Like a bad dream, Michigan fans toss and turn, wishing the Hail Mary would go away.
Since the “Miracle at Michigan” that gave No. 7 Colorado a stunning last-second victory over the then-fourth-ranked Wolverines on Sept. 24, 1994, any Hail Mary brings back memories of Buffaloes’ quarterback Kordell Stewart’s heavenly heave.
Twenty-one years and two days later, the 2015 Michigan football team will do anything it can to avoid replicating that dreaded day.
It will be no small task, though, as the Wolverines (2-1) take on a No. 23 BYU team that has already beaten Nebraska and Boise State on last-second Hail Mary plays, and very nearly did it again against No. 9 UCLA.
“It’s tough to watch, especially as a secondary coach, to see those kind of throws from the quarterback,” said Michigan secondary coach Mike Zordich. “But it just adds to our challenge. … You play hard the whole game and you’re winning by one, two, three, maybe five points, whatever it is, you’d certainly hate for that last play to put the stamp on (the game).”
Hail Mary threat aside, slowing down the Cougars’ receivers, four of them 6-foot-4 or taller, is literally no small task.
“A big, big challenge,” Zordich said. “They’ve got four or five really good receivers that they’re rolling in every down, so they’re going to be fresh. We’ve got a big challenge ahead of us.
“Just physically, when you line Jourdan Lewis up against a 6-foot-6 guy, as scrappy as Jourdan is, that’s a tough matchup. But that’s how we’re going to play it. They’ve got to fight.”
Even before the final plays, the Cougars have some bite to them. The most notable weapon is true freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum. Though years removed from his last competitive football days and fresh off a two-year missionary trip in Chile, Mangum has filled in admirably for the injured Taysom Hill.
Mangum doesn’t possess Hill’s mobility, but has kept BYU’s goals alive with a 62.3 completion percentage, 664 yards passing and four touchdowns. They aren’t award-winning numbers, but the big-play potential is there.
“He’s a playmaker,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “He went in there with no shyness whatsoever. Already being in big situations and prevailed. Sometimes it takes years before something like that happens, but he’s already been through it, so he’s already been battle-tested and won in those situations.”
Though Mangum and his big receivers pose a threat, Michigan’s secondary looks poised to rise to the occasion.
In the Wolverines’ 28-7 win over UNLV last week, junior cornerback Channing Stribling and redshirt-junior cornerback Jeremy Clark each grabbed interceptions, while junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis tallied a career-high four pass break-ups.
“They’re ascending,” Harbaugh said of the secondary. “Getting their hands on the ball, breaking up passes, intercepting passes and defending the deep ball. I think they’re doing a better job at that.”
On defense, BYU doesn’t have as much to boast about, and with starting nose tackle Travis Tuiloma out of the game with an injury, Michigan will have a chance to continue developing a run game that has piled on 479 total rushing yards in its last two games.
The Wolverines’ coaching staff stated that junior running back De’Veon Smith would get the bulk of the carries. But with junior Ty Isaac gaining 114 yards last week and redshirt junior Drake Johnson continuing to progress, Michigan can count on options.
“We’ll see power about 5,000 times. Well, that’s an exaggeration,” quipped BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall in his weekly teleconference Tuesday.
Added Cougar defensive lineman Graham Rowley on Wednesday: “You just dig into the dirt and power back. I’m excited for that.”
Across the board, Michigan matches up well with BYU. Both are still developing with first-year quarterbacks and looking for consistency that can keep them performing at a high level.
Which presents the question: Do the Miracle Mormons have another Hail Mary ending in the making? If they do, Zordich has a plan.
“Personally, I just think guys relax,” he said. “Guys think, ‘It’s not going to come my way,’ and they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. If you watch the Nebraska game, and I’m not picking on anybody because it certainly can happen to anybody, but one guy’s just watching. He’s watching the game, you know, and you just can’t do that.”