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Nicole Auerbach: With final stop, Michigan defense pays offense back and earns bowl eligibility

Ariel Bond/Daily
Tate Forcier after the Wolverines 67-65 victory at the Big House in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010. Buy this photo

BY NICOLE AUERBACH
Daily Sports Writer
Published November 6, 2010

Worst-case scenario? Illinois succeeds on a two-point conversion attempt and extends the highest-scoring (and one of the most unusual) games in Big House history.

And if it worked? How about an exhilarating triple-overtime victory that clinches bowl eligibility for the first time in three seasons?

So why not rush seven defenders?

“That was the call — we hit them with the kitchen sink,” said sophomore linebacker Craig Roh, who helped wrap up Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase after linebacker Jonas Mouton got to him, sealing Michigan’s win.

The all-out blitz — so extensive that defensive players had no idea how many rushed the quarterback — worked like a charm. Roh said redshirt junior Ryan Van Bergan picked up a double-team, and Roh had a wide-open path to Scheelhaase. The Illini may have had an open receiver or two, but it didn’t matter because the pressure reached Scheelhaase first.

At the end of a wild offensive day in which Michigan and Illinois combined for 58 first downs, 1,237 total yards and a Big-Ten record 132 points, it all came down to one defensive play.

And after all the criticism leveled at the Wolverine defense after weeks of poor performances, it's poetic that Michigan has one defensive play to thank for its first bowl eligibility in the Rich Rodriguez era.

“I know it’s 65 points, but it only takes one play to win a ballgame,” quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said after the game. “And that’s what they did for us with that last play.”

Rodriguez called it "the perfect ending."

"For the defense to make a play, to come with pressure, to basically win the game on the last play of the game,” Rodriguez said, “I think it’s really uplifting for, not just the young guys, but some of the seniors that have been playing defensively and trying to hold everything together.”

His words perfectly characterized Michigan’s defense throughout the offensive shootout: the defenders were simply trying to hold everything together, a bend-but-don’t-break strategy.

The Wolverines turned the ball over five (!!!) times, four on offense and one on special teams. Illinois started five drives in Michigan territory, and only twice did it start within its own 20-yard line.

Not the best situation for a defense to work with.

A week ago, Michigan allowed 41 points to Penn State. On Saturday, Illinois had posted 45 points by the end of regulation. This game marks the first time in Michigan football's 131-year history that it has allowed at least 40 points in consecutive weeks.

But there were signs of progress, though ultimately Illinois’s 65 points on the scoreboard won’t show it. Key plays from young defensive players were easy to point to, and so was the fact that Illinois punted six times (compared to Penn State’s two punts last week).

Throughout Michigan’s first five wins, critics said the Wolverines were lucky the offense could bail out an increasingly disappointing defense.

Look at the game-ending play — or big third-down stops earlier in the game — and at least this one time, you can see the defense “kind of paid the offense back a little bit,” like Roh said.

And don’t forget the most significant gift the defense gave the program: bowl eligibility, something that had been taken for granted for 33 straight years. The past two winters have been awfully quiet around Ann Arbor, and it was easy to see the relief in players’ faces after Saturday’s game.

Under Rodriguez, Michigan had been 0-for-8 in games in which it could clinch bowl eligibility. Getting that sixth win was huge.

“We knew our backs were up against the wall,” Rodriguez said. “Like I told them, when your backs are against the wall, you can go two ways: You can go forward or slump down. I didn’t want anybody slumped down, and I don’t think anybody did.”

The defense has had its back against the wall, or at least its back against an endzone, for much of the season.

This was the step forward.

— Auerbach can be reached at naauer@umich.edu.


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