ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Even before the 2016 season began, the college football world knew Michigan had the makings of a special defense. The question was if the Wolverines’ offense could develop a formidable offense to complement the championship-worthy unit.
Wilton Speight would like a word.
The sophomore continues to perform like a quarterback capable of leading Michigan to the College Football Playoff. During a 59-3 battering of the Maryland Terrapins on Saturday, Speight set a school record with 292 passing yards in the first half.
“That’s the best half of football I’ve ever seen a Michigan quarterback play,” said head coach Jim Harbaugh after the game.
Speight played three quarters, completing 19 of his 24 attempts and finishing with a career-best 362 yards while Michigan jumped to 9-0.
Impressive showings have become commonplace for the first-year starter. This season, he’s accounted for 16 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions, and Speight hasn’t recorded a single-game rating lower than 118.2.
But the most important for Michigan is how Speight truly looks better every week.
So that's Wilton Speight's best half of the season.
When you say that a bunch of weeks in a row, it probably means he's improving a lot.
— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) November 5, 2016
To begin the 2016 campaign, he largely spent time in the pocket making quick, low-risk throws to move the ball.
Recently, however, Speight has started to shake the labels of “game manager” or “distributor.” For the Wolverines to make a run at the College Football Playoff, that was an absolute necessity.
He’s refusing to fall at first contact like a college version of Ben Roethlisberger, for example, and evading free blitzers off the edge like a healthy Tony Romo.
Neither of those comparisons are meant to suggest Speight is already a quarterback of that caliber, but he’s doing more than standing in the pocket and hoping Michigan’s receivers break open. Speight is becoming a legitimate playmaker for the Wolverines offense.
Wilton Speight avoids the rush and hits Jehu Chesson in the end zone right before half! #GoBlue pic.twitter.com/zff2JbZGGJ
— Michigan Football (@ChatWolverines) November 5, 2016
“Extending plays, breaking tackles, then finding guys downfield. He’s doing a hell of a job for us,” said Jake Butt, who on Saturday broke the program record for most career receiving yards by a tight end.
Harbaugh—who suggested Speight should be mentioned in the Heisman Trophy discussion—echoed the All-American target.
“Moving and throwing and accuracy and extending plays, all of the above,” he said of Speight. “I don’t know how you play better.”
Speight will never be confused with a “dual-threat quarterback,” but he’s mobile enough to atone for a missed block from the offensive line or excellent coverage downfield. That adds another tough element to Michigan’s well-rounded offense. He scored his first rushing touchdown of the season on a 10-yard scramble up the middle.
On the opening possession, Speight side-stepped an unblocked Jarrett Ross and eluded two more Maryland defenders. Speight turned an eight-yard loss into a seven-yard gain.
While the play won’t make the highlight reel, it’s the kind of individual effort that is praised in the meeting room. That 15-yard difference can be tracked as “hidden yards,” and it’s been a more regular sight since Michigan throttled Rutgers on Oct. 8.
It’s not a coincidence the Wolverines faced just five third downs and only needed to gain an average of 5.2 yards when Speight was under center. He kept the Wolverines moving forward.
Now, Harbaugh deserves credit for developing yet another quarterback. Last year, he helped Jake Rudock morph from a mediocre Iowa quarterback into a generally reliable Michigan signal-caller.
But Speight is well beyond Rudock because of the critical element the Wolverines lacked in 2015: throwing downfield. That’s not the case with Speight, and Saturday provided more evidence.
lol @WiltonSpeight got to have the best deep ball in country
— Devin Funchess (@D_FUNCH) November 5, 2016
Sure, former Michigan receiver Devin Funchess will be slanted toward his alma mater. But the tape—not just from Saturday’s win—will reinforce that assessment.
No matter if it’s Butt, Amara Darboh or Jehu Chesson on the receiving end, Speight has consistently thrown a catchable pass. His best ball against Maryland was to Drake Harris, a seldom-used wideout. Put simply, Speight is hitting everyone.
The Wolverines need that version of Speight during the final three weeks.
Iowa has a stout defense, and the home crowd will be behind the Hawkeyes. Indiana is inconsistent, but the Hoosiers have the offensive talent to test Michigan. And winning on the road against Ohio State will be the biggest challenge of the year.
After watching Speight through nine games, though, there should be no concern he’s capable of carrying the Wolverines to three wins. While that doesn’t mean it will happen, Speight has proved he isn’t dependent on everyone else.
Rather, they can rely on him.
We’ve known about the defense. But Speight’s blossoming playmaking ability may be the most underrated reason Michigan could earn a place in the College Football Playoff instead of watching it from the couch.
All recruiting information via Scout. Stats from NCAA.com, cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.