It comes with a caveat, but here’s Michigan’s stat of the night, (non-Jabrill Peppers division): 1-for-13. That was Colorado’s third-down conversion rate — the only success was a meaningless third-and-2 in the final minute — and it’s a big reason the fourth-ranked Wolverines emerged from Saturday’s game unscathed.
Colorado was billed as Michigan’s first test of the season, and it was. Behind the same big-play bursts Central Florida used to great success a week ago, the Buffaloes built leads of 14-0 and 21-7 in the first quarter to put a scare into an announced crowd of 110,042 at Michigan Stadium.
Were it not for a blocked punt returned for a touchdown by sophomore wide receiver Grant Perry, it would have been worse at that point. And were it not for stellar play on third downs all game, Michigan might well have lost.
“You always give yourself a good chance to win when you have stats like that,” said fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow.
By the start of the second quarter, the Wolverines trailed by two touchdowns with the Buffaloes at the Michigan 17-yard line. It was a truly compromising position, the first the Wolverines had been in all season. Guided by quarterback Sefo Liufau, Colorado worked its way down to the Michigan 11-yard line, where it faced a 2nd-and-4.
But from there, something in the Wolverines seemed to click. Redshirt sophomore Chase Winovich and senior linebacker Ben Gedeon combined for a sack to set up third-and-10. Then Peppers came flying in to stuff a receiver for a loss.
The Buffaloes missed the ensuing field goal, and though Michigan did not convert on the ensuing drive, it held Colorado scoreless for the rest of the half. A 21-7 deficit turned into a 24-21 lead. And it happened because Michigan stopped letting drives continue.
“When they say, ‘Punt return, get ready,’ I know punt return’s probably going to go on the field, because the third down conversion’s not going to happen,” Speight said. “That gives us a sense of pride as a team to have the defense come off the field on third down every time. It makes the offense look a lot better.”
Impossible to ignore in the Wolverines third-down dominance was defensive coordinator Don Brown. In 13 third-down tries, Michigan tallied two sacks and a quarterback hurry against the Buffaloes and allowed just two completions out of the nine passes Colorado got off.
That points to intense quarterback pressure, and Brown is the man likely responsible. Commonly referred to as Dr. Blitz, he was liberal with his prescription pad on Saturday.
“His blitzes are something else, let me tell ya,” Glasgow said. “He’s got a new one every third down, it feels like.”
But there is one caveat to Michigan’s third-down success. Trailing 14-7 and fresh off a punt-block touchdown, the Wolverines forced Colorado into a 3rd-and-4. The following play was close to a first down, but the officials never measured because of an offside penalty on redshirt junior linebacker Mike McCray.
If McCray hadn’t jumped, and Michigan had indeed stopped the Buffaloes, it would have been a three-and-out. Instead, the drive went 10 plays for 67 yards and a touchdown.
The Wolverines are fortunate that it didn’t matter Saturday. They got the job done on 12 of the other 13 third downs and escaped with a sound, if not comfortable, win. There are just a few likely blowouts left on Michigan’s schedule, and that’s why a dialogue that Glasgow said developed on the sideline Saturday is so crucial to the Wolverines success going forward.
“You stop ‘em, we’ll score,” Glasgow said the offense would tell the defense.
“You score,” the defense would respond, “We’ll stop ‘em.”