Junior cornerback Channing Stribling was speaking to the media Tuesday night about his past issues with consistency, about his lack of focus, about getting stronger and faster.
He talked about proving himself and keeping his head up. It was clear he was avoiding a big elephant in the room.
“I’m assuming you’re talking about Penn State,” a reporter said.
“Yeah, of course,” Stribling said with a wry smile. “Penn State.”
The cornerback recalls immediately the game in question. It was the low point of his career, a night game in State College on Oct. 12, 2013. He still watches the film at least once a month.
“It’s still with me,” Stribling said. “It’s just knowing what mistakes I made, knowing that if I get the same play, it won’t happen again.”
That night, the No. 18 Michigan football team rolled into Happy Valley at 5-0. The Wolverines led, 34-27, with 45 seconds left. Penn State had the ball on first down at its own 34-yard line. Stribling, then a true freshman, was in at cornerback, matched up on the strong side with Penn State’s Brandon Felder.
Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg took the snap, evaded the pressure, stepped up and threw down the right sideline to Felder. Stribling mistimed his jump at the Michigan 40-yard line and tipped it to Felder, who fell down with the ball at the 37.
Penn State rushed to the line and spiked the ball with 35 seconds to play. On the next play, Stribling lined up on the weak side opposite the Nittany Lions’ top receiver, Allen Robinson.
Again Hackenberg threw downfield to Robinson, and again Stribling mistimed his jump. Robinson, standing near the goal line, jumped and pulled down the pass over Stribling at the one-yard line — Stribling’s mistake again.
Penn State punched in the game-tying touchdown two plays later, and four gut-wrenching overtimes after that, the Nittany Lions won, 43-40. The rest is history: Brady Hoke’s Michigan team lost five of its next seven games to end the season.
Stribling knows what he did wrong on each of his mistakes that night. On the first, he lost the ball in the lights and should have reached up higher to bat the ball down. On the second, he misjudged Hackenberg’s arm strength and let the ball sail over his head.
“Everybody says (Robinson) ripped the ball out, but it really was on me the most,” Stribling said. “That’s why it hurt the most — because it was mostly me misjudging the ball instead of him just making a great catch. Of course it was a great catch, but it was mainly on me misjudging the ball.”
Whenever Stribling watches the film of that night, he recalls his mistakes. Defensive backs have to have a short memory, and Stribling does.
But in this regard, he wants to remember. He wants that night to stick with him, so that he can be better for it.
“It’s just to watch and remember and make sure that next time if it happens, I’m focused,” Stribling said. “It’s in the back of my head to make sure you do this and that. It’s not (thinking) I could have done this or that.”
His problems since his true freshman year have been with consistency, or lack thereof. He has had good days, then bad ones.
He knew he had to fix that to become the cornerback he is this year. He has earned the first two starts of his career in Michigan’s first two games this season, emerging from a deep crop of defensive backs in competition.
To avoid repeating the mistakes he made two years ago, Stribling would have to focus better. In fact, he used the word “focus” nine times in a seven-minute interview Tuesday — a sign that it has become his greatest emphasis.
“You don’t understand how much effort and focus I put into this season itself,” Stribling said. “It’s so much effort.”
He used to come home from practice, watch TV and relax. Now it’s all football: He comes home, watches film, eats and watches more film.
All of it goes into making sure 2013 doesn’t happen again. He was in spot duty that night, but he isn’t anymore. Michigan counts on him more now as a starter, so he knows he has to be stronger.
“You make a mistake, you’re good, just make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Stribling said. “Make sure you make the play.”
It was a long process for Stribling to earn that trust again, and he didn’t initially know how long it would take. He admitted sometimes he would overestimate his progress.
“Yeah, sometimes, it’s always like that,” Stribling said. “You always think you’re right, and the coaches are like, ‘No, you’re not.’ It’s just a matter of just growing up, staying focused and understanding that the coaches are on you the most because they believe in you and they know that you can do great things. It’s just focusing on what they tell you you need to focus on.”
From a confidence standpoint, the progression was also slow. After his first time on the big stage was a struggle, it took time for him to work his way back up. He knew he had to come back and keep making plays.
Then he had to do the same as competition raged on with the new coaching staff. That’s when he made his move to the top of the depth chart.
“I think with the coaches, they’ve (given) great effort and take the game more seriously,” Stribling said. “Not that the last coaches didn’t take it seriously, but it’s more of an NFL style. Like, if you make the play, you make the money. As long as you do your job and make sure you give great effort, make sure everything that you put into football is 100 percent, it’ll come out great.”
At a stronger 6-foot-2 and 178 pounds, the jump-balls Stribling once lost to Penn State should now be a strength. If he falls behind, he has the length to make it up. But he also can get caught sliding his feet, and then he has to move quickly to catch up.
Physically, Stribling has established himself. Mentally, he now believes in himself. To the coaches, he has proven himself.
All contributed to him becoming a starter this year, even if it took a nightmare in Happy Valley to start the process.