They were a big, tough team with its shoelaces tied together. The power of the Wolverines’ running game would carry them so far, then they would stumble, the field-goal kicker would come out – and down they would crash.
Not once, not twice, but three times they got deep into Wisconsin territory only to have their kickers go wide. Right. Left. Right. The scoreboard stayed at seven points for so long, you thought it was broken.
As the clouds gathered and the darkness approached, the massive crowd in the Big House grew collectively nervous, breath was short, hands were clenched, fans worried that the undefeated season was slipping away.
And they had good reason.
Finally, a fight. It was clear early on we’d hit a new phase of the Michigan season. No more Hawaiis or Central Floridas. No. 8 Wisconsin, already victorious over two top 10 teams, hit hard and wrapped up tightly. The Badgers didn’t let rushers slip through their grasp, they didn’t fall behind pass receivers or make costly mistakes.
Which meant Michigan had to dig down for something new. And seeing as feet were no friends to them on Saturday, in the fourth quarter, the Wolverines finally turned to the air.
Third-and-7, with 8:22 left. Wilton Speight found Amara Darboh on a slant, who fought for a 15-yard pickup and a first down.
Next play. Speight ran play action, set his feet and heaved it deep – 46 yards into the hands of Darboh again, touchdown – and suddenly it was a different game.
“As receivers we’re playmakers,” Darboh told WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) on the field, “and it’s my job to go and make a play.”
Hey, if it didn’t involve a holder, U-M was just fine.
The kind of win needed
Finally, a fight. And the Wolverines survive their biggest test so far, outlasting Wisconsin, 14-7, salting the game away with two stellar defensive series and a final, exclamation point one-handed interception by All-American defensive back Jourdan Lewis on the Badgers’ last desperation pass.
“Have you ever seen a catch like that?” someone asked Jim Harbaugh in the media session.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ve seen Odell Beckham Jr. do that.”
Exhale, Maize and Bluers.
And then appreciate. Because the negatives in Michigan’s game Saturday should not diminish the significance of this win. You never know how a race car is going to perform in a snowstorm until you try it. Michigan did what it was supposed to do against lesser opponents in its first four games – namely, rev the engines, run up big numbers and win comfortably.
But this was new. On Saturday, the Wolverines were being stopped on third down – with regularity. They were amassing way too many penalties (four in a row at one low point).
Speight was getting harassed and sacked and making a few bad decisions (one of which resulted in a long interception return).
And then there was the kicking game, which, had U-M lost, would be the talk of the state this morning. There is no excuse for Kenny Allen, a fifth-year senior, to whiff on two relatively easy kicks, or walk-on Ryan Tice to not even come close.
“We left nine points off the scoreboard,” Harbaugh told the media. “…We’ll have a little kicking competition this week.”
Defense delivers at end
You feel badly for Allen, a Fenton kid who took a walk-on role at Michigan over a scholarship to another school. It’s true that sometimes wonky things happen in kicking, like those days when you drop your coffee, lose your keys and bang your head on the car door all within an hour.
More troubling is that Allen also had problems two weeks ago, missing two kicks against Colorado. Harbaugh’s patience is likely spent, since you can bet there are games coming up where three points will make a difference.
But what Michigan lacked in special teams Saturday it made up for in defense. “Our defensive line was lights out,” Harbaugh said. And if anyone had doubts about the Wolverines’ ability to stop quality teams, consider Saturday when the heat was on.
From the time Wisconsin made its only great offensive play of the day – a beautiful 17-yard touchdown loft from Alex Hornibrook to Dare Ogunbowale – here is what the Wolverines’ defense allowed:
A three-and-out. A four-and-out. A three-and-out. A three-and-out. An interception. Another interception.
Hard to argue with that. The Wolverines made Hornibrook look mortal – and this is the same kid who shredded Michigan State the week before in a 30-6 drubbing of the Spartans. Meanwhile, U-M also clamped the Wisconsin running game: 71 yards total on 28 attempts.
So the Wolverines notch another mark in the Jim Harbaugh era, beating a top 10 team for the first time since 2008, Rich Rodriguez’s first season. And they did it against adversity, which only makes you better.
“It was a real football game,” Harbaugh said, before quickly adding, “like we thought they’ve all been.”
This one was a little more real than the others – at least if your reality is winning a title of some kind. Finally, a fight. And one to the finish. Hopefully they can get their shoelaces right in their kicking game. Because short of that, so far, the Wolverines are meeting all expectations.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.