In his postgame press conference Saturday, Army coach Jeff Monken emphasized one play more than any other.
It wasn’t any of his team’s three touchdowns or three fumble recoveries. It wasn’t the clinching play of the game, where his quarterback was sacked and fumbled. It wasn’t the Black Knights’ missed game-winning field goal attempt, either.
Monken wanted one play back: Michigan’s fake punt.
“We knew we needed to get some turnovers if we were going to beat them,” Monken said. “We had to get some balls away from them and steal a possession, and they stole one from us on the fake punt. That was my call. … They stole one from us there and it’s probably my greatest regret.”
The game couldn’t have started out any more disastrous for the Wolverines. Senior quarterback Shea Patterson fumbled on the first drive, gifting Army the ball and an eventual touchdown. Michigan got the ball back, of course, but it wasn’t long before the Wolverines ran into trouble again.
Michigan’s drive stalled as it faced fourth-and-5 from its own 47. To make matters worse, it seemed, senior linebacker Devin Gil’s false start moved everyone back five yards.
But before the false start, the Michigan coaches noticed something in the Black Knights’ punt coverage. They’d eschewed a deep corner in order to put an extra man in the box, hoping to block the kick. It’s the kind of coverage you run when you’re the underdog, when you need some big, crazy plays to win.
Except that when the Wolverines lined up again and saw Army in the same coverage, they were one step ahead. Sophomore linebacker Michael Barrett — a former high-school quarterback who contributes mostly on special teams — lined up in front of punter Will Hart, took a direct snap and threw a pass to the waiting freshman safety Dax Hill, who broke through a diving tackle for 25 yards and the first down.
Five plays later, Michigan tied the game up with a touchdown. They went on to squeak out a win, 24-21, in double overtime.
“Disappointed in myself. I wish I would’ve changed the call there,” Monken said. “But … we’re not going to be safe, we’re going to go play. So if I’m safe as a coach, that can’t be the way I lead. They got to know I got confidence saying we’re going to go for it. You know what? We went for it, got a guy out there and we missed the tackle.”
Ronnie Bell was sitting on the sidelines during the play, not knowing what was about to happen. Ben Bredeson and Aidan Hutchinson were equally clueless.
“All of a sudden I see everybody screaming,” Bell said. “And I looked and Dax made the miss and I was like, ‘Oh, let’s go,’ so I was excited as everybody else.”
Most of the key players in the Wolverines’ offense don’t play on special teams and subsequently had no idea it was a play Michigan even practiced. But on Saturday, it was the reserves and the freshmen who pulled out the play that brought the drive back from the dead.
Monken spent so much time dissecting the play because he realized that it led to one of the Wolverines’ only two touchdowns of regulation. The fake punt was a game-saving play for Michigan and perhaps a season-saving one.
For the Black Knights, it was merely the one that got away.