Defense forces turnovers when needed most

Marissa McClain/Daily
Redshirt junior safety Jordan Kovacs picked off a Tommy Rees pass on a key third down in the second quarter. Buy this photo

By Kevin Raftery, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 11, 2011

At the end of the first quarter during the Michigan football team’s thrilling 35-31 win over Notre Dame Saturday, the Michigan Stadium loudspeakers gave Wolverine fans virtually their only hope for victory.

Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” — a song almost always reserved for late-game desperation comebacks — boomed throughout the stadium, almost apologetically.

In reality, Michigan fans had little reason to believe. The Fighting Irish were leading the Wolverines, 14-0, and had just intercepted another poorly thrown pass by Michigan junior quarterback Denard Robinson, who finished the quarter 1-for-4 for five yards.

And if the offense was bad, the defense was worse. Notre Dame sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees, who had started just four career games prior to Saturday, went a perfect 8-for-8 for 94 yards and two touchdowns on the Fighting Irish’s first two drives. The Notre Dame running backs also piled up a quick 51 yards on nine rushes in the first quarter, bursting through holes the size of the Grand Canyon.

With the exception of a couple critical mistakes, the Fighting Irish's offensive surge continued through the third quarter. And after Rees connected with junior Theo Riddick for a 15-yard touchdown to give Notre Dame a 24-7 edge with just over a quarter to play, it was over — at least for the few hundred fans that decided they’d seen enough and exited the stadium.

But it wasn't over for the Wolverines.

“Whatever the situation, we’re gonna keep playing as hard as we can,” senior defensive tackle Mike Martin said after the game. “We never quit and we never gave up.”

And while it was Robinson and the Michigan offense that have received the most credit for the miraculous comeback, it never would have happened without several key plays by the defense.

The defensive turnaround started in the second quarter. With Notre Dame driving yet again and threatening to blow the game open, redshirt junior safety Jordan Kovacs slipped in front of receiver Michael Floyd on the sideline to intercept Rees's third-down pass.

“I think we did a good job of disguising the defense,” Kovacs said of the play. “I think the quarterback thought we were blitzing. He checked out of it and he didn’t see us drop into coverage.”

Added Michigan coach Brady Hoke: “It was a tremendous play because it started on the line of scrimmage being a good play. We gave them a good look and everybody then bailed out, and I think it confused them a little bit.”

It was just the second time all game the Michigan defense stopped Notre Dame from scoring, giving the Wolverines confidence that they were clearly lacking early in the game. On the ensuing offensive possession, Michigan scored on a 43-yard touchdown grab by fifth-year senior Junior Hemingway, tightening the score to 14-7 when it clearly could have — and should have — been much worse.

On the next Notre Dame drive, with the Fighting Irish on the Michigan 18-yard line and in the midst of another impressive scoring drive, Rees rolled right, looking for Floyd in the end zone. But he waited just a second too long, giving redshirt junior cornerback J.T. Floyd enough time to drop back and jump in front of Floyd to make the interception.

Just like that, instead of trailing 21-7 — or worse, 28-0 if Kovacs didn’t force his interception — the Wolverines had the ball back, down by just seven with about five minutes left in the half. Both interceptions came on passes intended for Floyd, Notre Dame's all-time receptions leader who finished the game with 13 receptions for 159 yards.

“You can never eliminate a guy like that or take him out of the game, but that’s something we tried to do,” Kovacs said. “He’s a great player and he’s gonna get his catches and we knew that, but we couldn’t let the rest of the team beat us.”

The two first-half interceptions were key in keeping Michigan in the game, but in the second half, a fumble recovery set the Wolverines up to have a shot at finishing off a miraculous comeback.

With Notre Dame up 24-21 and just over six minutes left in the game, the Irish were just seven yards away from seemingly putting the game out of reach for Michigan. Rees dropped back to pass, cocked his arm back to throw, and somehow, inexplicably, the ball slipped out of his hands without being touched. There was a scramble for the ball, and fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen came out of the scrum with it.

It was the fourth forced turnover for the Wolverines.

“We did step up and make some big plays,” Martin said. “Throughout the game we had some adversity, but it made us better throughout the game, and I think we did a really good job of stepping up and making plays when we needed to.”

The defense clearly had its struggles throughout the game (it gave up 513 total yards and allowed what appeared then to be the game-winning drive by Notre Dame with just 30 seconds left), but the players did what they had to do in order to keep Michigan in the game.

“That’s the unique thing about this defense,” Kovacs said. “We’re gonna fight. At times we played well but at other times it was tough. We just put it in the past and kept fighting. We knew good things would happen.”

In other words, they didn’t stop believin'.