After senior kicker Jake Moody missed a 47-yard attempt to put the game on ice, Michigan’s defense took the field. Again.
With the Wolverine offense struggling to make an impact, Rutgers’s time of possession skyrocketed in the second half, totalling 17:42 of 30 total minutes. Now, with a chance to drive down and tie, or win, the game, the Scarlet Knights could take their momentum and drive past a weary defense.
Instead, junior linebacker David Ojabo executed a spin move and stripped Noah Vedral, the ball ricocheting into freshman linebacker Junior Colson’s arms. A worn down defense found a stop. Michigan would win.
“(It was a) gritty game,” Harbaugh said after the game. “It wasn’t pretty. But when they make a space for pretty on the scoreboard, then we’ll worry about that.”
There are a lot of lessons to take from a game where the Wolverines beat Rutgers by one score and totaled just 47 yards of offense in the second half, drawing out fans and their shovels. But Michigan still won. It executed when it had to, sucking down time with an eight play, 33 yard drive (the only non-three-and-out of the half) and coming up with that crucial turnover.
Not every team can do that. Look at Iowa State, or Clemson or Wisconsin. None of those teams executed when the time called for it.
“I think we had a positive attitude throughout the whole game, through all the ups and downs,” junior defensive tackle Christopher Hinton said. “ I really like that about the defense and this team this year. We’ve just got to keep that rolling because every game is not going to be sunshine and rainbows. We’ve just got to stay stout in tough times.”
Good teams win games, and this weekend the Wolverines won.
At least, they’re probably good enough to match pre-season expectations, maybe more. A 20-13 win over Rutgers may not be too flashy, but it shows that even with poor performances, Michigan can put together a win. And that’s promising.
Consider the 2015 Michigan State team, which scraped by every game it won and did so in an incredibly frustrating fashion. But that team made the College Football Playoff while looking not impressive in any way.
Or consider the Cornhuskers, who’ve found increasingly funny ways to lose this year, always close but never finding the final push. Or Iowa State faltering and floundering to match the mountains of expectation heaped on them. Winning is a skill and a very difficult one to master. But once you figure out how to do it, it can carry you through rough patches like Saturday.
Next weekend, we’ll see if this Michigan team has really learned how to win. It’ll face a Badgers team that failed to execute against Notre Dame and is now having the question asked of whether they can beat good teams.
“As a team, we’re not doing enough to give ourselves a chance to win and to beat good football teams,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said after losing to Notre Dame. “That’s something that we’ve obviously got to improve upon, and everyone’s got to find a way to move forward.”
Wisconsin will pose a huge challenge, regardless of how it’s performed so far. It’s a program that’s used to winning and knows how to do it, unlike Rutgers.
The Badgers will target the weaknesses the Wolverines showed Saturday, but Michigan has shown an ability to create explosive plays through both the air and the run. In the first half, junior quarterback Cade McNamara showed what fans had wanted to see — he aired it out and found holes, doing what the fanbase desperately hoped he could.
And the defense, who, despite being repeatedly forced into difficult situations, stopped the Scarlet Knights when it mattered most. A fourth down stop, a missed field goal and a fumble are no small tasks.
Fans shouldn’t be too scared, with shovels in hand to bury their hopes again. In the team’s first big battle of the season it showed an ability to work through the pain, something that was foreign last year. Disappointment will, for now, wait a little longer: maybe just one week, maybe until the Wolverines go to East Lansing.