Michigan’s defense had its back against the wall.
It was one thing to fall a touchdown behind to an unranked foe in the first half. Three lost fumbles tend to produce such tenuous positions, and Army had done its best to capitalize. But a two-touchdown deficit in the second half against a ball-controlling savant — in the midst of offensive woes — would’ve been another mountain to scale entirely. Perhaps even a death knell.
The Black Knights completed a 29-yard pass to vault into the Wolverines’ territory, then slowly marched inside the 10 with under nine minutes to play in the third quarter. That’s when Don Brown’s defense toughened up and made its game-changing sequence happen.
“Now, it’s 1st and goal at the 4. We gave up two explosive plays — one run, one pass,” Brown said Monday, gesticulating and enunciating in a professorial manner. “We gave up the explosive pass, now they’re 1st and goal at the 4. They run speed option to the right. Jordan Anthony goes in, he grabs one leg. Ben Mason’s trying to get in, he grabs another. And then Glasgow comes over the top and shoulders him, and then Uche pulls him back to keep him out of the end zone.”
In the moment, the touchdown-saving play seemed to only delay the inevitable. Army had the ball at the one-yard line. Giving a triple-option side three plays to get one yard is akin to baking a cake with all the ingredients already poured. Placing it in the oven is nothing more than a formality.
“What do you think our shot is to stop 2nd and 1?” Brown asked, rhetorically. “Pretty hard, right?
By the skin of its teeth, Michigan’s defense had lived to play another down. That’s when it all turned.
What first appeared to be merely a boneheaded mistake by Army — the fullback moving prematurely for a false start, sending the offense back five yards — turned out to be a shrewd tactic by the Wolverines.
It was all part of a plan the defense had been practicing beforehand.
“So, we come out and we’re going to move the defense. We’re going to show them the three-man front and we’re going to go ahead and step in the front two to try to stop this fullback. So our call is ‘MOVE!’” Brown yelped, his violent cadence re-enacting that of his team. “So when we made the move call, the fullback went (Brown stutter steps) and that moved them back five yards.”
Senior cornerback Lavert Hill flashed a sly smile when that stunt came up in media availability three days later.
“We had practiced it a couple times and we decided to just call it in the game,” Hill said Tuesday.
Is he surprised it actually worked?
“Yeah,” he chuckled, “a little bit.”
The off-schedule play subsequently forced Army into a play it almost never makes. The Black Knights finished 129th (of 130 teams) in both interceptions and turnovers in 2018. But there it was — senior VIPER Khaleke Hudson in the quarterback’s face, ball fluttering well short of an intended target, into the arms of an awaiting Lavert Hill.
Perhaps unexpectedly, they’d chosen to throw the ball, and the defense was prepared. Hill made amends for his dropped interception a week prior, securing the pick, returning it to the 22-yard line and breathing life into a team that had been slowly succumbing to a relentless Army offense.
The Wolverines’ offense marched right down the field, traversing 78 yards in 12 plays to tie the game up on a touchdown from freshman running back Zach Charbonnet. It was a 14-point swing in no more than a half-dozen minutes of game time.
It’s hardly hyperbolic to say the play salvaged a game that was rapidly extending beyond the team’s grasp. It may have saved a season from crashing before it could even take flight.
“That’s probably the key of the game,” Brown said, “because if we don’t make that stop there, who knows? You can’t predict it.”