Despite rivalry win, Michigan’s defense thinks it 'slacked off' in second half
EAST LANSING — After the No. 2 Michigan football team picked up its first win in East Lansing since 2007, redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight didn’t seem too concerned about the way it did so.
“We had a gameplan to go into the second half, and we thought we executed fairly well,” he said. “There was a couple plays here and there that we would’ve had back, but I’m cool with it.”
Speight’s confidence painted a slightly misleading picture of the half. Despite taking a 27-10 lead into halftime, the Wolverines scored just five points the rest of the way — two of which came on a fumbled Michigan State two-point conversion attempt that redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers ran all the way back with one second remaining. Michigan’s defense, meanwhile, allowed the Spartans to pick up 253 total yards and two touchdowns in the half.
Luckily for the Wolverines, a few of their defensive playmakers made enough big stops to keep the game under control. Senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis tackled Michigan State running back LJ Scott for a loss on 4th-and-goal from the two-yard line near the end of the third quarter, and Peppers sacked quarterback Brian Lewerke late in the fourth for another red-zone stop.
Still, the 32-23 final score (which could have been tighter if not for Peppers’ PAT return) seemed almost too close, especially considering that Michigan entered the game favored by more than three touchdowns and imposed its will for most of the first half.
“(Michigan State) didn’t really change anything — I feel like we just slacked off a little bit,” said redshirt junior linebacker Mike McCray. “We ended up having to fight for the victory. We fought the whole game, and fourth quarter, towards the end, we kind of let off a little bit. Going forward, we can’t allow that to happen.”
McCray attributes that second-half letdown to the defense being anxious to let the game end so they could enjoy the victory. After all, the Spartans had barely threatened the Wolverines since scoring a touchdown on the game’s opening drive, and McCray himself already had two and a half tackles for loss through the first three quarters.
With the promise of the Paul Bunyan Trophy awaiting them for the first time in four years, the defense started to get a little ahead of themselves in the fourth quarter when they thought the game was in hand, allowing Lewerke to march down the field on two touchdown drives.
“Nobody was happy on defense,” McCray said. “We shut them out third quarter, and then fourth quarter came and they were moving the ball. We were just getting frustrated with each other a little bit, and we were all pretty disappointed.”
Even before the fourth quarter, Scott in particular had his way with Michigan’s defense. He touched the ball on 11 of Michigan State’s first 12 plays, taking the Spartans to the end zone for their first and only lead of the game. He finished the game with 139 yards, the best performance on the ground by any running back the Wolverines have faced this season.
Scott’s success came, in part, due to an uncharacteristically high number of missed tackles by Michigan. Peppers pointed out after the game that it was the first time the team had played on grass in a while, but he didn’t want that to be taken as an excuse.
“We’ve just gotta tackle better,” Peppers said. “It doesn’t matter where you can play. You can play on concrete, grass, turf — you’ve still gotta tackle. See ball, hit the ball, put your face on the ball … and wrap up.”
The defense did end up making the plays it needed to win, but it let a 2-6 Michigan State team back into a game that most people thought was over.
For Speight to be able to keep up his confidence — and for the undefeated Wolverines to accomplish their lofty goals — McCray, Peppers and the rest of the defense know that kind of “slacking off” is not sustainable.