EAST HARTFORD, Conn. Maybe it wasn’t a one-week cold. Maybe it’s a monthlong fever. Whatever it is, the Michigan Wolverines have it bad, and even as they win games they are tumbling backward – in what was supposed to be the romping part of their season.
Did that really almost happen? Again? This time under the lights on front of a national TV audience? A near-loss to a much smaller program that would have haunted this team for years? Devin Gardner making even more mistakes? The defense and special teams underperforming?
A squeaker – a squeaker? – over Connecticut, 24-21? Four turnovers and less than 300 yards offense? And to think, Michigan officials wanted this game moved to an NFL stadium. The way these Wolverines are playing, they might want to look for a parking lot.
Until Desmond Morgan leaped into the air in the fourth quarter, stuck his hand up, snagged a Connecticut pass, and seemed to scream “ENOUGH!” – intercepting and turning the evening around – Michigan seemed headed toward an even bigger disaster than last weekend.
And that would be saying something.
“We’re coming up on a bye week,” coach Brady Hoke told ABC after the victory, “and that’s probably pretty good for us.”
Nearly Husked. Before the game, a local radio show was asking fans to name the city where the University of Michigan was located. Locals arrived early to stare at the Rust Belt behemoths. East Hartford, Connecticut is not a normal stop for the biggest of big-time college football teams. More a place for basketball, insurance companies and avoiding New York City taxes. Saturday night felt like NASCAR coming to a suburban parking lot. I’m not kidding when a tell you there was actually a guy on the PA system before the game yellin,g “Gimme a C… gimme an O! …”
It was the first time the ocean liner that is U-M football had docked in this East Coast port – and only the second time in UConn history that a Big Ten team had made the journey (after Indiana a decade ago). It was supposed to be a display of Midwestern strength, speed and size.
And more. It was supposed to be retribution for the 15th-ranked Wolverines, who were humiliated by nearly losing to tiny Akron last Saturday, winning on the last play, 28-24. Instead, on a day when Ohio State was winning by 76 and Louisville winning by 73, the Wolverines found themselves tussling with a field mouse for the second week in a row.
An unheralded opponent
So much for Taylor Lewan’s impassioned apology last weekend, calling the Akron performance “embarrassing” and vowing in the media that “we will not come out like that again.”
That was true. This time they came out worse. Against Akron, the Wolverines went into halftime with a meek 7-3 led, having thrown two interceptions. Saturday night, they went into halftime actually trailing UConn, 14-7 – with two more interceptions, a muffed punt return, seven straight incomplete passes and seven plays for negative yardage.
Michigan looked nervous and tentative – and Gardner led the swallowing squad. This is bad news, since the junior quarterback is supposed to be the leader of the offense. You wonder how the same player who stood so tall against Notre Dame (save one truly awful decision) could look so shaky against … Connecticut? The Huskies, after all, lost to Towson and Maryland the previous weeks. That’s bad in basketball. It’s horrific in football.
Yet somehow, against a team that was ranked 101st in the nation in defense, a team missing its top receiver (not that you could name him) and whose coach is supposedly on the hot seat, Michigan laid an East Coast egg. As the Huskies fans rubbed their East Coast eyes, their team outhustled, outtackled, outpassed, and out-cooled mighty U-M.
A series of bad plays
Yes, in the end, this was a victory – one still in doubt until the closing minutes. But don’t be surprised slip even farther in the national polls – despite the W. Something was exposed here. As good as Michigan is in Ann Arbor under Hoke, it is a .500 program in true road games. You don’t threaten conference titles – let alone national ones – with that tendency. The worst part of Saturday night was how often Connecticut looked hungrier, hit harder and played with more focus.
Here are just some of the embarrassing Michigan moments:
A Connecticut punt that bounced off the back leg of an unsuspecting Da’Mario Jones, and was recovered by the Huskies on U-M’s 9.
Back to back sacks of Gardner to create a fourth-and-30.
A Connecticut interception by 6-foot-1 Byron Jones – covering a 6-3 inch Jehu Chesson – Jones’ first interception of the year.
A long Gardner run called back on a penalty.
Pass after pass by Gardner flying over his receivers heads or landing at their feet.
And that was all in the first half.
As bad as those first 30 minutes were, the second half started worse. On the third play from scrimmage, Gardner fumbled the ball in a scrum, and Ty-Meer Brown picked it up and ran it in 34 yards for a touchdown. Now suddenly Michigan was losing by 14 points, and this was not cute anymore. Ironically, a moment before that miscue, the ABC sideline reporter said Lewan had just told her, “Our boys are ready to play now.”
The truth is, at one point in the third quarter, the Wolverines – who dream of beating the undefeated Buckeyes – were getting swarmed instead by the winless Huskies, thrown for losses, yanked to the ground. The East Coast was stomping the Midwest. Even when Michigan broke its slumber with a 35-yard touchdown run by Fitz Toussaint, UConn came right back and marched downfield, completing passes, shaking defenders and chewing the clock. The Huskies missed a field goal to come up empty, but a message had been delivered. This would not be a fold job. UConn was no longer intimidated. It would go the distance.
Moment of truth
The rest of the game was a slugfest, gains, losses, missed chances. Gardner never really found his arm, but his legs kept Michigan close enough. Then, on a critical fourth-and-2 on UConn’s 24, Gardner ran it, seemed to earn the first down, then got hit, lost the ball and scooped it back up, sacrificing precious inches.
The Huskies took over on downs. Fans back home were gasping. Another score by UConn and this would likely have been over.
Instead, Morgan, the junior linebacker out of Holland West Ottawa – wearing President Gerald Ford’s old No. 48 – stuck his hand up with more effect than any traffic cop in history. He intercepted UConn Chandler Whitmer’s worst mistake of the night.
And U-M would escape.
A field goal would be the difference. But it wasn’t over until the final two minutes, when Michigan got a huge third-down sack to squash a would-be UConn rally.
Minutes later, the Wolverines could exhale.
Yes, U-M is still undefeated. But it sure doesn’t feel that way. The wounds are telling. Last weekend, Gardner told the media, “I was not the best quarterback for this team today. It’s embarrassing. We’re going to respond, I can tell you that.”
How then, could he – and the rest of the squad, including a porous offensive line – have so many negative plays and bad decisions? How could the defense still be giving up yardage to a team that couldn’t score more than 18 points against Towson? Is that what they call “responding?”
No one can be surprised that ultimately, UConn gave this one up on its own mistakes – the interception and a missed field goal chief among them. Experience counts for something, and the fourth quarter is much different than the first three.
But Michigan isn’t supposed to be measuring itself against the Huskies. Let’s say it straight. This was supposed to be a romp, and it was an almost-nightmare.
“They kept fighting and that’s No. 1, that’s the important thing,” Hoke told ABC. “.Offensively, we got a lot of things we go to do better..”
You can say that again.
Nearly Husked. You could fit 21/2 UConn stadiums inside the Big House in Ann Arbor. But right now, a smaller venue would be preferable – because Michigan needs to be 21/2 times better than it has been. Until it is, spotlights may not be the best idea. The Wolve escaped this one, but four of their next seven games are on the road. Whatever malady they are suffering, they better get a serious prescription for it. And fast.