown drives, to make big third-down conversion throws,” Harbaugh said. “He had total command and I think it speaks volumes, bodes really well for our team and bodes really well for his career as a quarterback to have done that.
“Now he knows he can do it and now we can expect him to do it.”
In an a near-perfect offensive game — 6-for-6 in the red zone, 7-for-7 on third down, no punts for the fourth time in program history — Speight had a little unexpected help.
Tailback Chris Evans had thrilled his teammates for the past month in practice, but his debut — eight carries, 112 yards, two touchdowns — was even more than they saw coming.
He had the burst, the wiggle and the takeoff speed to become U-M’s most productive back, even in a limited role. With starter De’Veon Smith leaving with a rib injury, even his timing was perfect.
“We kind of knew from the beginning that Chris would come in producing like he did,” U-M fullback Khalid Hill said. “I didn’t think he was going to produce that much. But the way he produced, it was, ‘Ok, this dude’s the real deal.’”
Not that it was necessary, but new defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defense came out on fire.
Playing without All-America cornerback Jourdan Lewis, who was dressed but out with a minor injury, the U-M defense was dominant.
Hawaii didn’t get a first down until its final drive of the first half, with about five minutes to play before halftime.
It took a 55-yard field goal for the Rainbow Warriors to get any points, and U-M’s defense could have won the game by itself, scoring twice on pick-sixes by Delano Hill and Channing Stribling, the first time a U-M defense has done that since the 1999 Citrus Bowl.
“Watching our defense go through the first half and even into the third quarter, there wasn’t even a mistake made, there wasn’t an alignment mistake made,” Harbaugh said. “It was very impressive. Everybody knew exactly what they were doing. The meeting time and the practice time really showed in our guys.”
Hawaii was in trouble before the game started, having flown 14,000 miles in the previous 10 days, including a trip to Australia and back before coming east.
But this was as much about U-M as the Rainbow Warriors (0-2).
As Hill noted, there were three GOATs on the field, among the greatest players in their sport — Jordan, Charles Woodson and Derek Jeter — and they wanted to play to that level.
For one day, even their coach thought they did.