There was a moment— when SMU coach Sonny Dykes was dancing his way onto the field, when the game was tied, when momentum had shifted — when the Mustangs had their shot.
Even some momentum.
It was on fourth down and one, a run from Michigan in which the referees generously granted a first down. Dykes, despondent from the call, picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. On the next play, sophomore receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones freely strided into the end zone to take a 14-7 lead, the first of his three touchdowns on the day. Then, with SMU driving in search of points at the end of the half, junior safety Josh Metellus undercut a cross-field pass, running it back 73 yards for a touchdown as the half expired.
So much for momentum.
“Right before the play I looked at the clock and saw there was 17 seconds because I was trying figure out how far they were and what kind of plays we got,” Metellus said. “Once I caught the ball I knew had to score.”
Score he did, giving Michigan a lead it would keep the rest of the day in an eventual 45-20 victory.
But it was also a moment that epitomized a game that will inspire little confidence from either side.
In a game most expected to be a cakewalk, Michigan opened the game in what would better be described as a sleepwalk. The Wolverines would eventually awaken from that slumber, scoring on their final six drives of the game. But the inconsistency still left more to be desired from their coach.
“We’re getting closer to being good — really good,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh after the game. “We’re still not quite there yet. Some improvements to be made.”
Those improvements span both sides of the ball.
At the end of the first quarter, driving near the goal line, junior quarterback Shea Patterson threw an ill-advised pass in the direction of junior tight end Sean McKeon. Instead, SMU safety Mikial Onu jumped the route and secured an interception at the two-yard line.
In need of a spark, Michigan turned to redshirt junior tight end Zach Gentry — who finished the game with career-highs in receptions (four) and yards receiving (95). First, Gentry snagged a deep out route on the sideline, using all of his 6-foot-7 frame to lunge for the reception.
Then, on 3rd-and-four early in the second quarter, Gentry ran down the seam, snagging a 24-yard catch over the defender. That drive culminated with Michigan’s first score of the game, a one-yard touchdown run from sophomore fullback Ben Mason with 6:56 left in the second quarter to snag the lead.
“Zach Gentry kind of broke things open for us,” Harbaugh said, “came in the seam route.”
That open seam, Gentry said, was a result of an over-aggressive linebacking corps that was looking to stop the run, first and foremost.
Added Gentry: “I hadn’t been maybe as involved as I wanted to be in the first couple games. I was just kind of patiently waiting. I had some opportunities today. … Hopefully this continues.”
But the lead wouldn’t last long.
On the next possession, sophomore safety Brad Hawkins and Metellus lost track of SMU receiver James Proche, who strolled to the end zone on an easy 50-yard touchdown. The momentum had shifted. SMU had life. Proche proved to be the Mustangs’ primary — and only real— receiving threat, notching 11 catches, 166 yards and two touchdowns; the rest of the team combined for just seven catches and 38 yards.
Then, granted the gifts from the referees and from Dykes, Michigan took control back. Just minutes later, the Wolverines got their assured dagger on the Metellus interception return.
“I was just happy that as soon as I caught the ball all my teammates started running downfield ready to block,” Metellus said. “That’s love.”
The second half seemed to carry over a similar feeling of ambivalence. The two teams traded scores in the half, one that will provide some confidence for the offense and raise concerns about a defense that struggled at times with freshman backup quarterback William Brown. In addition, Michigan finished the day with 13 penalties for 137 yards, a clear indicator of some of the sloppy play.
Fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich doesn't seem too concerned by the penalities or any over-arching defensive struggles.
“We’re just honestly working to be better (as a defense). Better than we were yesterday. Just keep improving, ultimately. Maybe if someone says we weren’t dominant enough, you could make the case on that. But I’m sure we’ll be better next week than we were today.”
Winovich did note, however, that the team perhaps already had eyes on the coming schedule, with Big Ten play opening next week.
“I’ve already heard murmors around the locker room, like, ‘The Big Ten starts right now,’ ” Winovich said. “We know this has greater implications. You can’t blow one of these.”
Harbaugh shared the same sentiment, saying conferences games “almost count as two.”
That mindset might have creeped into the backs of their heads, as the game came to a slow, listless end. Littered with timeouts, reviews, penalties and all in between, Michigan saw out its victory — ultimately comfortable enough on the scoreboard, but hardly attractive in any form.