NEW ORLEANS — Jake Ryan was a no-name just nine months ago.
The redshirt freshman linebacker burst onto the scene in the Michigan football team’s spring game as much for his boyish appearance and long blonde hair as his sack and interception.
People noticed him, but Ryan was still a name in the forgotten regions of the depth chart. But once fall camp broke in August, the Cleveland native was the Wolverines’ starting strong-side linebacker.
Early in his debut against Western Michigan, Ryan found a seam in the line, burst through and tipped a red-zone pass that found its way into the arms of fifth-year senior linebacker Brandon Herron. Herron rumbled 94 yards down the field for the longest interception return in program history.
Ryan started in all but two of the regular-season matchups and played in every game. He finished fourth on the team in tackles for loss (7), trailing upperclassmen Ryan Van Bergen, Craig Roh and Jordan Kovacs.
Versatile, strong, and quick, Ryan helped plug a hole in the Wolverine defense left by an injury to fifth-year senior defensive end Will Heininger he sustained in the run-up to the Sugar Bowl. A linebacker by trade, Ryan was part of a rotation of young defensive players getting down in the three-point stance on the line.
Just like nearly every other aspect of the game, it wasn’t always pretty, but it worked.
“We executed, we flipped and everyone played together,” Ryan said in the locker room.
“This one was for the seniors. It was definitely for them, and they deserved it. From here on out, they’re going to be known as the ones who brought Michigan back.”
If the seniors brought Michigan back, Ryan certainly played a strong supporting role at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Ryan played beyond his years, making two critical stops that stemmed the Virginia Tech offense and turned the momentum back toward Michigan.
The first was either dumb luck for Ryan or a dumb decision by Hokies running back David Wilson.
Wilson took the ball on a sweep from the 4-yard line and was forced outside by Roh. He slipped, then regained his footing in time to see a pair of defensive backs bearing down on him.
Wilson, a likely first-round NFL draft prospect, tried to reverse fields and outrun the Michigan front.
Ryan, starting on the opposite side of the field, instinctively exploded through the line.
The chase was on. It didn’t last long. Ryan caught the fleet-footed Wilson at the 23-yard line and wrestled him down at the 30.
Yes, the play went backward — a long way backward. Try 22 yards in the wrong direction for Virginia Tech and a rather magnificent tackle for loss for Ryan.
But that wasn’t the end of his night.
After seven tackles for loss for 17 yards in the regular season, Ryan spent the Sugar Bowl patrolling the opposing backfield. Ryan’s monster night included four tackles for loss for — get this — 36 yards and a sack. The rest of the defense combined for four tackles for loss for six yards and a sack.
Ryan’s shining moment, though, wasn’t a 22-yard tackle for loss, it was a swift destruction of a Hokies fake-punt attempt in the fourth quarter.
Facing a fourth-and-1 at midfield with seven minutes remaining in the contest, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer motioned for a fake punt. His punter Danny Coale handled the snap and started to the right.
“We didn’t really know that was coming,” Ryan said. “But we’re always thinking it could be coming.”
To add to the intrigue of the call, Beamer’s pawn was no lanky, slow-footed punter. Coale is also one of the Hokies’ top wide receivers and knows his way across the turf.
“That’s definitely on our mind that he’s a dual-threat,” Ryan said. “When he was running to the sideline, I had my eye on him.”
Ryan slipped outside and shed his blocker before Coale could get three steps toward the sideline. Realizing his fate, Coale attempted to punt the ball as Ryan wrapped him up. Beamer’s plan was foiled.
Ryan admitted just one thought on the play.
“Don’t kick it so I can tackle you,” he said.
He tried. It didn’t work. Michigan took over at the Virginia Tech 45 and marched down for a go-ahead field goal.
Two plays executed by Ryan robbed the Hokies of probable points.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison beamed when speaking of his defense’s affinity for making big plays in pressure spots.
“That’s just what you’ve got to do — keep fighting and pawing and scratching,” Mattison said.
He wasn’t the Sugar Bowl’s most valuable player, he didn’t make a first-down catch like special teams snapper Jareth Glanda.
But Ryan made two stops that changed the game — changed the game that closed a haunting chapter of Michigan football.