Though Jourdan Lewis will make Saturday’s top-10 highlight reels for his late-game heroics, not one player better led the Wolverines to a 14-7 victory over No. 8 Wisconsin than senior cornerback Channing Stribling.
To be fair, Lewis’ pick was nothing short of miraculous. When Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook dropped back and launched the ball on 4th-and-10 with just over two minutes left in the game, everyone at Michigan Stadium froze. But Lewis was there — almost too early, curiously floating for what seemed like an eternity before he grabbed the ball with one hand and tucked it in to cut short Wisconsin’s last breath.
If it weren’t for Lewis, Wisconsin could easily have been set up at midfield with two minutes of time to reach the end zone. Maybe the game would have gone to overtime.
But if it weren’t for Stribling, Michigan may have never been in that position in the first place.
Throughout all four quarters, the defense had to hold up the offense. In the first top-10 matchup at the Big House since 2003, Stribling showed up for all four quarters.
In the first quarter, he broke up his first pass of the game. In the second, he undercut a Wisconsin receiver and picked off the ball, giving the Wolverines possession at Wisconsin’s 44-yard line. In the fourth, he broke up a pass and picked up his second interception of the game.
Stribling shifted the momentum when his teammates seemed sluggish.
“I can think of two right now that were outstanding, they were testing him deep,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “I think he got his hands on four or five balls during the game, which is outstanding, and two interceptions. That’s outstanding for a corner. And he tackled. I thought he had a heck of a ballgame as well.”
It’s fair to say that Stribling wouldn’t have had his shining moment today if it weren’t for Lewis, though.
Stribling himself put it best after the game: “(Lewis) is an All-American, you’ve gotta go the other way!”
But this time, when the Badgers tested the corner without All-American accolades, they got burned.
“(Wisconsin) tried to test us early, just figuring out who was the weak link, I guess,” Stribling said. “We didn’t have any, so after that, we worked.”
Neither Lewis nor Stribling showboat, but Lewis shows his confidence more outwardly than Stribling does. They’re different people and different players, so that makes sense.
But Stribling thinks that that’s why others have doubted his level of composure when he knows he’s always been self-assured, even from the first day he stepped on campus.
“Kinda back to my freshman year coming in, I had the same kind of confidence,” Stribling said. “When the coaches have confidence in you, the sky’s the limit. Just bringing it back to myself, especially this year, this last year, just making sure I had it.”
Stribling later added: “I’m not like a ‘rah-rah’ guy. I mean, I get a little rowdy, but you see JD, you know he gets rowdy. He’s out there. When I get confident, I’m calm, just like, ‘OK, I’m good.’ ”
The last time he had two or more picks in a game was his senior year of high school, when he had three. This season, Stribling had a pick-six against Hawaii, but so did Delano Hill, and the Wolverines dropped 63 points on the Rainbow Warriors. The points came from just about everywhere.
But this time, the interceptions and pass breakups came against a talented top-10 team with two wide receivers who had already logged more than 200 receiving yards this season.
Stribling was asked after the game if this was the biggest performance of his career.
“I think so, (but) we still got plenty of games left,” Stribling said. “I think this was a stepping stone for me, proving to myself, proving to I guess a lot of people that I can make plays and do a lot of things, so I just gotta keep going with it.”
Stribling has come a long way since 2013, when former Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson caught a fourth-quarter pass over him that set up for the game-tying score. It sent the game to quadruple overtime, where the Wolverines lost, 43-40. It even inspired Robinson to ink his side with the picture of the catch.
It’s unlikely that Stribling would allow something like that to happen again.
“He has his confidence back and he’s getting more comfortable with himself and he knows that he’s one of the best, really,” Lewis said. “I know he won’t ever say that, but I know he’s one of the best.”
It’s hard to decide which corner will have a bigger impact on the season than the other, and it probably doesn’t matter for this reason: Michigan may have the best two in the Big Ten.