Turnovers finally fall in Michigan’s favor against Purdue

Todd Needle/Daily
Sophomore cornerback Raymon Taylor runs back an interception for a touchdown. Buy this photo

By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 6, 2012

WEST LAFAYETTE — After six weeks, five games and, until Saturday, a horrid performance in the turnover battle, Jordan Kovacs finally had reason to chuckle a bit after Michigan’s 44-13 win over Purdue.

A defense that had been repeatedly called upon by its coach to wreak more havoc on opposing offenses finally answered the call. And a Michigan offense whose quarterback had been struggling more than ever to protect the ball played his cleanest game yet this season.

It amounted to a plus-three day for the Wolverines in turnover margin against the Boilermakers, a big factor in helping Michigan to an easy win in its Big Ten opener.

For the defense, it was especially sweet. The unit performed exceedingly well last season in the turnover column, but that hadn’t contributed so far this season — better late than never.

“Very encouraging,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “That’s got to be a big part of how you win. Again, talking about playing on the road, that’s taking care of the ball offensively, which we did a pretty good job … for the most part.”

The Wolverines entered Saturday’s tilt with a minus-seven mark in turnover margin, a polar opposite of the plus-seven figure that they totaled for the season a year ago. And Michigan was coming off its worst performance in that area in its last game — the team turned the ball over six times en route to a minus-four day against Notre Dame two weeks ago.

On Saturday, senior quarterback Denard Robinson avoided the interception bug that had plagued him all season, especially against the Fighting Irish. Meanwhile, sophomore cornerback Raymon Taylor’s 63-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter was just the first of four turnovers that the defense forced for the evening.

The only mistake was Robinson’s fumble on an attempted read-option play late in the first half, meaning that, overall, the Wolverines could smile about what they had accomplished.

And Kovacs could laugh. His laugh came after remarking that he wished Taylor might’ve ran out of bounds at the 20-yard line or so instead of taking it all the way to the end zone — that way, the defense might have more of a chance to catch its breath.

Taylor, naturally, wasn’t about to sacrifice his first career touchdown for a longer blow on the sideline.

“(Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush) missed it, it was high, and it fell in my hand,” Taylor said, wearing a wide grin. “I saw it, and I took off running. … I’m happy for myself. It’s a great feeling.”

It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly why defenses struggle to force turnovers. In fact, that aspect of the game is often nothing more than pure randomness, at least when it comes to recovering fumbles.

But random or not, it’s something teams usually need to do to keep opposing offenses grounded. Hoke is well aware of that, which explains why he emphasizes running to the ball in practice — the more people around the ball, the theory goes, the greater likelihood of it ending up in the defense’s hands.

Though the urgency has been there for the Wolverines all season, for some reason it finally clicked against Purdue. Immediately after Taylor’s touchdown, in fact, Michigan forced and recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff.

And in the fourth quarter, with the Boilermakers clinging desperately to the game, Hoke’s team produced two more takeaways. First, redshirt junior safety Thomas Gordon saw the ball flutter into his hands after Purdue quarterback Robert Marve’s pass was deflected.

Later, proving that the Michigan defense wasn’t about to rest, freshman safety Jarrod Wilson pounced on a Brandon Cotton fumble with just 55 seconds remaining in the game.

Redshirt senior linebacker Kenny Demens was succinct in summing up the Wolverines’ best day turnover-wise of the season, calling it “awesome.”

But as active as the defense was in generating miscues, Robinson was more impressive for breaking his recent streak of mistakes. When faced with pressure on Saturday, he threw the ball away or ran out of trouble instead of panicking and forcing a pass into coverage, which he has been wont to do previously.

Robinson, too, was secure with the ball on 23 of his 24 rushing attempts. His one fumble came on a play that Purdue had scouted perfectly — linebacker Robert Maci struck both Robinson and fifth-year senior running back Vincent Smith right when the option exchange was occurring. (The quarterback called it a “lose-lose situation,” though he lamented the fact that he didn’t hold on to the ball.)

Coming off a five-turnover night in his last game, Saturday’s performance from Robinson was a welcome sight.

“He’s a great kid,” Kovacs said. “Obviously he played much better today and I’m proud of him for it, and I think that he really handled himself well over the last couple of weeks. He really went to work, and I think it showed.”

As Robinson exited the locker room and made his way to the team bus, Hoke was waiting in the doorway for his senior quarterback, greeting him with a firm handshake. It was no slight reward for his day spent taking care of the ball.