Big scare for Blue: Michigan survives ‘football fight’ with Army in double-OT
Ann Arbor – This was never going to be easy, not against Army, which grinds teams with its disciplined, efficient offense and go-for-it approach on fourth down.
And the seventh-ranked Michigan Wolverines made it even harder on themselves with three first-half fumbles. They got new life when Army missed a 50-yard field goal at the end of regulation, and then enormous back-to-back plays on defense in the second overtime allowed the Wolverines to survive, 24-21, before 111,474 at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.
Michigan took the lead on a 43-yard field goal by Jake Moody in the second overtime and then the Wolverines’ defense came through. Aidan Hutchinson sacked Army’s Kelvin Hopkins to make it third-and-11, and on the next play, Hutchinson and Carlo Kemp got to Hopkins again, forcing a fumble recovered by Kwity Paye to end the game.
“Going into that drive, our offense came up with a field goal and we came together as a defense and said, ‘The game’s on us now, so we’ve got to go out and make this play,’” Paye said.
Army, which led the nation in third-down and fourth-down conversations last year, carried a 10-game winning streak into Michigan Stadium, the first meeting between the teams since 1962. This certainly was an upset in the making, but senior two-time captain Ben Bredeson said there was no finger-pointing and the Wolverines remained calm.
“Really liked how the team fought through at the end of the game, through all those mistakes we had earlier, to be able to close it out,” Bredeson said.
“It was a close one at the end but got the win.”
That was coach Jim Harbaugh’s message, as well.
“Like I told the team, that’s how you fight. That’s how you scratch and claw,” Harbaugh said. “Both teams did that. I was very impressed with both squads. Our team, the way they hung in there, their courage, their resilience, their sharpness of mind, it seems to be at a higher level this year with this ball club. Happy about that. Sometimes you’ve got to fight like that. Football fight.”
Army scored first in overtime on quarterback Kelvin Hopkins’ six-yard run, giving the Black Knights a 21-14 lead. Michigan, on third-and-6, converted for a first down when Shea Patterson connected with Ronnie Bell for nine yards. The Wolverines got the benefit of a pass-interference call on the next play. Zach Charbonnet scored his third touchdown, this time for three yards to tie the game and force the second overtime.
Charbonnet led the team with 100 yards on 33 carries and three touchdowns. Bell led the receivers with seven catches for 81 yards, and Patterson was 19-of-29 for 207 yards. Michigan had 340 yards of total offense, but the negatives were the three fumbles, nine penalties and 1-of-3 on fourth-down attempts.
Army attempted only four passes — one was intercepted at the goal line in the second half by Lavert Hill — and had 200 yards rushing on 61 carries. Connor Slomka had a team-high 92 yards rushing and Hopkins ran for 41 yards and two touchdowns. Elijah Riley finished with a career-high 13 tackles and Cole Christiansen had 12 tackles and a forced fumble.
It’s difficult for any team to overcome a horribly sloppy first half like Michigan played. The Wolverines fumbled three times — the last time that happened was when they had four against Notre Dame in 2008 (35-17 loss) — and were penalized seven times.
Patterson fumbled twice and now has three this season, while running back Ben VanSumeren had the other. That’s five in two games, even more remarkable considering the Wolverines led the country last season with only three in 13 games.
“Shea got loose with the ball and that caused the first fumble,” Harbaugh said. “The second fumble, they came with a corner blitz, and our running back didn’t see it and it got stripped. The play where Ben fumbled, he fumbled right away. I think a helmet got on the ball.”
That kind of mishandling — which was supposed to be Michigan’s focus during the week after the two fumbles against Middle Tennessee State in the season opener — didn’t allow the Wolverines any offensive rhythm and fans had to be scratching their heads wondering: Where was the speed in space that had been talked so much about in the preseason with the hire of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis?
“We’ve just got some kinks in the offense we’re still working through,” Bredeson said. “It’s a new look for us. We’re two weeks in and going through this bye week going into the Big Ten season will be good for us. We’ve seen what’s working for us, what’s not, and we’ll be able to make some changes.”
Michigan had five drives in the first half, three ending with the fumbles and the last with a missed 55-yard field goal attempt by Quinn Nordin just before halftime. The Wolverines’ only score came on an 11-play drive that was kept alive by fake punt when Michael Barrett completed a 25-yard pass to freshman safety Dax Hill, giving Michigan the first down at the Army 33-yard line. A pass interference on a third-down incompletion to Nico Collins gave Michigan the ball at the 2-yard line and Charbonnet scored from there to tie the game.
But Army built a 14-7 lead taking advantage of the VanSumeren fumble by using the clock, as the Black Knights do so well. They went 40 yards in 11 plays using 6:46 and took advantage of yet another Michigan error when Hill was called for holding on an incomplete pass on fourth-and-5. Army converted on another fourth-down — the Black Knights were 2-of-2 in the half — and Hopkins eventually scored on a 1-yard run.
The second half opened with a thud for the Wolverines. Giles Jackson’s 42-yard kickoff return was negated by a personal foul and Michigan proceeded to look anemic, going three-and-out.
Army, meanwhile, kept rolling and reached the Michigan 1-yard line before a false start pushed them back five yards. Two plays later, the defense gave the team a spark when Hill intercepted Hopkins on his second pass of the day.
“Vert came up big with the interception and we felt like, ‘Come on, let’s keep going,’” Paye said. “That was a huge play for our defense.”
Michigan looked like it had found some life and got a boost on a pass interference on a third-down play. Patterson connected with Bell for a 25-yard gain to the Army 2-yard line. Charbonnet scored again, this time from the 1-yard line, to tie the game, 14-14.
But the Wolverines made a curious decision during their opening drive of the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-2 at the Army 19, they opted against the field goal and were thrown for a loss, giving up the ball on downs. Harbaugh later said the “analytics” told them to go for it on fourth down.
Bredeson said the takeaway from the game is that the Wolverines were able to overcome all of their mistakes.
“We made strides in the way we finished the game,” he said. “Really proud of the guys for fighting through it. Just about everything that could have gone wrong for us went wrong in this game and everyone was able to stay together and finish it out. A win is a win at the end of the day.”