NEW ORLEANS — Ryan Van Bergen limped off the field, with trainers under each arm helping him make it to the sidelines.
He and the Michigan defense had just made a critical third down stop in overtime, forcing Virginia Tech to settle for a 37-yard field goal, which Hokie kicker Justin Myer would miss wide right just moments later.
Van Bergen had been battling a foot injury since the second quarter, when he got caught up awkwardly in a pile of players.
“My foot just feels like rubber,” Van Bergen said after the game. “I couldn’t plant on it or anything like that.
“It actually went down, like parallel to my chin when I was in a pile. The next time I was trying to plant, I was trying to overcompensate for it, and I put it the other way and got chopped, so my toe was coming up to like the top of my ankle.”
Van Bergen’s foot was bent, but it wasn’t broken — just like the Michigan defense in the Wolverines’ 23-20 overtime victory over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl on Tuesday night.
The Wolverines gave up several key third-and-long plays on the night. Third and 20. Third and 12. Third and 8.
“Third-down defense, we weren’t very good at all,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “A lot of it was missed tackles. We had the right defense, we had guys in the right place, you just had to get them down.”
For most of the game, the Hokies had little trouble moving the ball downfield. Yet, the Michigan defense gave up just one touchdown all game.
The key? Red-zone defense.
“We didn’t play our best game defensively,” Mattison said, “but we played our best game as far as keeping them out when you had to.”
No play exemplifies that more than one that came early in the second quarter. After having driven 72 yards to the Michigan 4-yard line, the Hokies were faced with a fourth-and-1.
The Wolverines had already given up a couple big plays on the drive, including a 16-yard completion on third-and-8 and a 32-yard rush by running back David Wilson.
Feeling confident, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer elected to go for it. The Michigan defense had already bent hard on the drive.
But as the Hokies lined up, Van Bergen and fellow lineman Mike Martin saw something they recognized. And it paid off.
“Me and Mike called that play, because we had seen it on film,” Van Bergen said. “I don’t know who ended up making the play because we just dove down, but we were ready for that.”
Bend, don’t break. The Michigan defenders swallowed up Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, stopping him just a few inches short of the first down marker.
“We had to adjust real quick, last thing,” said redshirt junior linebacker Kenny Demens. “We just came through. Those guys, those front four players, they do a great job.”
And on the Wolverines’ ensuing offensive drive, they scored their first touchdown of the night on a miraculous pass from junior quarterback Denard Robinson to fifth-year senior receiver Junior Hemingway.
Early in the third quarter, it was another defensive play that helped spark the offense.
On first-and-10 from the Virginia Tech 49, Thomas dropped back out of the shotgun and looked left. He didn’t see freshman defensive end Frank Clark.
Clark read it the whole way.
“I saw the quarterback pull out and try to scramble,” Clark said. “He threw the hitch, and I jumped up and caught it.”
For the defense, it was the first and only interception of the night. For the offense, it was just what the doctor ordered.
“When Frank intercepted that ball, that was a shot in the arm for us offensively,” said Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges.
The interception gave Michigan the ball at the Virginia Tech 35-yard line and set up the Wolverines second touchdown of the game to give them a 17-6 lead.
But the Hokies continued to push the Michigan defense to its breaking point.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Virginia Tech was faced with a fourth-and-11 at the Wolverines’ 35-yard line and elected to go for it. A stop and Michigan would be in the driver’s seat.
Thomas had other plans. Noticing that most of his receivers were covered downfield, he scrambled left, gaining just enough yards for the first down.
Moments later, Thomas connected with Marcus Davis for the score. After the Hokies converted on a two-point attempt, it was a tie ball game.
But the Wolverines remained poised.
“We knew it was gonna be a back and forth game,” Martin said. “We knew they were gonna step up and make plays, but we knew that we were gonna step up and make plays, too.”
And make plays they did.
With Virginia Tech driving and down by three with the clock winding down, Michigan had to at least hold the Hokies to a field goal.
On third-and-7 from the Michigan 13, the Wolverines allowed Thomas to complete another pass — but only for five yards.
Bend, don’t break.
Virginia Tech hit the field goal and sent it to overtime.
But it didn’t matter. When it needed to most, the Michigan defense got it done, forcing a Hokies’ three-and-out on their only overtime possession.
And as Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons hit the game winner, Van Bergen no longer needed trainers to help him get on the field to celebrate with his teammates.
Suddenly, that once-bent foot felt a whole lot better.