If there’s one team you really don’t want to face in overtime, it’s probably Army.
Like any team that runs the triple option, the Black Knights thrive on a short field, chipping away at the green turf until there’s no more empty space.
The Michigan football team saw firsthand what Army could do with such an advantage in the first half Saturday after two fumbles on two separate drives led to two touchdowns. But the Black Knights started their first three drives after halftime from their own 35, 25 and 23 yard lines and came up empty each time.
Overtime, though? That’s a whole different animal. Each team gets one drive from the 25-yard line. Defensive coordinator Don Brown knew that meant an Army advantage.
“You don’t want to get into those scenarios, you really don’t,” Brown said Monday. “Because the short field is their friend.”
To combat the high probability of a Black Knights score, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis had a plan: an aggressive approach that attacked each possession with urgency.
It was the same mentality he’d used when calling plays in the fourth quarter, including once when he passed up a potential field goal only to get stuffed on fourth-and-2. Then, Gattis had wanted to run out the clock and end the game on Michigan’s terms, knowing that the more time Army had, the more likely they’d get close enough for a field goal. Those calls hadn’t worked then — and in fact, probably got the Wolverines to overtime in the first place. Neither team scored in the fourth quarter and a made kick could’ve won the game in regulation.
But Gattis was right about one thing on the second fourth down. The attempt ate up enough clock that Army could only get to Michigan’s 33-yard line before time expired, forcing the Black Knights into a 50-yard attempt that was decidedly out of range for kicker Cole Talley.
So the Wolverines went to overtime and again took the aggressive approach with them.
“Win the game,” said junior center Cesar Ruiz. “That really was just it. Knuckle up and win the game. This is it right here.”
Michigan’s defense got to work, methodically forcing a third-and-4, but senior viper Khaleke Hudson lined up offsides. The five-yard penalty resulted in a first down for Army. Two more runs and the Black Knights were in the end zone.
“ ‘Would you please look down the line of scrimmage?’ ” Brown recalled thinking. “ ‘You’re offsides, dude.’ I mean, can you believe that? But we lined up offsides on a big play and it hurt us.”
Knowing they needed a touchdown, the Wolverines got to work. On third-and-6, senior quarterback Shea Patterson found sophomore wide receiver Ronnie Bell for a first down, then a pass interference on the next play moved the ball to the 3-yard line. From there, freshman running back Zach Charbonnet punched it in.
Michigan could’ve chosen to take matters into its own hands right there, but going for two was never really a consideration. The same analytics that both coach Jim Harbaugh and Gattis pointed to as influencing the fourth-down decisions earlier said that a kick was the better option — not to mention that the Wolverines had tried a two-point conversion against Middle Tennessee that failed. So Jake Moody trotted out and sent the game to a second overtime.
“Kick it and obviously flip it back around and be on offense,” Gattis said. “And we felt really good about where our defense was playing and how well our defense was playing. … Getting into the second overtime, the juices kinda get going a little bit more and we wanted to ride that wave from where our team was.”
But in the second overtime, that wave crashed back to shore. Patterson had three straight incompletions — an overthrow to a wide-open Nico Collins in the endzone, a pass that redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tarik Black dropped and another attempt to Black that wasn’t really close. So the Wolverines settled for a field goal.
It was up to the defense, and as Michigan’s season hung in the balance, it came up big, holding Army to just a two-yard run on first down, making a tackle-for-loss on second down and then, finally, strip-sacking the quarterback on third down and recovering the fumble.
“When they jumped off the bench at the end, you kinda felt like our energy is right,” Brown said. “We’re going to have a chance to get out of here. And you saw it. You saw the three plays.”
On the play, sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson only remembers hitting the quarterback. He doesn’t remember exactly how sophomore defensive end Kwity Paye fell on the ball, but he knew the game was over and began to run and jump and celebrate as the team streamed onto the field. Beating a team like the Black Knights in overtime isn’t for the faint of heart.
It’s no wonder Harbaugh gave Hutchinson a hug afterwards.