STATE COLLEGE — With 8:05 remaining in Saturday’s game against Penn State, Jourdan Lewis turned to Jim Harbaugh.
The Nittany Lions had cut what was once a 21-10 deficit to 21-16, and they had just kicked a field goal from the Michigan football team’s one-yard line. If Penn State had converted the fourth down and scored a touchdown, it would have had the chance to go for the two-point conversion to tie the game. Penn State coach James Franklin preferred to cut the Wolverines’ lead to five, and settled for the field goal.
So Lewis smelled blood. The junior cornerback has impacted games all season long by shutting down opposing wide receivers, but Saturday’s game was his third straight returning kicks. In the newer role, he had an opportunity to go for the jugular.
In the middle of the huddle before his kick return, Lewis looked over at Harbaugh and told him he was going to break the Nittany Lions’ back.
Harbaugh’s response was succinct: “Go ahead.”
Lewis took his coach’s permission and ran with it. He returned the ensuing kickoff 55 yards, leaving would-be tacklers grasping for air. Lewis created space all the way to Penn State’s 40-yard line, setting the Wolverines up for a game-clinching touchdown drive.
“He was just competing like a maniac throughout that return, just refusing to go down,” Harbaugh said. “That was fantastic.”
The importance of special teams is not lost on Michigan. The unit does not meet alone during weeks of practice — every special teams meeting is a team meeting, and a part of game preparation that both Harbaugh and special teams coordinator John Baxter consider crucial to team building.
The Wolverines have found out firsthand what happens if special teams plays — the ones that so frequently seem mundane — don’t go as planned. There was, of course, the fumbled punt that cost them a win against Michigan State last month. And Michigan surrendered return touchdowns against Rutgers and Indiana in its previous two games, though those errors weren’t nearly as costly.
At some points Saturday, it appeared as if special teams issues would hurt Michigan once again. With just over four minutes remaining in the second quarter, fifth-year senior punter Blake O’Neill’s kick was blocked, allowing Penn State to take over on the Wolverines’ 43-yard line.
The Nittany Lions needed just six plays to score on the ensuing possession, and they took a 10-7 lead. Penn State enjoyed the lead for just 1:10.
Once the Wolverines regained the lead, the special teams performance also turned in their favor. Michigan extended its lead to 21-10 in the third quarter in large part due to a special teams miscue by the Nittany Lions.
O’Neill lined up to punt with about 7:30 remaining in the third quarter after the Wolverines’ drive stalled on Penn State’s 43-yard line. His kick landed in the arms of Nittany Lions returner DeAndre Thompkins, but only for a moment.
Thompkins muffed the punt, and Michigan redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson emerged from a brief scrum with the ball. The Wolverines took over possession on Penn State’s nine-yard line and scored a touchdown three plays later.
After the game, Harbaugh said that Saturday’s victory might have been the one for Michigan in which the most people contributed. The Wolverines, when it mattered most, made some of the game’s routine plays count.
“Everybody does a little, and it adds up to a lot,” Harbaugh said.
If all goes well, as it did Saturday, the contributions add up to a broken back for the opponent.