ARLINGTON, Tex. — Special teams was the battle Michigan was supposed to lose.
Florida had kicker Eddy Pineiro and punter Johnny Townsend — both of whom were named to the preseason All-SEC second team. Pineiro made 21 of 25 field-goal attempts last year — 11 of 13 from 40 yards or farther — while Townsend averaged 47.9 yards per punt with 27 downed inside the 20-yard line.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, had lost Kenny Allen, who doubled as their kicker and punter. Before Saturday’s kickoff at AT&T Stadium, they weren’t sure who would replace him.
While that might not seem out of the ordinary for a Michigan team tasked with replacing all but five starters from last season, the backups-turned-starters on offense and defense had the benefit of playing important roles as rotational players. The potential options on the special teams unit, on the other hand, had never even seen the field.
It would have been understandable if redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin and sophomore punter Will Hart couldn’t compete with the Gators in that phase of the game. The Wolverines would have banked on their offense and defense carrying the load. But Saturday, the special teams unit picked Michigan up when it faltered and defeated its Florida counterpart in the process, winning the battle and, ultimately, the game.
It all happened in the blink of an eye. Around the 12-minute mark of the second quarter, the Wolverines had a 10-3 lead and looked poised to add to it. Redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight had just thrown a 46-yard touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Tarik Black, and was only building more momentum. But on the ensuing drive, one of Speight’s passes bounced off sophomore wide receiver Kekoa Crawford’s hands and into those of Gator defensive back Duke Dawson, who then took it 48 yards to the end zone for a pick-six to tie the game.
One and a half minutes passed on the game clock, and Speight had tossed another. Florida cornerback CJ Henderson corralled an errant throw and ran it back 41 yards. Suddenly, the Gators had their first lead of the game and the momentum swinging dramatically in their favor.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh replaced Speight with fifth-year senior John O’Korn, but O’Korn couldn’t change the tide. On two consecutive drives, the Wolverines went three and out.
After the initial series, Hart lined up for his first career punt, but an energized Florida pulled off a block. The Gators gained possession at the Michigan 37-yard line, and looked primed to add to their lead. But while the Wolverines’ defense managed to force a three and out, Pineiro was set up for a 47-yard field goal. Considering he had already nailed a 46-yarder, it would have been expected for him to make it a 10-point game.
It would have been Florida’s special teams unit that carried the plaudits, turning the game for the Gators. Instead, though it took them a little longer, that’s exactly what Michigan’s third phase did.
Pineiro missed the field goal, and on the Wolverines’ second three-and-out possession, Nordin was set up for a 55-yard field goal. He had already converted from 25 yards out, but a 50-plus-yard attempt is an entirely different monster that most kickers in the nation would miss.
But he didn’t. With all the poise of a kicker much older than he is, Nordin stared down his target and put the force of his body into the kick. Then he simply watched as it sailed 55 yards and dipped straight through the uprights.
“I was just doing whatever my team needed me to do, and if they needed me to put points on the board, then that’s what I was going to do for my team,” Nordin said. “That’s when they put me out there, and I just did my job.”
It may have just been three points, but it was worth much more to Michigan. In nailing a field goal from 55 yards out, Nordin did what no other college kicker had ever done at AT&T Stadium.
After that, Florida didn’t score another point. Nordin, on the other hand, scored six more, hitting a 30 and a 50-yard field goal on consecutive drives as part of the Wolverines’ 13-point third quarter outburst.
The former came after freshman defensive back Ambry Thomas forced and recovered a fumble at the Florida 16-yard line. The latter made him the first Wolverine ever to hit two field goals from 50-plus yards in a single game.
For a Michigan team whose ability has continually been called into question on the basis of their inexperience, maybe Nordin’s fellow young teammates just needed to see that their age and their ability are two completely different concepts.
“We’re a young team, 100 percent, but youth isn’t always a bad thing,” Nordin said. “Youth brings energy, and I think moving on we’re going to continue to grow as a team.”
On Saturday, the Wolverines’ special teams unit took the first step in that growth. They weren’t supposed to win their phase of the game on paper. Then they did anyway.