Asher O’Hara looked done for.
The Middle Tennessee quarterback was cornered by two defensive linemen and a linebacker. The play seemed sure to end in a sack. On third-and-3 from Michigan’s 18-yard line, such a play would have likely forced the Blue Raiders into a field goal.
But somehow, none of Khaleke Hudson, Michael Dwumfour nor Kwity Paye could finish the tackle, and O’Hara scrambled all the way into the end zone.
After Middle Tennessee’s first drive, the score was a shocking 7-0 in favor of the Blue Raiders.
Eventually, the Michigan football team cruised to an easy 40-21 win. But that wasn’t how things were supposed to go for one of the top defenses in the country, facing the No. 101 team in preseason SP+, much less on the first drive.
“A win’s a win, and that’s great and everything,” said sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson after the game. “But it wasn’t how we wanted it.”
On one hand, the defense looked fine after that. Of the other two Middle Tennessee touchdowns, one came after a muffed punt in the Wolverines’ territory and the other was in garbage time against the second-string defense. But on the other hand, Michigan seemed to struggle after sudden changes and were plagued by fits of sloppy play all game.
In the second quarter after the muffed punt, the Blue Raiders drove down to the two-yard line. Then, sophomore defensive back Vincent Gray failed to pick up on a rub route in the end zone and gave the receiver too much space, leading to seven more points for Middle Tennessee. In the third quarter, senior defensive back Lavert Hill dropped what should have been an easy interception with no one standing between him and the end zone.
Against a team like the Blue Raiders, it’s easy to disregard such mistakes as growing pains. But when the Wolverines plays tougher teams — starting next week with Army — such messy play won’t cut it.
“Just eliminating self-inflicted wounds, eliminating plays that harm us and give the offense advantages,” Gray said. “We want to eliminate all of that.”
But for a defense that lost a lot of production from last year to the NFL — linebacker Devin Bush Jr., defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich and cornerback David Long — there were some positive signs.
Michigan finished with five tackles for loss and three sacks — including one by senior linebacker Josh Uche for 13 yards. Uche also forced a fumble that junior defensive back Ambry Thomas recovered, and Thomas also snagged an interception. The Wolverines picked up just three defensive penalties, and only one for more than five yards. That’s a good sign for a team that struggled with too many personal fouls in last year’s nonconference slate.
In his Monday press conference, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t show any signs he was disappointed in his team’s performance and mentioned several of the team’s new defensive starters as standouts.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of shaking off the rust, of gelling together to avoid the same kind of lapses that led to the Blue Raiders’ first two touchdowns.
“(This defense is) a lot faster, we’re a lot stronger,” said junior safety Brad Hawkins. “But … we’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s week one, so definitely going forward, we’re definitely going to be improving. We definitely try to go out there and get 1 percent better every day.”