Starting two players making their first career starts at the safety positions sounds like a recipe for disaster. But luckily for Michigan on Saturday, two youngsters were able to hold their own against Penn State in the Wolverines’ 27-25 win.
With free safety Willis Barringer not dressed because of a leg injury and strong safety Brandent Englemon dressed but also out, freshman Brandon Harrison and sophomore Jamar Adams stepped in to help the Wolverines in a must-win situation. The duo made mistakes, but filled in capably for the injured regulars.
“I think that was one of the real positive things that we took out of this game,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “But hopefully we will get Englemon back and at some point (Barringer) back and I think that, as a team, it’s going to be a position of strength when they come back, because these two guys have proven they can do some things under the stress of a big game.”
Although the defense may have been limited with its calls, Harrison and Adams made their share of plays in holding the Nittany Lions’ offense to 239 yards passing.
On a crucial third-and-goal from the Michigan seven-yard line, Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson looked for tight end Isaac Smoklo in the back of the end zone. As the pass flew toward the open Smoklo, Adams streaked in from behind to tip the toss away. The Nittany Lions had to settle for a field goal.
“My coaches gave me an opportunity to go out there and play, and (defensive backs coach Ron) English teaches us to go out there and play at a certain level,” Adams said. “So we have to go out there and perform. Before the game, coach English told me, ‘You practiced well, go out there and play well. Be confident. Whatever you do, be confident. If you have a bad play, come out there and make the next one.’ And that was all I did.”
Adams finished with eight solo tackles and one pass breakup. Although this was Adams’ first start, he gained valuable experience last week in the 23-20 loss to Minnesota.
“When we recruited Jamar, we were fully expecting him to be an outstanding football player,” Carr said. “I thought he made great strides late last week. In the second half of the Minnesota game, they came back with some things that they had done to him in the first half, and a smart player is a guy that doesn’t repeat mistakes.”
Harrison – who moved from cornerback to free safety midway through preseason practices – also showed he could be counted on to play.
Late in the second quarter, Penn State looked like it was putting together a drive right before halftime. On second-and-nine from the Michigan 49-yard line, Robinson scrambled to his left and found a seam. But linebacker David Harris caught up to the speedy signal-caller and stripped the ball from behind. Harrison was right there to fall on the rolling ball.
Not everything went perfectly for the inexperienced safeties. On the Nittany Lions’ first touchdown drive, Harrison took a poor angle to running back Tony Hunt, allowing him to go through the Michigan secondary and sprint up the right sideline.
But despite the mistake, Carr and the coaching staff came away impressed with what they saw.
“If you had told me that we would play as well defensively as we did with a true freshman at safety and Jamar Adams getting his first start, I never would have believed it,” Carr said.