ARLINGTON, Texas — The message for all those young Michigan players was clear in the letter from a 13-year combat veteran that coach Jim Harbaugh read to them the night before the first game.
“Just to hear that letter and say, OK, there’s 18- and 19-year-old guys going over there defending our freedom, why can’t we step out onto the field … and play a simple game of football?” quarterback Wilton Speight said after the 11th-ranked Wolverines beat No. 17 Florida 33-17 on Saturday.
While Speight is a senior, the Wolverines had to replace 18 of 22 starters from last season and there are youngsters on the roster.
Quinn Nordin, in his first college game, became the first Michigan kicker to make two 50-yard field goals in the same game, freshman Tarik Black had a 46-yard touchdown catch and the overhauled Michigan defense didn’t allow a touchdown while handing Florida its first season-opening loss in nearly three decades.
Anthony Riddle, who is from Jackson, Michigan, shared in the letter some of the experiences of training and combat that he and his fellow young Marines went through. Riddle wrote that he was responding to naysayers who believed Michigan football was going into this season too young and too inexperienced.
“The message, it’s irrelevant what the age is,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a group in a unit or on a team that come together and do their job. … It was better than anything I could have told the team.”
Michigan trailed 17-13 at halftime before scoring three times in the first 6 minutes of the second half. The Gators had won 27 consecutive season openers, the nation’s longest such streak, since a home loss to Mississippi in 1989.
“It’s gonna hurt, and if it doesn’t, then something is wrong,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “We have a lot more to play. I like this team, I like the guys on this team. I think we have a chance to grow and I believe we will.”
After Karan Higdon’s 3-yard TD run capped a half-opening 75-yard, 10-yard drive, Ambry Thomas forced and recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff. That set up a 30-yard field goal by Quinn, who then made a 50-yarder after Michigan recovered another fumble.
“This win was a good start for the season for us, build our confidence, allow us to see what we’re capable of,” sophomore linebacker Devin Bush said.
Florida’s only touchdowns came when Duke Dawson and CJ Henderson returned interceptions for touchdowns. Those came on consecutive throws by Speight in the second quarter.
“I thought Wilton did a good job getting calmed down,” Harbaugh said. “Showed a lot of resilience, our team today, and I’m very proud of that.”
Nordin made four field goals, including a 55-yarder in the first half. He missed two attempts wide right in the fourth quarter, one of those from 52 yards. The nation’s No. 1 kicker in the 2016 recruiting class, Nordin had initially committed to Penn State but signed with the Wolverines after a home visit that included a sleepover by Harbaugh.
“It was the craziest thing,” Nordin said of his debut, not the sleepover. “I just went out there and did what I was supposed to do.”
MICHIGAN: While the defense has been greatly overhauled — remember, there were eight Michigan defenders drafted off last year’s unit — the Wolverines limited Florida to 192 total yards (only 11 yards rushing). They even scored a late touchdown on a sack that resulted in a fumble recovered in the end zone. Aside from the interceptions on consecutive throws, Speight was 11-of-23 passing for 181 yards with the TD to Black.
FLORIDA: It was really hard to judge the Gators with their leading returning receiver Antonio Callaway and top returning rusher Jordan Scarlett among 10 players suspended for the opener. Redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks, in his first start for the Gators, completed 5 of 9 passes for 75 yards and lost a fumble early in the second half. Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire came on after that, and was 9 of 17 for 106 yards.
“We needed to shake up the batting order a little bit,” McElwain said. “I thought Malik would come in and give us a change of pace at that point when we were still in the ballgame.”
MICHIGAN: The Wolverines play their home opener next Saturday in a first-ever meeting against Cincinnati.
FLORIDA: The Gators have their final tuneup before SEC play, hosting Northern Colorado for their home opener next Saturday.