When a would-be sack by Michigan redshirt junior defensive tackle Matt Godin turned into a 16-yard scramble, it looked like the upset-minded UNLV football team had brought some luck with it from Las Vegas.
But through its stifling defense and uncharacteristically explosive offense, the Wolverines (2-1) ensured the Rebels’ luck stopped there, using 254 yards of rushing and two takeaways to power past UNLV en route to a 28-7 win.
It didn’t take long for Michigan to rebound after Godin brought UNLV quarterback Blake Decker down, but never to the ground. Junior cornerback Channing Stribling snagged his first-career interception on the very next play, setting up a four-yard touchdown pass from fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock to junior running back De’Veon Smith.
Though Rudock struggled for much of the game, completing just 14 of 22 passes and throwing his fifth interception of the season, he kept drives going with short passes and the occasional scramble.
“It’s fair to say the timing is off (in the passing game),” Chesson said. “Right now, we don’t complete the plays, but in practice it is there. It’s just a level of consistency that we need to bring to the games.”
More importantly, though, the players Rudock handed the ball off to were ready to carry the load.
Smith, who set a career high with 126 rushing yards last week, struggled with just 33 yards on 13 carries. But just a few minutes after his receiving touchdown, Chesson took an end-around 36 yards to the house.
It was Michigan’s longest play of the season, but that title didn’t last long. With 7:30 to go in the first half, junior Ty Isaac broke the game open, hitting the jackpot on a 76-yard run.
The run was his first score for the Wolverines and the team’s longest run since 2012. Isaac ended up leading all Michigan rushers with 114 yards on eight carries.
“I’ve been here for a year without playing,” Isaac said. “I know I was helping the team (on the practice squad last season), but it feels a lot better when you can put it on the scoreboard and help your team win.”
The offense slowed down for the rest of the game, but the defense picked up the slack.
Led by senior defensive end Mario Ojemudia, the Wolverines made eight tackles for loss and forced two interceptions. It was the most tackles for loss for Michigan since Nov. 8 of last season and just the second time since 2013 that the Wolverines won the turnover battle.
“We want to play our game, play Michigan football,” Ojemudia said. “Our game is aggressive, getting to the ball, hitting people in the mouth, all of the above.
“I don’t like to talk about last year too much, but I don’t remember us getting anything … just getting the ball back is our motto, and it was good to see that today.”
With numerous second- and third-string players in the game in the second half, Michigan tallied just 144 yards of offense compared to 233 in the first half.
A different kind of highlight came in the beginning of the fourth quarter, however, when senior fullback Sione Houma leaped over the offensive line for his first-career touchdown. After an official review on the previous play took away his moment, Houma was delighted with the second chance.
“There’s no feeling like scoring your first touchdown at the Big House on your home turf,” Houma said. “I just lay there and tried to take in the moment. Thank God, He’s the one that brought me along and built me up to be this fullback I am right now.”
On the subsequent drive, UNLV pieced together a 75-yard drive to put a sudden end to the shutout. Whether it was a gambler’s fallacy or sloppy play by Michigan, the Wolverines weren’t happy.
“We want to play up to our expectations, not our opponents, and giving up that touchdown late was unacceptable,” Ojemudia said. “I think it’s completely fair of how we expect to play. … They shouldn’t have gotten anything.”
Nonetheless, the cards fell in Michigan’s favor in the end, and the Rebels were forced to fold.
“I would never use the word ‘satisfied’ in a football sense,” Harbaugh said. “But yes, I’m happy. … It feels good to get a team win.”