UNLV quarterback Blake Decker was sacked, and then he wasn’t, and then he was 15 yards up field for a first down. Michigan Stadium was confused, and the Wolverines were, too.
On the Rebels’ first drive of Michigan’s 28-7 win Saturday, redshirt junior defensive tackle Matt Godin had Decker wrapped up for a sack that would have secured an emphatic three-and-out. But while Godin celebrated the sack with his teammates, Decker got up and ran. His knee never touched the ground. The play was reviewed, and the run stood.
It was the type of play that could have been disheartening to the Wolverines, who last week allowed Oregon State to drive 79 yards in two minutes to take a 7-0 lead. That drive ended up the lone blemish on an otherwise stellar game, but at the time, it was troubling.
“We said last game our first drive was horrible,” said junior cornerback Channing Stribling. “We said our next game we have, our first drive has to be the best. Starting off strong.”
And so on the first drive Saturday — after the celebration, the confusion and the review — the Wolverines lined up to defend again, trying to clear their minds and avoid another long drive to open the game.
Decker let loose a pass, and junior cornerback Channing Stribling snatched it out of the air for his first career interception. He returned the ball to the UNLV 32-yard line, and Michigan took a 7-0 lead minutes later.
“Before the play, I actually prayed to myself, prayed to God, like, ‘Just put me in position, I’m gonna make the play,’ ” Stribling said. “Anytime you create a turnover and you (get it to) our side of the field, it creates points for us.”
Much like the Wolverines’ first drive against the Beavers didn’t ultimately factor much into the game’s outcome, neither did Stribling’s first-quarter interception on Saturday. Michigan went on to a lopsided victory, but at the time, it was significant, especially for a defense that has struggled to force timely turnovers in its last couple of seasons.
The Wolverines won the turnover battle on Saturday for just the second time in their last 16 games, snagging two interceptions to UNLV’s one. And it’s not just the fact that Michigan hasn’t generated many turnovers. It’s that the Wolverines haven’t generated them at crucial times.
In the Wolverines’ season opener against Utah, redshirt junior cornerback Jeremy Clark came down with an interception, but on a Hail Mary at the end of the end of the first half. It did nothing to change the feel of the game.
Against the Rebels, they had more turnovers and more timely ones.
Near the end of the third quarter, with Michigan leading 21-0, Clark was flagged for pass interference. But on the next play, he made up for it, tipping Decker’s pass and coming down with it to give the Wolverines the ball back.
Michigan scored 10 plays later, building a 28-point lead.
Clark’s pick hardly changed the game’s outcome either, but the fact that it occurred immediately after a 15-yard penalty was significant. Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin was especially animated, jumping up and down after Clark made up for his mistake.
“You create turnovers, the whole stadium goes crazy, coaches go crazy,” Stribling said. “It’s just a great feeling when you make a play and you look up and the whole stadium is just crazy.”
The Wolverines’ defense has been their strength for a while now, but that advantage has always come with the caveat that they didn’t create turnovers.
Stribling said after the game he has felt all season like teams have attacked Michigan’s secondary on fade routes especially. And while he and his teammates like the challenge, they take it a little personally when teams are willing to take those shots at them, seemingly without fear.
On Saturday, they used those throws to make a statement.
“You realize, ‘OK, they’ve been throwing this ball, they haven’t completed it, they keep thinking they’re going to complete it,’ ” Stribling said. “You kind of think, ‘OK you can throw it again, we’re about to get one.’ So we got one.”