Josh Metellus has had more than a fair share of ups and down already in the 2018 season.
Less than six minutes into the season opener against Notre Dame, the junior safety was ejected for a targeting call. His replacement, Brad Hawkins, allowed a touchdown on the same drive.
But against Western Michigan the following week, Metellus quietly lead the defense with seven tackles and 1.5 tackles-for-loss.
If history had a say, Metellus was poised for a dip in Saturday’s game against Southern Methodist.
And for a moment, with the Wolverines leading just 14-7, it looked to be the case. On the Mustangs’ final drive of the second quarter, wide receiver James Proche — who finished with 11 catches for 166 yard and two scores — ran past the Michigan defense, Metellus included, for 32 yards to the Wolverines’ 24-yard line. Two plays later, with his back turned away from the quarterback, Metellus was called for an ill-advised pass interference. SMU’s drive had the makings of a potential game-tying score with 17 seconds left on the clock.
“I don’t think I held them or pass interference or whatever they called,” Metellus said. “… I was mad for like two seconds because I feel like I didn’t do pass interference. I just knew I had to brush that play off and play the next play.”
And in the blink of an eye, Metellus’ penalty — one of 13 on the day for Michigan — was forgotten the next play. Metellus said he recognized the formation from a play run earlier on the drive, so he anticipated his coverage. Metellus blanketed his man along the left sideline, and telegraphed quarterback Ben Hicks’ throw, catching it right on the numbers.
Memories of Metellus’ Florida high school football days — times he shared with then-teammates Devin Bush and Devin Gil — emerged.
“Me, Bush and Gil — we all had picks and we all blocked for each other,” Metellus said. “Seeing (Gil) right in front of me when I caught the ball brought back a memory of me catching the pick and him blocking for me. I see him and he’s like ‘come on’ and he turned, and I was like ‘I’ve gotta score.’ I knew there was no time left on the clock because before the play I looked up and it said 17 seconds. I knew had to put some points on the board.”
Metellus had nothing but green and those four blockers in front of him. But a straight-line sprint looked more like a rabbit chase. Hicks’ legs were twisted in his downhill pursuit, and with Mustang running back Xavier Jones catching up, Metellus changed course and cut to the middle. As he slowed down, Metellus made a second inside cut past two Mustangs, and finally lunged towards the end zone just before being taken down.
“I liked the route that I took,” Metellus said through a smile. “I just tried to get in the end zone in any way possible.”
Instead of a one-possession game against a subpar SMU team, Michigan headed to the locker room with a two-possession cushion and every ounce of momentum as it headed towards a 45-20 victory.
“Our strength coach is big on boxing,” Proche said. “He says if you take punches in the mouth, you bounce right back. We got punched and didn’t bounce back.”
Metellus’ interception — alongside his five tackles — was a bright spot on an otherwise unimpressive defensive performance. The defense collected seven penalties for 72 yards — 37 of which came on one drive that ended in an SMU touchdown. It was both a testament to the errors the defense still must eradicate as well as how well the Wolverines respond to mistakes.
Metellus is less an exception and more of a figurehead to that testament. The nature of Don Brown’s defense often leaves Metellus in isolation, leaving it up to him to win one-on-one coverage or to spy on a potential run or short throw. Some may call the role thankless, but it’s a give-and-take that Metellus acknowledges.
“I feel like I could play at a higher level,” Metellus said. “I’ve made some good plays so far throughout the season. I’ve had some plays that I wish I could have back. So far, I feel like I could take another step to help the team out more. Not that I’m playing bad, I just feel like I’ve got more in me that I could help the team win.”
The score was lopsided against the Mustangs, but even the 20 points Michigan allowed seemed excessive. The indifference in Metellus’ words — “not that I’m playing bad” — is recognition of the room for improvement. One defensive touchdown can’t erase the seven defensive penalties.
“You address each of them,” said coach Jim Harbaugh. “I know some of them were penalties. Penalties are hurting us, we have to clean up and get better at it. … I don’t want 13 penalties in a game.”
If you’re Metellus, you recognize the need to change, but admire his unit’s short-term memory and resiliency.
It’s something the junior safety has refined each season, and his pick six is living proof of that.