The last time two Big Ten teams scored this many points, Michigan was playing Michigan Agricultural back in 1902 and Fielding Yost was coaching his point-a-minute teams.
Saturday’s game in the Big House took three overtimes: Michigan 67, Illinois 65.
The win made the Wolverines eligible for a bowl game for the first time in Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez’s tenure as coach. And it capped off a week in which the NCAA concluded its investigation involving the football program — with an outcome widely considered favorable for the beleaguered coach.
When the first overtime started, Michigan’s starting quarterback Denard Robinson had already exited the game with an injury — it was unexpected protagonists who made all the difference in this saga.
Sophomore quarterback Tate Forcier — who was the 2009 starter but became the backup with the emergence of Robinson — replaced Michigan’s main offensive cog near the beginning of the fourth quarter and promptly fumbled his first pass attempt away to Illinois. The Fighting Illini scored the go-ahead touchdown six plays later.
But that was just the beginning of his story. When he got another chance later in the quarter, down seven points, Forcier led Michigan on a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that ended with a diving catch by junior wide receiver Darryl Stonum.
“The good thing about Tate, that we’re proud of, is that he is a veteran,” Michigan offensive coordinator Calvin Magee said after the game praising Forcier for how he “shook it off and made some plays.”
With the score tied at 45, and less than a minute to play in the fourth quarter, Forcier had another hiccup, throwing an interception near midfield and giving Illinois one last chance to win in regulation. Come overtime though, Forcier marched the Michigan offense down the field like a well oiled machine. And his dart to redshirt junior wide receiver Junior Hemingway on the mandatory two-point conversion during the third overtime gave Michigan a bit of breathing room. If Illinois scored a touchdown, the Fighting Illini had to match the conversion.
Illinois’s offense stayed with the Wolverines’ video-game like output throughout the game, and overtime was no different. Fighting Illini running back Mikel Leshoure scored his fifth touchdown of the game in the final overtime and the Michigan defense had one last chance to redeem itself.
Who would’ve thought that the defense could be a hero when the halftime score (31-31) and the yardage looked more like those of a whole game?
But the Wolverines forced Illinois to punt five times in the second half and gave Forcier that chance to win it in regulation. The spotlight shifted again to the unit that entered the game 106th in total defense in Division-I FBS football.
Now, with the ball placed on the three-yard line for a two-point conversion that same defense blitzed seven defenders and had Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase caught dead-to-rights, scrambling for hope. He desperately tossed the ball underhanded toward no one in particular and the celebration ensued.
“We called a man blitz,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Kenny Demens said. “Throughout the whole game, we were just having fun … I have no idea (how many guys were blitzing). It was an all-out free blitz.”
Added junior defensive tackle Mike Martin: “I knew we had to make the play, and I don’t think anyone on the defense heard a word. It was just silent for all of us, because we were all in the zone. And when we made the play we were like, ‘Wow, we just won.’ ”
Michigan won its sixth game of the season, ended a three-game losing streak and became bowl eligible all in one fell swoop. There were plenty of reasons the Michigan sideline looked as if it had won the Super Bowl when Scheelhaase’s pass fell incomplete.
“Everybody was screaming, ‘Back to the bowl, back to the bowl,’ ” fifth-year senior guard Steve Schilling said. “To have it my senior year and to know we’re going back and be able to go out not having to watch the games on TV, it’s huge.”
Of course, other characters played a role in this epic. Robinson started the game with an exclamation point on a 75-yard touchdown pass to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Roy Roundtree. The two connected for two more big plays in the second quarter: first on a 33-yard touchdown pass that came on a crucial fourth-and-long and later on another 75-yard bomb that brought the ball inside the five-yard line. Roundtree set a Michigan record for receiving yards in a game, finishing with nine catches for 246 yards and two touchdowns.
“We saw some things on film we thought we could try them vertically,” Magee said. “Nobody had really done that so we wanted to challenge them down the field and see how they play the deep ball. And our boys performed and executed that pretty good.”
Robinson overcame his own mistakes to set a Michigan record for passing yards in a half with 262. He threw interceptions on consecutive drives after that first pass to Roundtree, and Michigan finished the game with five turnovers.
“That’s how (the offense is) supposed to look, minus the turnovers,” Magee said of his unit, which outgained Illinois in yards, 676 to 561, on Saturday.
Then there was Hemingway, who caught a miracle touchdown in the second overtime off a ball that was tipped by a Fighting Illini defender on third down. And the Wolverines’ running backs, who have acted more like sidekicks to Robinson’s starring role in the running game, picked up the slack as Robinson finished with a season-low 62 yards rushing. Junior running back Mike Shaw rushed for three touchdowns, including two in overtime, and sophomore running back Vincent Smith ran for 73 yards on 13 carries.
Against Illinois, these weren’t your father’s or even your grandfather’s Wolverines on the field — this game was different, and the heroes were as unlikely as the result.
“It’s a great game,” Schilling said. “Just kinda breathe a sigh of relief.”