PISCATAWAY — The No. 5 Michigan football team has placed a season-long emphasis on generating takeaways. It hasn’t quite paid obvious dividends: The Wolverines entered Saturday’s game with only five interceptions in eight contests, tied for the second-fewest in the Big Ten.
Earlier this week, co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale expressed even more urgency. In a passionate press conference, Clinkscale made clear that takeaways are incumbent on all three levels of the defense — the line, the linebackers and the secondary — doing their part.
“It’s defense, it’s not rocket science,” Clinkscale said. “Like, play your ass off, play hard, be physical, find the ball, go make a play.”
Sometimes, it actually looks as easy as it sounds.
Saturday night, Michigan notched three third-quarter interceptions to flip the script in Piscataway, thwarting Rutgers’ aspirations of a stunning upset.
“Defenders seeing the ball, seeing the ball come out of the quarterback’s hand, you get a taste for that,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “That’s fun, you know? … It’s a lot (more fun) to turn around, get your eyes on the ball and intercept it.”
It’s fun, and it’s also crucial. Through 30 minutes, the Wolverines found themselves firmly on the ropes. SHI Stadium had come alive, ignited by an aspiring performance from the Scarlet Knights. As halftime hit, a quartet of men dressed in revolutionary war attire let off a cannon that rattled the window panes in the pressbox. This didn’t feel like the doormat of the Big Ten.
But Michigan’s defense emerged from halftime a different unit. The takeaways changed the tenor of the game, almost instantly.
“That’s kind of what I was preaching during halftime,” graduate linebacker Mike Barrett said. “They made a couple plays, but we got to come out and make some ourselves.”
Barrett seemed to take his own message to heart. After the Wolverines jumped back in front early in the third quarter, Barrett dropped back into coverage on the ensuing Rutgers drive. Scarlet Knights quarterback Gavin Wimsatt threw his pass right into Barrett’s arms, setting Michigan up at Rutgers’ 10 yard line.
The Wolverines scored two plays later.
Then, on the following drive, the ball found Barrett again. Wimsatt’s pass sailed through the hands of receiver Aron Cruickshank and into the lap of Barrett, who twisted his way past Cruickshank and darted into the endzone.
“The best kind of interception,” Harbaugh said with a smile.
“As a defense, we always say, we shouldn’t have to depend on the offense,” Barrett added while sporting the team’s trademark turnover buffs. “If they can get three points on the board, then we should win. So we said, somebody’s gotta come out there and make a play. We got to get the ball back to the offense, put them in a better position to score.”
And that’s exactly what Michigan did. Later, freshman cornerback Will Johnson — playing a higher snap count with graduate cornerback Gemon Green sidelined — joined the party, notching his first interception as a Wolverine. Johnson’s interception and ensuing zig-zagging 29-yard return set Michigan up at Rutgers’ 31 yard line.
Again, three plays later, the Wolverines found the endzone, burying the Scarlet Knights in a 25-point hole.
“Gamechangers, right?,” junior running back Blake Corum said. “We knew at halftime, that’s what we needed. … You really need players like that. You need plays like that. They came through.”
By the end of the interception spree, Michigan turned the game upside down. Now, with eight interceptions on the season, the Wolverines have matched last season’s total. And Johnson’s interception — a demoralizing blow that pierced any notions of an upset — sent a swath of Rutgers fans fleeing for the exits.
But it wasn’t just Johnson, nor was it merely Barrett. The takeaways were borne out of a team effort, the same one that Clinkscale stressed just three days earlier.
“It took tremendous team defense,” Harbaugh said. “They defended nine drives (in the second half) and only gave up one first down. That’s pretty special.”
Saturday, the interceptions were exactly that.