ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan QB Wilton Speight handled himself well Tuesday night.
Really, he’s done so for the entire season.
A first-year starter, Speight — who backed-up Jake Rudock in 2015 — has already mastered the art of political correctness. He’s already graduated to an advanced level of media relations.
He says all the right things at all the right times. He doesn’t get rattled. He’s an extension of coach Jim Harbaugh, and he’s one of the prime representatives of Wolverines football. So, of course, just like his coach, he played it cool while talking about Saturday’s rivalry bout with Michigan State in East Lansing.
The No. 2-ranked Wolverines (7-0, 4-0) are hot. The Spartans (2-5, 0-4) are not.
But it’s still a big game, perhaps the biggest to date for Speight.
“Yes, it’s very important because it’s the next game,” said Speight, who’s thrown for 1,477 yards, 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions — the fewest of any starter in the Big Ten — in seven starts. “I know that, probably, you guys get that answer every time — but that’s literally… that’s the answer…”
Everyone has used the “it’s a championship game” or “next game” line at some point or another.
In all likelihood, they were instructed against giving up any bulletin board material — which makes sense. In all likelihood, they were told not to feed into the hype.
Programmed? To an extent. But Speight made a good point about his team’s approach to the Spartans, who have won seven of the past nine meetings.
“Not that we’re robots, but like if you guys were in this position, you’d probably think the same exact way,” said Speight, who’s yet to play during the in-state rivalry. “Yeah, Michigan State, we’re in each other’s backyards. Michigan State recruit(ed) guys that are on this roster, Michigan recruit(ed) guys that are on Michigan State’s roster…
“…so we’re familiar with each other, but, you know, it’s the biggest game and the biggest start of my life because it’s the next one.”
Being an out-of-stater may serve as advantage for Speight, who prepped at Richmond Collegiate in Virginia. He didn’t grow up with maize and blue in his face. He wasn’t bombarded with green and white. Saturday is important, sure, but for him, it’s just another game.
He’s easily able to desensitize.
“I try to do that with every game, but I can see how (in-state guys may have more emotion),” he said. “If we went back to Virginia, and played the University of Virginia or Virginia Tech, it might mean a little more something because that’s in my backyard…”
Then again, local athletes have learned to control emotions. Everyone realizes what’s up for grabs. The Wolverines don’t plan on being embarrassed again in East Lansing. The past two times were enough, said every UM player this week.
“I think that the guys on the roster, that are from around here, do a good job compartmentalizing it and just, you know, not letting it get too big,” Speight added.
— Sports in the Mitten (@SITMBigAndKid) October 26, 2016
Erik Magnuson, a fifth-year senior, has full faith in his quarterback. First-timer in East Lansing? No problem for Speight, who’s coming off the best game — according to Harbaugh — of his collegiate career, a 41-8 homecoming win over Illinois.
In 2015, Speight helped lead a fourth-quarter comeback at Minnesota. He’s been tactical and efficient, a leader and consistent force within the offense. At 6-foot-6 and roughly 240 pounds, he has all the necessary physical tools to be successful on the road versus the Spartans.
Through seven games, Speight has completed 114 of 182 attempts (62.6 percent), averaging 7.95 yards per connection. His first pass of the year was an interception, but it took him five weeks to throw another one — and that was Oct. 1 versus Wisconsin.
“We don’t need to talk to him. We have confidence in him,” said Magnuson, who was a redshirt freshman during UM’s most recent series win (12-10 in 2012). “He leads the Big Ten right now, I think, in passer rating or efficiency — one of those two.
“But we don’t need to talk to him; he knows what it’s about. We’ve played good teams. This won’t be the first good team we’ve played this year (or) big game. We played Wisconsin, a few other games in the Big Ten. He’s ready to go.”