BLOOMINGTON — The Michigan football team’s season vanished tonight, only to reappear, disappear and reappear again. Hundreds of thousands of fans around the country lived and died and lived again as a four-hour game wound toward a close.
Indiana tugged every string, took every gamble and, oh God, the Hoosiers were going to pull it off.
The inner monologue of a Michigan fan had to be verging on insanity as Jordan Howard scored a go-ahead touchdown with 2:52 remaining, then Jake Rudock led a touchdown drive to tie it, then overtime, another overtime and one last goal-line stand.
Hold them! Let them score! Hurry up! Slow down! Why are they running?! Touchdown! Overtime! Another play? Overtime! Not again. More of this! Yes! Oh, please n-YES!
In the end, the ball was in Mitchell Paige’s hands. It was fourth down, in double overtime, on the goal line. If Paige could just come down with Nate Sudfeld’s pass, the Wolverines and Hoosiers were likely headed for triple overtime. But Delano Hill stuck his hand in and ripped the ball out. Game over.
Hill didn’t steal victory from the hands of defeat, but he stole it from the hands of chaos —more chaos — on a night that had nothing if not that.
Michigan 48, Indiana 41, and a season still alive.
All week, the talk was of the Wolverines’ renewed hope for a Big Ten Championship berth thanks to Nebraska’s wild upset of Michigan State. Win the next two, and Michigan could be playing for the Big Ten East title the last weekend of November.
That meant beating Indiana first, something the Wolverines have had little trouble doing since, well, ever. Since 1968, the Hoosiers have beaten Michigan only once. But nothing went according to plan on Saturday.
Indiana nearly ran Michigan off with its tempo, wearing out a defense that earlier this season rang up three straight shutouts. Riding the legs of Jordan Howard, the Hoosiers bludgeoned a seemingly un-bludgeonable defensive line. Howard ran for 238 yards alone — nearly four times as many as Michigan State ran for as a team when it beat the Wolverines one month ago.
When Howard got in the end zone with fewer than three minutes to play, it looked bleak for Michigan — not just for Saturday, but for the season.
If Indiana hung on, Michigan would be all but eliminated from division contention. The goal-line stand at Minnesota two weeks ago? Moot. The game against Ohio State in two weeks? The stakes would be considerably lower.
Michigan pulled a miraculous drive out, though, bringing the ball within a sniff of the goal line. With six seconds left, when fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock lined up on the five-yard line, it wasn’t 4th-and-goal. It was 4th-and-everything.
Rudock threw the ball high to redshirt junior receiver Jehu Chesson, the man who had matched Indiana tit-for-tat all game long. As all of Memorial Stadium watched with baited breath, Chesson came down with the ball between two defenders, giving Michigan second life. There was going to be overtime in Bloomington. Right?
Not necessarily. There was still an extra point to kick. For a team that entered the game No. 1 nationally in special teams efficiency, that shouldn’t have been much concern.
But Michigan had already had its heart ripped out on a “gimme” special teams play against the Spartans. It had already given up a punt return for a touchdown against the Hoosiers, and a low snap earlier in the game led to a missed field goal. There was no comfort. There was only terror.
And indeed, Scott Sypniewski’s snap was low. Fortunately for Michigan, though, Blake O’Neill corralled it just time for Kenny Allen to send it to overtime.
In the extra period, Indiana scored, then Michigan countered, then the Wolverines struck again. Indiana drove right down to the 2-yard line, in position to punch it in again and continue the agony.
The ball was in Mitchell Paige’s hands.
Delano Hill’s gut told him Indiana would run. It was only logical, after Howard’s domination, that the Hoosiers would leave their fate in his hands. Instead, they went to the air.
In retrospect, the fourth-down play wouldn’t have even happened without Hill, who kept Sudfeld out of the end zone one play earlier. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said he saw Sudfeld targeting the matchup on Hill as the play developed. Hill didn’t know they would throw at him.
It’s fitting that the play that could have cost Michigan its season came down to instinct. Instinct is fickle and, of course, chaotic. After all, O’Neill was just following instinct when he tried to punt the ball after fumbling it against the Spartans, and it cost him dearly.
But when Hill reached into Paige’s hands and plucked out the ball, his aggression paid off. Like O’Neill, he didn’t have time to hesitate. He saw the ball was coming, and he had to get it out. His instincts came through. The season lived.
When the press conferences ended and the field cleared out, a large group of fans waited just behind the end zone where Hill made his stand. Harbaugh came out, and kids and parents alike clamored for pictures and autographs. Harbaugh met them along a fence, trying to appease them until it was clear he couldn’t possibly get to them all.
They shouted to him, with their hopes still high, as Harbaugh walked away. He had a bus to catch.
Soon, across the stadium, the buses were exiting the parking lot, honking continuously in celebration. Their cargo was on its way back to Ann Arbor with a game to prepare for next week at Penn State.
Somehow, it still matters.
Bultman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @m_bultman