All Aidan Hutchinson remembers is that Michigan was in its base defense.
He doesn’t remember bending around one lineman and going through another. He doesn’t remember that Kwity Paye had already hit Army’s Kelvin Hopkins and he doesn’t remember extending his left arm, knocking the ball loose. He just knows he hit the quarterback. After that, he blacked out, in a celebratory haze. He wasn’t the only one.
So did Zach Charboonnet and so did Paye himself, the man who pounced on the ball, waiting at the center of a packed Michigan Stadium for the referee to confirm what the whole building already knew, then charging upfield to the student section to commemorate a game that should have been routine and instead was anything but.
“Whatever I did,” Hutchinson said afterwards, the game ball placed next to him on the podium, “hopefully, it was good.”
It was. Without it, Army might have picked up a third-down conversion, breathing new life into its offense when a touchdown would have won the game in the second overtime. Thanks to that play, Michigan escaped an upset bid, pulling out a 24-21 double-OT win over Army, moving to 2-0 in a game that could have derailed its season before Big Ten play even started.
The Wolverines needed Army to miss a 50-yard field goal as time expired in regulation to even get as far as overtime. After trading scores in the first OT, Michigan got nothing on its next three plays, setting up a 43-yard kick from Jake Moody and putting the weight of the world on its defense’s shoulders.
They carried it.
“That was a gem of a defensive performance, there’s no doubt about it,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Talk about the last play, the last series, just the entire football game.”
Despite the positivity of the head coach, all the promise of Michigan’s offseason seemed to evaporate in the September heat, a heavily advertised offense struggling to move the ball and a defense that got pushed around at times by a smaller Army offensive line.
Two first-half fumbles handed Army a halftime lead, the Wolverines’ only score coming after a fake punt extended a drive. Midway through the third quarter, Michigan still seemed poised for collapse.
Then, staring at third down on Michigan’s five-yard line, Army coach Jeff Monken decided to throw the ball. Lavert Hill picked the floating football out of the air and a cheer came in the form of 111,000 exhales. On the ensuing drive, it took a third-down pass interference and a perfectly-placed ball from Shea Patterson to Ronnie Bell, also on third down, to keep things moving. But freshman running back Zach Charbonnet punched it in from a yard out for his second of three touchdowns on the day, knotting things up at 14.
The score stayed there until overtime as Michigan failed to convert a red-zone chance deep in the fourth quarter, Army stuffing Charbonnet on fourth-and-2 and bringing all of Michigan Stadium’s anxiety to a nadir.
After the game, Harbaugh said the pass protection was “really good,” acknowledging only missed assignments on Patterson’s two fumbles. He said left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. will likely play after the bye week and went out of his way to praise Ryan Hayes’ performance in his stead. He rejected outright a question about the run-heavy second half and had little patience for another about whether Patterson not keeping the ball on option runs had to do with a minor injury suffered last week.
Still, the fact remains: This did not look like a team ready to compete for anything, and the schedule does not get any easier.
Josh Gattis’ offense, which promised an up-tempo, modern attack, has failed to sustain success, averaging just 4.5 yards per play against Army. The offensive line looked out of its depth in protection against a Black Knight defense that must blitz constantly to make up for a lack of size. Injured or not, Patterson has seemed reluctant to run the ball, and he’s fumbled four times in two weeks.
“We just got some kinks in the offense that we’re still working through,” senior guard Ben Bredeson said. “It’s a new look for us. We’re two weeks in and going into this bye week, going into the Big Ten season, it’ll be good for us.
“We’ve seen what’s working for us, what’s not and we’ll be able to make some changes.”