NEW ORLEANS — Taylor Lewan never lost faith.
With the Virginia Tech football team facing a third-and-2 from the Michigan 8-yard line, Lewan stood up from the bench and put his helmet on. The redshirt sophomore offensive tackle wouldn’t watch the next play.
At stake was the Allstate Sugar Bowl crown. Michigan was clinging to a 3-point lead in the final minute, and the Hokies were 8 yards away from a game-winning touchdown.
Lewan strapped the helmet tight and walked to the right of the benches.
“Nothing to worry about, friend,” he said with a smile, patting a team spokesperson on the shoulder. “No reason to worry.”
He looked back to the field in time to see a referee toss a flag. False start on Virginia Tech. One 5-yard pass later, the Hokies were lining up for a field goal. Crisis averted, Lewan and the Wolverines were on the brink of overtime.
Lewan started toward the bench, then looked back and winked.
“Told you,” Lewan said.
It’s the implicit confidence Lewan has shown since he broke onto the scene as a redshirt freshman starter at tackle last season.
How can he be so confident, especially in a game of that magnitude? Fifth-year senior center David Molk doesn’t like putting the game in the hands of the defense, calling it “the worst feeling ever as a football player.” He likes control.
Lewan might not watch the play, but he has trust. Trust in a defense that one year ago allowed 52 points to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.
That kind of confidence seems almost irrational. But maybe it isn’t. For Lewan, it’s about history.
“Did you watch Notre Dame last year?” Lewan asked, limping off the field after the trophy presentation.
It was the first night game in Michigan Stadium history, a last-second comeback victory over Notre Dame.
“Did you watch Illinois the year before?”
It was a 67-65 triple-overtime barnburner at the Big House. The defense burst through to knock down Fighting Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to seal the win.
So the Sugar Bowl finish wasn’t unprecedented.
“This team knows what they’re doing,” Lewan said. “This team does not quit.”
But that confidence says as much about Lewan’s personality as it does the Wolverines’ track record. Regardless of time or place, the 6-foot-8, 302-pound lineman is armed with his quick wit, off-the-wall commentary and, of course, tattoos.
Standing outside the locker-room door after the game, he could only think of one way to describe his emotions after winning the Sugar Bowl. Out of the 64,512 fans in attendance, hundreds of credentialed media members and the entirety of Michigan’s Team 132, Lewan made the comparison no one else could.
“Have you ever seen a box of kittens? It’s the feeling you get when you see a box of kittens,” Lewan told AnnArbor.com
Moments later, he charged into the locker room and interrupted a few teammates, including fellow redshirt junior offensive lineman Patrick Omameh.
“Hey guys, tell me this,” Lewan shouted. “Who would win this fight: A turkey or a wolverine?”
The presentation was good, drawing a few chuckles. (Hint: The wolverine wins.)
But Lewan has his serious moments. He sprained an ankle in pregame warm-ups, tweaked his thumb in the first quarter and battled through the pain on the line of scrimmage.
And as he slowly limped off the field, Lewan offered a thought he’ll keep with him for the next few months — it’s the motivation that will carry next season’s Team 133.
“Look at the confetti around you,” Lewan said, gesturing back toward midfield. “Nobody wants to be here one year and not the next.”