Out of the rush of an announced crowd of 110,042 to leave Michigan Stadium after the game Saturday night, many of them having watched fourth-quarter football for the first time this season, a lone voice made itself heard:
“Thank goodness for the defense.”
Yes indeed. If the Michigan football team’s defense hadn’t stepped up and sidelined Colorado’s red-hot offense for the final three quarters of Saturday’s game, the Wolverines very likely would have lost a shocker to the Buffaloes, derailing a promising early season. Instead, Michigan survived and advanced, 45-28, finishing a comfortable non-conference schedule at 3-0.
It’s not often that a defense allowing 28 points in a game is an asset, especially one of Michigan’s standard. The unit began Saturday as the scapegoat, having allowed two easy touchdowns in the first three possessions. But Colorado missed a field goal on its next drive, and that was the only window the Wolverines needed. They kept firing fresh bullets, and the Buffaloes were all out of ammunition.
Once again, the defense set the tone for the comeback, with an assist from the special teams. Michigan’s first touchdown came on a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Its second came when the defense — and another long punt return by Jabrill Peppers — created starting field position on Colorado’s 38-yard line, from which the offense needed just two plays to score.
That was another spark. After that, the Wolverines reached the red zone on their next four possessions, scoring two touchdowns and a field goal and building a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. But again, the defense started the run.
It’s more common for a high-flying offense to put enough points on the board to keep scores close. But in Michigan’s case, the defense plays that role.
“I don’t think we’re ever out of the fight,” said fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow. “…They played really hard, and hats off to them for that. But I think with our defense and the talent we have and how hard we play, I think we’re gonna overmatch them in the long run.”
Almost no offenses can keep Michigan at bay for an entire game. Last year, the Wolverines lost three games. Against Utah and Michigan State, their defense gave up 17 and 21 points, respectively, both of which should be few enough to win the game. Against Ohio State, it wasn’t as much a case of the Buckeyes wearing Michigan down as it was of them being a better team.
To beat Michigan’s defense, you have to play more than a quarter, and Colorado managed only one big play after that, a 70-yard touchdown pass on a post route from Sefo Liufau to Shay Fields early in the third quarter.
“I think all the trick plays kind of caught us off guard at first, but once they used their bag of tricks and we settled into the game and we got to play our game, I think that’s when the tide turned,” Glasgow said.
On the next series, Liufau left the game with an injury, effectively ending the Buffaloes’ chances against the Wolverines’ defense. By then, the unit had returned to its dominant ways, wearing down the Colorado offensive line, shedding blocks and harassing the opposing quarterback. The second half looked much like the first two games in that respect.
Thus, Michigan found its escape, and it wasn’t much more than that. In the future, this game will sit in the record books as a harmless 17-point victory over another inferior opponent, and Saturday’s performance will be good enough. It may even be one on the way to a championship season, a fate Michigan kept alive.
But this is not the future. Today there is a more pressing problem, and that is that the Wolverines weren’t nearly ready to play at the outset. Colorado blitzed Michigan for 21 points in the first quarter, piling up yardage as it wished as the defense missed tackles left and right. Only after the Wolverines settled in did the talent advantage begin to matter.
“It was a fight,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “They knew it was a fight. … Every football game that (has) ever been played, probably ever will be played, it’s a battle, seeing who the best players are in the football game.”
Those players Saturday were the Wolverines, and they fought long enough for it to come down to that. Next time, they know they may not be as fortunate.
“If you get in that situation, different time, different place, you never know if you can come back,” Glasgow said. “Coach Harbaugh gave us the advice last night: There’s always praise for the guy who gets backed into the corner and fights his way out, but the best way to fight your way out is never get backed into the corner. And we did today. We were lucky enough to come back. We played hard enough to come back. But we don’t want to find ourselves in that situation again this season.”
Now, Michigan is undefeated and moving on having survived a close call. For that, it has the defense to thank.