ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Two quarters into his first game as a head coach, Sherrone Moore had a choice to make.
Michigan was leading Bowling Green 14-6 after a sloppy first half. The Wolverines had three turnovers, including two interceptions from quarterback J.J. McCarthy. A game that was supposed to be a smooth on-ramp into Big Ten play had become, instead, a night spent in stop-and-go traffic.
No one would have faulted Moore, Michigan’s acting head coach, for lighting up the locker room at halftime. He could have yelled and stomped and ripped the Wolverines for sleepwalking through the first half as a 40-point favorite. This was his team, at least for one day, and he would have been justified in venting his frustrations to anyone within earshot.
Whatever Moore said at halftime, it wasn’t that. When he spoke to Big Ten Network sideline reporter Brooke Fletcher on his way to the locker room, he said the Wolverines needed to “stay calm, stay poised and get it together.” His message to the team was something similar.
“He was real calm,” defensive tackle Cam Goode said. “It was nothing like, ‘Get your asses going’ or something crazy like that. Coach Moore, he’s a real relaxed guy. He doesn’t want to get the tempers up too much. He wants to keep us cool, calm, collected because he understands the assignment.”
Moore’s assignment was to deliver a victory and make sure Michigan emerged unscathed from coach Jim Harbaugh’s three-game suspension. He accomplished the goal, even if Saturday’s 31-6 victory came with red flags and miscues galore.
It was hard to feel sentimental after a game like that. Moore isn’t a coach who spends a lot of time talking about his own feelings, and the night of his head coaching debut wasn’t the time to start.
“I didn’t really think about it as something for me, as an opportunity for me,” Moore said. “I just wanted to make sure I put us in the right position for us to win the football game.”
If Moore’s career continues on its current trajectory, he’ll be a head coach sooner or later. When that happens, fans will scour the internet for clues about what kind of coach he’s going to be. This one-game audition doesn’t define anything, but it revealed a thing or two about one of college football’s up-and-coming assistant coaches.
Lesson No. 1: Moore kept his cool when the game didn’t go according to plan. Whether it was a tight end and wide receiver crossing wires in the end zone, a tight end fumbling a kickoff or a quarterback throwing into coverage, Michigan had plenty of moments that could make a head coach want to chuck his headset. If Moore was feeling frustrated by Michigan’s performance, it didn’t show on his face.
After McCarthy’s third interception, Moore gestured toward the Michigan bench, perhaps reminding his quarterback to throw the ball away. That was as close as he came to displaying exasperation with McCarthy’s roller-coaster performance.
“His main message was just throw it in the ocean and keep being me,” McCarthy said. “That meant a lot in me that he still had the trust in me to keep throwing the ball.”
When McCarthy threw his 33-yard touchdown to Roman Wilson, he pointed to Moore on the sideline and greeted his offensive coordinator with a hug. When Kris Jenkins intercepted a screen pass deep in Bowling Green territory, Moore’s eyes immediately went to his play sheet as he raced up the sideline and called a goal-line handoff for Blake Corum. When the game stopped for several minutes as medical personnel attended to Bowling Green linebacker Demetrius Hardamon, Moore walked to midfield and put an arm around Bowling Green coach Scot Loeffler.
Moore’s most animated moments came during pregame warmups. He ran out of the tunnel ahead of Michigan’s offensive linemen and gathered them in the end zone for a spirited pep talk. As the Wolverines concluded warmups with their customary field goal attempts, Moore and other coaches lined up to rush the kick. While other coaches emerged from the tunnel ahead of the team, Moore ran side-by-side with players as they touched the Michigan banner.
In short, Moore did all the things a Michigan coach is supposed to do. His job would have been easier if the Wolverines could have established a rhythm, but that never happened. They had the ball for less than 24 minutes and ran just 44 plays, a function of the turnovers, the new clock rules and their inability to sustain drives.
“It was one of those days,” Corum said.
Early in the game, Michigan hit Bowling Green with some of the gap scheme runs that have been a staple during Moore’s time coaching the offensive line. Corum ran 54 yards on a counter on Michigan’s first snap, and all 77 yards of Michigan’s opening touchdown drive came on the ground.
The Wolverines had 92 rushing yards the rest of the game as the offense struggled to get in sync. Moore made a tactical change after a three-and-out to open the second half, inserting Arizona State transfer LaDarius Henderson at left tackle and moving Karsen Barnhart to right tackle. Not much seemed to click, but with Bowling Green down to its third-string quarterback, Michigan’s defense made sure the game wasn’t in doubt.
“The recipe for winning around here has been, you’ve got to play great defense,” Moore said. “For us to be where we want to be, we’ve got to continue to do that. Those guys are doing an outstanding job. The other phases have to keep building to get to their level.”
Moore said the Wolverines had a plan for everything Bowling Green threw at them, including the high, short kickoffs and a wild card at quarterback in Hayden Timosciek, a Purdue transfer with no game film to speak of.
Clearly, that plan had to be tailored on the fly. The Wolverines prepared for Indiana transfer Connor Bazelak, but senior Camden Orth started instead. After Orth went down, Bowling Green turned to Timosciek, who completed 6 of 10 passes for 33 yards.
“You prepare more all week for one guy, and then another guy comes in who doesn’t have the same reputation as the first guy,” safety Quinten Johnson said. “Then the third guy comes in. We definitely didn’t prepare for him, honestly. At the end of the day, it all comes back to our game plan and being able to execute at the highest level.”
Michigan has had a disjointed start to the season with four head coaches and two different play callers in the first three games. Moore missed the first game due to a suspension for his part in Michigan’s alleged NCAA infractions, a situation he described as a “learning lesson.” The Wolverines weren’t in danger of losing any of those games, but they haven’t always looked the part of a team that has its sights set on a national championship.
Michigan will get back to normalcy this week with the end of Harbaugh’s three-game school-imposed suspension. Moore will return to his role as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, though it seems like a matter of time before he gets another chance to run the show.
Moore’s first game as a head coach wasn’t pretty, but it’s clear he understands the assignment.
“You’ve always got to be humble in everything,” Moore said. “You’re never going to play a perfect game. Obviously we’ve got some stuff to fix, and we will.”
(Photo: Mike Mulholland / Getty Images)