Three missed field goals, all within makeable range, all in a close game.
That’s what the Michigan football team surrendered to Wisconsin on Saturday, taking nine points off the board against the nation’s No. 8 team. You don’t usually come back from that.
And yet, the fourth-ranked Wolverines were still standing Saturday night, when the clouds opened up and gave way to the rain that, if you looked only at the stat sheet, you might have thought was present all game long.
How else to explain Michigan’s 0-for-3 showing on field goals in a game in which they needed them? Fifth-year senior kicker Kenny Allen made 81.8 percent of his field goals last season. But in the second quarter, he missed two inside 44 yards, sending his team into the half up 7-0 instead of 13-0.
It might sound like a small difference, but in a game that boasted two of the nation’s best defenses, the Wolverines could ill afford those misses. Add in sophomore Ryan Tice’s missed field goal from 40 yards out in a tie game late in the third, and it’s a minor surprise Michigan emerged victorious from its first true battle of the season.
After the game, redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight tried to take the blame.
“Any time you leave points off the board, it’s not the goal, it’s not what you want,” Speight said. “But that’s not on the kicker, that’s on me as the quarterback, and on the offense to get the ball in the end zone.”
Speight said it was “unfair” to put pressure on a kicker on a windy day like Saturday, but when a top-five team leaves that many points off the board, it’s almost inevitable.
The Wolverines’ defense bailed out the special teams Saturday, buoyed by three interceptions from its cornerbacks and timely pressure on the Badgers’ redshirt freshman quarterback, Alex Hornibrook. Redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Bryan Mone was back, giving Michigan its full rotation for the first time this season, and the benefit was evident.
“It was a game ball for Don Brown kind of a game,” Harbaugh said.
It may not have had to be, though. Up 7-0 with just under 10 minutes left in the first half, Allen missed his first field goal from 31 yards. He missed again from 43 yards on the very next drive, his third straight miss dating back to the Colorado game.
That led Harbaugh to give Tice a shot when Michigan got into field-goal range on its second drive of the third quarter, this time in a tie game. The Wolverines had gotten as far as the Badgers’ 12-yard line on that drive, but after senior running back De’Veon Smith was stuffed for a loss of one, Speight took a nine-yard sack back to the 22-yard line.
Harbaugh singled out that sack — which put the ball at the right hash mark for Tice — as Speight’s only big mistake of the day, even despite throwing an interception. And the Wolverines paid for it when Tice missed wide right.
Now, even though his team survived the mishaps, Harbaugh has a decision on his hands.
With Allen having lost his form, and Tice an inexperienced walk-on, the Wolverines’ coach said there would be a kicking competition in the coming week. He said that he never thought handling all three kicking duties (field goals, kickoffs and punting) was “ideal” for Allen, and regardless of whether that is the case, Allen now finds himself in a fight with Tice for the placekicking job.
For his part, the fifth-year senior had a solid day punting the ball, pinning Wisconsin inside the 20 four times and notching four punts of 50 or more yards. While Michigan won’t discount the importance of punting, it’s safe to assume that field goals will be a priority in the special teams room this week.
With a trip to Rutgers looming, the Wolverines may not need a flawless performance from their kickers on Saturday. But as Harbaugh pointed out, they will eventually.
After the game, Harbaugh was asked about the saying “defense wins championships,” a nod to the way Brown’s unit bailed out the mishaps on Saturday. And while he acknowledged he ascribes to the saying to an extent, he did so with a caveat.
“To win championships,” Harbaugh said, “you’ve gotta make field goals, too.”