Fifth-year senior linebacker Brandon Herron should probably send out a couple of thank-you notes — one to redshirt freshman Jake Ryan and another to redshirt junior Jordan Kovacs.
In the Michigan football team’s 34–10 victory against Western Michigan on Saturday, the first-ever rain-shortened game in Michigan football history, Herron was the beneficiary of a pair of great defensive plays — a three-word phrase that is music to Michigan fans’ ears after suffering through a dismal year defensively last season.
With the score knotted, 7-7, and the Broncos threatening midway through the second quarter, Ryan tipped a pass by Western Michigan junior quarterback Alex Carder, popping the ball straight up into the air and eventually into the hands of Herron. The linebacker cradled the ball and took it 94 yards for the score — the longest return for a touchdown in modern-era Michigan football history (since 1943).
“I was just looking up (at the ball) and my legs just carried me,” Herron said. “After I caught the ball I just looked straight ahead, obviously with no ball security whatsoever. I just tried to get it in the endzone.”
In the third quarter, with the Wolverines leading 20-10, Kovacs busted through the Western Michigan front line and drilled Carder, forcing the ball loose. Herron was right there to scoop it up and return it for his second score of the game — this time from 29 yards out — to increase the Wolverines’ lead to 27-10.
And after the game, Herron said himself that he has some people to thank.
“First of all, I want to thank Kovacs,” Herron said. “It was a call where … we made a check and I ended up coming off the edge, and Kovacs got free. I don’t think the ball rolled my way. I think I went to go get the ball and then just ran it into the endzone.”
But it wasn’t all defensive scores and rampant positivity on defense Saturday.
On the first drive of the game, things looked awfully similar to last season. Carder carved up the Michigan defense, finishing a perfect 8-for-8 with 56 yards. He threw the ball with ease, often finding his receivers wide open with room to run.
“Alex Carder is as good as any guy we may play all year,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “He’s got some great weapons out there.”
Sophomore running back Antoin Scriven capped the drive with a one-yard scamper on fourth-and-1 to give the Broncos the early lead.
Fortunately for Michigan, the high-powered offense made up for the defense’s miscues on the Wolverines’ first drive of the game. Junior quarterback Denard Robinson looked just as impressive as Carder, going 5-for-5 in the air for 33 yards, along with four carries for 26 yards.
Robinson finished the game 9-for-13 for 98 passing yards, and eight carries for 46 yards — very effective but without the stand-out numbers he displayed last season.
Early in the game, Robinson featured some of his signature plays many thought would not be seen in this year’s pro-style offense. He played out of the shotgun for the entire first possession, dancing in and out of the Bronco defense at every opportunity.
“There’s a comfort level probably that you want (Robinson) to feel good about, and I think we blocked it well,” Hoke said. “I think we were in and out of (the shotgun) enough.”
Starting running back Fitzgerald Toussaint finished the drive with a one-yard run.
On Michigan’s next possession, Robinson threw his first incompletion of the game on a deep ball to senior tight end Kevin Koger, as the ball sailed just out of reach of Koger’s outstretched hands. This lead to a three-and-out for the Wolverines.
Then came Herron’s interception — the difference in the game, according to Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit.
“The game changed when we went down there and missed a protection, and the ball squirted up in the air and got run back,” Cubit said. “At that point, it was a 14-point swing.”
The Broncos didn’t gain a yard on the ensuing possession, and the Wolverines took advantage again, putting together a nine-play, 74-yard scoring drive. Touissant once again punched it in, this time from two yards out to give Michigan the 21-7 lead.
“I thought (Toussaint) ran the ball up in there pretty hard,” Hoke said. “Took some guys on, which is what you want to see out of your backs.”
Western Michigan quickly responded and marched into the redzone, but this time it couldn’t punch it in for the score. The Broncos settled for a 36-yard field goal by Potter to make the halftime score 20-10.
And at the start of the second half, the floodgates opened — literally and figuratively.
After a three-and-out by Michigan and just one minute of play in the second half, both teams went back to the locker room as rain began to pour and lightning was spotted in the area.
It was certainly a unique situation for everybody.
“I’ve never really been through anything like that,” Kovacs said. “I think we traveled up the tunnel several times. I’ve never done that before.”
Following about a half-hour delay, Western Michigan resumed from its own 13-yard line. And then Kovacs took over, forcing the fumble that Herron took in for the score.
Carder blamed himself for the fumble.
“A sack fumble is inexcusable,” he said. “It was a protection change that I missed. I just should have saw it. It shouldn’t have happened.
“I take full responsibility for that one.”
The Broncos came up empty again on the ensuing possession, with Kovacs recording his second sack of the game and bringing much of the crowd to its feet. With Michigan now playing a 4-3 and with new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison at the helm, Kovacs will have more opportunities to get to the quarterback — and that was evident in the third quarter on Saturday.
“We have some more blitz packages that give me an opportunity to come down to the box and try to make a play,” Kovacs said. “It’s a little different, but it’s playing football, and that’s what this is about.”
The momentum gained by Kovacs carried over into the Wolverines’ next possession, as senior Michael Shaw scampered 44 yards into the end zone after Toussaint put Michigan in good position with a 43-yard rush of his own.
Then senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen got into the action, forcing a fumble and scooping it up at the Michigan 25-yard line.
Hoke has stressed the importance of forcing turnovers and taking care of the ball offensively, and the Wolverines did both on Saturday with three forced turnovers and no turnovers of their own.
“I think our guys really understand that message that we sent about taking care of the football,” Hoke said. “And defensively, some guys did a nice job up front of applying some pressure, or if you were a guy who was coming on a blitz.”
After four Michigan offensive plays, the rain came pouring down, sending the players back to the locker room and the fans scampering for cover for the second time.
But this time, the players didn’t come back.
About an hour later, the game was canceled due to a long line of severe weather in the area, giving Michigan the 34-10 victory. The athletic directors and coaches from both schools had a long discussion and decided that ending the game was the best option.
Though Hoke was unhappy with plenty of aspects of his team’s performance, he also had a reason to be thankful — his team remained healthy.
“It didn’t look like this was going to get any better,” Hoke said. “So it ended, probably not the way all of us would like it to.
“But as long as these kids can be healthy and no one got needlessly hurt, then we’re all for it.”