November 7, 2010 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Who'd have thunk it? Michigan's defense gets last laugh

Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez gets a hug while walking off the field with his son Rhett. Saturday's victory over the Illini made the Wolverines bowl eligible for the first time in three seasons under Rodriguez. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Ann Arbor— There's never been anything like it, and that's probably a good thing. But for all that could be gained or squandered, for all the wild swings and deep passes and missed tackles, it was riveting history unfolding.

It also was Michigan not folding, and let's be fair and point out how big that is. When Michigan's 67-65 triple-overtime survival against Illinois on Saturday finally ended, the Wolverines celebrated and the crowd roared, and no doubt, it meant a bit more than your average 67-65 victory.

On a day of large moments and larger numbers, the Wolverines alternately showed what they could be — and what has held them back. And all the key stakes, including gaining bowl eligibility for the first time in three years with a 6-3 record, came down to a final play.

It was made by Michigan's shattered defense, an all-out blitz on Illinois' final two-point conversion attempt, with Jonas Mouton hitting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and destroying the play. And how bizarre is that? Michigan had 676 total yards, overcame five turnovers, weathered another undetermined injury to Denard Robinson, and ultimately won with a stop.

"That's a perfect ending, in my opinion," said coach Rich Rodriguez, who looked happy, exhausted and relieved. "For the defense to come with pressure to basically win the game, it was really uplifting."

That's the correct word, after three straight crunching losses, after an injury to the star quarterback, after another home game was slipping away and another batch of questions were beckoning. Robinson left in the third quarter with dizziness and a headache, possibly the result of an earlier nasty personal foul hit by Illinois. Rodriguez wasn't sure of Robinson's status going forward, but backup Tate Forcier was his typically excitable self, with two touchdown passes and two turnovers.

'We're hungry'

Was it all haphazard and sometimes downright ugly? Sure it was. But the Wolverines — and especially Rodriguez — needed this by whatever means possible, no matter how much everyone will chuckle about the score.

There was a time when the Wolverines would celebrate certain bowl-clinching victories with roses in their teeth. But don't minimize what this means, to at least change the conversation from the unseemly stuff.

"After the last couple of (bowl-less) years, we're hungry," safety Jordan Kovacs said. "Obviously, we've still got a lot of mistakes to correct. There have been some down weeks, but this was a positive one, and now we're gonna ride it out."

Michigan hung in and hung on, and that's what it has to do the next three games, too. Actually, this was the natural (or unnatural) progression of what we've seen for a while — a terrific Michigan offense that makes lots of plays, and an embattled Michigan defense desperately hunting for anyone to make a play.

The Wolverines found a few things against an Illinois team that came in on a roll, with the 15th-ranked defense in the country. And give Rodriguez credit for keeping it together, in a week when the NCAA gave its final verdict and slapped the program with three years probation, but softened its specific allegation against him.

Then in the game, after Robinson went out, Forcier immediately fumbled on his first snap, helping Illinois take a 45-38 lead. Forcier rebounded, and so did the Wolverines. There was some luck involved, such as Junior Hemingway's juggling catch of a tipped 9-yard touchdown pass that made it 59-59.

But there was explosive talent on display, too, and Michigan's receivers were splendid. Roy Roundtree set a school record with 246 yards receiving, including a 75-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage.

"We can move on anybody, with any quarterback that gets in," Roundtree said. "We rotate quarterbacks in practice, so we're used to all of them. We play like we play, I don't think nobody can stop us."

'They're hanging together'

Hey, I said at the start of the season Michigan would have to win a few 67-65 games to be competitive. OK, I probably said a few 42-35 games.

It's a heckuva way to scratch out a bowl bid, but amid the defensive mess and all the turnovers, we saw relevant glimpses. There was the bring-the-house blitz at the end, something defensive coordinator Greg Robinson should do more often.

Michigan is using a ton of young players on defense, and at one point, had three true freshmen in the secondary. Freshman safety Ray Vinopal made the underrated stop of the game, stuffing Mikel Leshoure on third down in the final minute of regulation, forcing the Illini to punt.

"That's why I'm so excited about the future, because of the young guys getting experience," Rodriguez said. "I'm really proud of the way our players handled everything. They've kept a laser focus with all the outside drama. They're hanging together."

That's pretty much all the Wolverines could do on a day of unrelenting tension. Afterward, no one was sure what they'd witnessed, only that they'd never seen anything like it, and won't ever see it again. Uh, it won't ever be seen again, right? Rodriguez and the Wolverines sure hope half of it will, and half of it won't.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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