The ball was in the air, and Brandon Harrison’s eyes went wide.

The true freshman free safety thought he had found just the right belated birthday present for his father. Harrison was in Michigan’s fall football camp during August, so he missed celebrating at home in his native Dayton, Ohio. The father and son had a phone conversation last Friday on the eve of the Wolverines’ game against the Wildcats, during which Eric Harrison had made a special request.

“My dad was like, ‘If you get an interception, take it back to the end zone for me,’ ” Brandon said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do this for my dad.’ “

So when Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez tossed an errant pass for receiver Shaun Herbert in the first quarter last Saturday in Evanston, Harrison pounced.

“I dropped into the post, saw the quarterback throwing, and I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, I think I can catch it,’ ” Harrison said. “So I come across, catch it, and I’m running. The first thing that hits my mind is, ‘Take it to the end zone for Dad.’ “

Harrison knifed through Northwestern’s offensive players, who, at that point, were placed in the awkward position of having to tackle an opposing ball carrier. The defensive back was determined to put six points on the board, but some Wildcats disrupted Harrison’s potential birthday gift 36 yards into the impressive runback.

“I’m running, I’m running, I’m running, and somebody goes towards my knees and I jump up in the air,” Harrison said. “As soon as I’m going towards the ground, somebody comes over the top of me and just pokes the ball out. My elbow was like five inches from hitting the ground before the ball came out.

“I think I was just overly excited, because for a freshman to get an interception in a big game like that, especially against Basanez – that was his second interception of the season – it was real exciting,” Harrison said.

Though the play was ultimately disappointing for Harrison, the safety ended the contest with three tackles and two pass breakups to go along with a pick for the second week in a row. He also intercepted Iowa quarterback Drew Tate in the Wolverines’ game in Iowa City last week. This time, though, Harrison learned a lesson.

“(Next time) I’m going to hold onto the ball,” Harrison said. “If I see anybody coming around, I’m putting both hands on the ball and tucking it.”

While Eric Harrison was pleased by his son’s play on Saturday night, he was slightly miffed that such a wonderful birthday present got away.

“(My dad) said I had a great game,” Brandon Harrison said. “But he said it would’ve been nice if I would’ve taken it (to the house).”

Harrison prefers to view the play in an optimistic light. But Michigan coach Lloyd Carr can’t say the same.

“I looked at it like a sack,” Harrison said with a smile. “It backed (the Wildcats) up, but they still had the ball.”

A lighthearted Carr explained that he was pleased with his young safety’s effort and performance against Northwestern, “except for (Harrison) fumbling the football.”

Still, it was just Harrison’s third start at Michigan. The speedy defensive back was thrust into the lineup after injuries to both of the Wolverines’ original starting safeties, Willis Barringer and Brandent Englemon. Harrison’s development has been even more impressive considering the fact that he came to Michigan as a cornerback. It wasn’t until fall camp that Carr and defensive backs coach Ron English decided to move the Chaminade-Julienne High School product to the last line of the Wolverines’ defense.

But with the move from the outside checked off his “to do” list, Harrison must add another chore: He’s got some shopping to do for Dad.

 

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