Nate Romine let the pass loose from Michigan’s 48-yard line.
The Air Force reserve quarterback was facing pressure, and with the Falcons trailing by 16 with under a minute left, he took a shot downfield.
It was an ill-advised decision.
The pass turned into a jump ball, and Michigan linebacker Khaleke Hudson won that battle — rising up to snatch the ball out of the air and seal the seventh-ranked Wolverines’ third win of the season.
Redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight took over, taking a knee to milk the final 19 seconds off the clock.
But for the third time in as many games, it was Michigan’s defense that provided the exclamation point on a victory.
Against Florida, redshirt junior defensive end Chase Winovich sacked Malik Zaire in the end zone before senior linebacker Noah Furbush corralled the loose ball for a touchdown.
Against Cincinnati, sophomore cornerback Lavert Hill’s pick-six put the game to bed in the final five minutes.
And against Air Force, there was Hudson’s interception.
It’s no secret that the Wolverines’ defensive unit has been the highlight of what has been an oddly unconvincing three weeks of undefeated football. The alarming fact is that Winovich thinks the performances up to this point are just the “tip of the iceberg.” And against the Falcons, Winovich and the defensive unit took another step forward.
Michigan faced the triple option — an offense that sophomore linebacker Devin Bush Jr. described as a “whole other world” — with a unit composed primarily of players making their third college start.
“It’s harder because you gotta stay in your gap,” Bush said after the game. “You can’t get washed out, you can’t get washed down. You can’t fall, miss a block or miss attacking your gap. It’s way harder when you have to do a certain job and not make the play, but do your job to help your teammates be great.”
They did their job well.
While the Falcons amassed 232 yards, those were primarily the result of a high volume of carries: Air Force ran the ball 49 times, but averaged just 3.4 yards per carry.
The passing game didn’t fare much better. Earlier this week, Bush had warned of such.
“They’re not going to pass the ball too many times,” he said. “If they do, we got something for ‘em.”
He was right. The Falcons threw the ball just nine times. One pass was picked off. Seven of the attempts fell incomplete. The one that didn’t, however, was the singular blemish on the defensive unit’s resume.
On first and 10 with just under 12 minutes remaining in the third quarter, Arion Worthman — Air Force’s starter under center — made the Wolverines pay for complacency. He found his receiver, Ronald Cleveland, who busted the play open for a 64-yard touchdown that brought the Falcons within three. Bush admitted that, for the play, they were “lulled to sleep” by Air Force’s run-heavy scheme.
Still, Michigan didn’t allow a single point for the rest of the game. They notched three sacks and nine tackles for loss. The Falcons converted on just three of their 13 third-down attempts.
With the way the Wolverines’ offense was sputtering, the singular mistake could have been costly. In the end, though, a unit that surrendered just 13 points against a triple-option system notoriously hard to prepare for deserves its credit.
Michigan’s defense checked off another box Saturday. And if you ask Bush or Winovich, they’re just getting started.
“You haven’t seen us at our best yet,” Bush said. “You haven’t seen us lights out yet. We get three and outs, but we want it much cleaner. We want first down, second down, third down — out.”
Added Winovich: “It’s the little details. We’re so close to being such a great team. And Coach Harbaugh talked about this, how our defense could be special. And I believe we’re on our way.”