Angela Cesere
Junior Mike Hart rushed for 154 yards and a touchdown. (MIKE HULSEBUS/Daily)
Angela Cesere
Senior Steve Breaston had seven catches for 50 yards on Saturday. (MIKE HULSEBUS/Daily)

In what should have been a blowout win, Michigan showed how the nation’s No. 2 team can almost lose to an unranked Mid-American Conference opponent.

Commit eight penalties.

Drop easy passes.

Keep playing inexperienced defenders with a two-score lead.

Get burned on a pair of deep throws.

Miss tackles left and right.

Get caught red-handed looking past an opponent.

If not for a late defensive stand (which also included multiple penalties), the Wolverines’ undefeated season might be over.

Instead, Michigan kept its National Championship hopes alive with a 34-26 victory over Ball State in Michigan Stadium on Saturday.

“I definitely believe it was a wake-up call,” senior co-captain LaMarr Woodley said. “We’ve got to remember who we were at the beginning of the season. We were that team that was ranked No. 14. Now we’re a team that’s ranked No. 2.

“Coming into this game, everyone was talking about the hype about Michigan-Ohio State and kind of overlooked a team like Ball State. If you disrespect a team, (it’s) going to come out here and give it (its) all.”

That’s just what the Cardinals did. After the Wolverines built a seemingly comfortable 31-12 lead midway through the third quarter, they started bringing in their second-string defenders.

Ball State (3-3 MAC, 3-7 overall) wasted little time exploiting their inexperience. Cardinal receiver Dante Love blew past cornerback Johnny Sears to grab a wide-open, 54-yard touchdown pass from Ball State quarterback Nate Davis.

Even though Michigan’s lead had been cut to just 12 points, the backup Wolverines remained in the game. And the Cardinals burned them again. Davis found receiver Terry Moss for a 62-yard completion to the Wolverines’ two-yard line. This time, freshman cornerback Stevie Brown was caught out of position.

Two plays later, Ball State had pulled within eight points with just under nine minutes to go.

“We played some young guys that we wanted to see play, and they made some mistakes,” defensive coordinator Ron English said. “But we’re 10-0, and the goal is to win the next two games, and that’s the deal.”

For the first time this season, even Michigan’s top defenders looked vulnerable. The Wolverines have won by closer-than-they-should-have-been margins before – last weekend’s 17-3 victory over Northwestern, for example.

Saturday was different.

The front seven picked up three sacks, but the vaunted defensive line couldn’t get pressure on Davis when it mattered.

Linebacker David Harris recorded a career-high 14 solo tackles, but many came after other Michigan defenders let ball carriers slip through their grasp.

And the big plays almost cost the Wolverines the game.

“We went out there and gave up big plays; that’s what hurts the most,” Woodley said. “We gave up a lot of big plays on both sides of the ball that we shouldn’t have given up. Going into these last two games, you can’t give up big plays or you’ll lose games.”

Even Michigan’s offense got into the act. In the end zone, sure-handed tailback Mike Hart lost his first fumble in 665 carries, giving Ball State two points. Then quarterback Chad Henne made a “poor throw” that Cardinal Erik Keys intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

Thanks to the Wolverines’ surprising defensive breakdown, the offense’s otherwise strong performance was all but forgotten – an even bigger deal considering Saturday marked star receiver Mario Manningham’s return from arthroscopic knee surgery.

Michigan (6-0 Big Ten, 10-0) put up 507 yards of offense, including a season-high 352 yards on the ground, and had two 100-yard rushers.

His fumble aside, Hart impressed as usual, amassing 154 yards on 25 carries. Freshman Brandon Minor also showed up big, gaining 108 yards on just 12 rushes.

Even though the offense showed a spark it had lacked in recent weeks, the Wolverines’ near-meltdown was virtually the only thing on their minds after the game.

Woodley said it was a wake-up call.

Sears said Michigan didn’t bring its ‘A’ game.

Left tackle Jake Long called it a “reality check.”

It could have been much worse.

In a sluggish weekend for most of the nation’s top teams, Michigan wasn’t the only squad caught looking ahead. The top-ranked Buckeyes beat Big Ten bottom dweller Illinois by just seven points in their first close win this year.

Even so, the Wolverines know a similar performance against Indiana this weekend could turn out very differently.

“I think guys were reading too many press clippings about themselves and about our team, and it got us really focused in an individual manner,” Henne said. “I think we just need to be more focused, and this week take a step forward.”

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