It happened just four days ago, but it’s arguably the most-talked-about play of Michigan’s season.

Coach Lloyd Carr had just burned the Wolverines’ third and final timeout with 1:27 left on the clock, and Michigan had Minnesota pinned back at its own 26-yard line on Saturday. The score was 20-20, and the Gophers – who were trying to run out the clock to force overtime – faced a third-and-10 situation. Michigan settled into a 4-3 defensive alignment, and the ball was snapped.

Minnesota quarterback Tony Mortensen, playing in place of the injured Bryan Cupito, handed the ball off to Gophers backup running back Gary Russell, who headed toward the right sideline. Wolverines defensive end Alan Branch was knocked off-balance, but he reached for Russell’s legs as he fell. Russell narrowly avoided the defensive lineman and cut even farther to the outside. Minnesota wide receiver Jared Ellerson forced Michigan cornerback Grant Mason out of bounds, and outside linebacker Prescott Burgess was sealed off from the play by tight end Matt Spaeth.

Russell had room to move, and he took full advantage of it, tip-toeing down the white boundary for 61 yards and sapping the energy and enthusiasm out of Michigan players and fans with every hash mark he left in the dust.

Three plays later, Minnesota kicker Jason Giannini nailed a 30-yard field goal to clinch the Gophers’ victory.

“I think (Burgess) got caught looking into the backfield instead of at the tight end, and he was just unable to turn the ball back inside,” Carr said. “He was looking in the backfield, (so) that part of his technique broke down and the ball got outside.”

Carr also found fault with backup safety Brandon Harrison’s pursuit angle to get to Russell. Harrison and Jamar Adams were in the game in place of starting safeties Willis Barringer and Brandent Englemon, both of whom left earlier with injuries.

“Our safety (Harrison) took a bad angle, and, when he did, now he had to turn (and lose more time),” Carr said.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the play’s outcome was the fact that everybody in Maize and Blue expected a run on the down. The Wolverines’ failure to stop Russell’s forward progress highlighted a serious problem that has plagued Michigan’s performances all season: an inability to stop running plays to the perimeters of the gridiron.

“I’m not exactly sure why it’s so hard (to contain the outside),” defensive tackle Gabe Watson said. “We watch film, and we try to correct the mistakes for the following week, but we have to do it. We can’t just talk about it.”

Russell’s run gave rush end LaMarr Woodley flashbacks to Michigan’s 23-20 loss at Wisconsin on Sept. 24. Badgers running back Brian Calhoun tore up the Wolverines’ defense for 214 all-purpose yards, including 39 on seven touches during Wisconsin’s final fourth-quarter, game-winning drive. Calhoun used a flurry of runs to the outside and screen-pass receptions to beat Michigan.

“I’m pretty sure that Minnesota looked at tapes from Wisconsin or something,” Woodley said. “They decided to run (the ball), and they executed it pretty good.”

Carr also indicated the absences of injured defensive ends Rondell Biggs and Jeremy Van Alstyne, along with the loss of half of Michigan’s secondary, as factors contributing to Russell’s success on the now-infamous snap. Because of the depleted depth on the defensive line, Branch was moved from his natural tackle position to end, a spot he isn’t as familiar with. Carr also cited his defenders’ fatigue – they were on the field for nearly 18 minutes in the second half – as another possible reason for the Wolverines’ collapse.

But such breakdowns on defense have been all too common for Michigan this year. In the season opener, Northern Illinois running back Garrett Wolfe broke a 76-yard touchdown run down the left sideline. The very next week, Notre Dame’s Darius Walker used repeated runs around the tackles to accumulate 104 rushing yards and control the clock.

Michigan’s difficulty in turning talented runners to the middle of the field is something the Wolverines know they must eliminate.

“You’re going to face running teams, and they’re going to get their yards,” rush linebacker Pierre Woods said. “But you have to hope to contain them.”

So far this season, the Wolverines haven’t.

 

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