Big plays, controversial call cost Michigan in loss
Piscataway, N.J. — The slide continues for Michigan.
A questionable officiating call late in the game, a blocked long field goal attempt in addition to a porous defense on third down upended the Wolverines on Saturday night at Rutgers.
Michigan lost for the third straight game, 26-24, before 53,327 at High Point Solutions Stadium.
The Wolverines are 2-4, 0-2 Big Ten, while Rutgers is 5-1, 1-1. This was the first Big Ten victory for Rutgers, in its first season in the conference.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner was asked after the game if this is rock bottom for the Wolverines.
"No," he said, flatly. "We fought today. We continue to build."
Michigan started its final drive of the game with 6:34 left. On third down and 8 at the Rutgers 38-yard line, Gardner's pass to Amara Darboh that appeared to be a completion for a first down was ruled incomplete. Michigan challenged the call, but it was held up upon review.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke was asked what he saw on the play.
"That he possessed the ball and was trying to get the line of scrimmage and kind of put it out there, and the ball was gone," Hoke said, adding that he plans to discuss the call with the Big Ten, but not going as far as saying the call likely cost Michigan the game.
Gardner said he thought it looked like a completion.
"He caught the ball, he took a few steps, he reached out to get the first down to make sure he had it, and the ball came out like it might," Gardner said. "They called an incomplete pass. You guys can watch the film. It looked like a complete pass to me."
Matt Wile then attempted a 56-yard field goal, but it was blocked by Kemoko Turay.
"We believed he could make it, he believed he could make it," Gardner said of Wile. "It looked like it was going to be good. They made a play. They've got Division I athletes, as well. They jumped and he got really high and blocked the kick. It happens."
Hoke said he had been on the field in pregame warmups with Wile and felt confident making the decision to attempt the field goal.
"We looked at it and talked about it," Hoke said. "I was out earlier with Matt, and he was kicking 57, 59 all over, so I felt good about with the wind he had that he could have made the field goal."
The loss ended a week of controversy and national scrutiny of Michigan regarding player safety. Michigan sophomore quarterback Shane Morris, who started last week's Big Ten opener, was later diagnosed with a "probable mild concussion". He had taken a hard hit in the fourth quarter and when he got up, he needed the assistance of a teammate. Morris stayed in for another play.
He then returned for one play after Gardner's helmet came off. Athletic director Dave Brandon last week said there was a lack of communication from the medical staff and absolved Hoke and his staff. Hoke has insisted he never would knowingly play a player with a head injury.
Morris, who also was diagnosed with a high left ankle sprain, made the trip to Rutgers and was in uniform. Hoke was not clear after the game whether Morris was medically cleared to play, but he had been on the field signaling plays.
Hoke said his players responded well during the week despite the national focus on Ann Arbor.
"Our kids have been phenomenal this week," Hoke said. "The way they've responded to anything that was out there, they've been tremendous. They had a great Tuesday, Wednesday Thursday practice (and) were ready to play."
But the Michigan secondary was not ready to handle Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova, who threw for a career-high 404 yards and three touchdowns.
Nova and the Rutgers offense notched eight big plays of 20 yards or more against Michigan, including an 80-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Turzilli in the second quarter. Of those eight plays, six were on third down and included plays of 53, 24, 20, 27, and two 26-yard gains. Only the 20-yarder was a run.
"He throws the ball well, we knew that going in," Hoke said. "We've just got to play better coverage, play tighter, and we have to do a better job of getting pressure on the quarterback."
Perhaps the back-breaker for Michigan was the touchdown allowed with 22 seconds left in the first half. Frank Clark appeared to have a sure sack of Nova on third down but he never got hold of him. Nova completed a seven-yard touchdown pass to John Tsimis to take a 19-17 lead into halftime.
"What do you tell 'em? We got to win the next one," Hoke said when asked how he coached a team after three straight losses. "You've got to go back to work. That's what this is all about, developing a team."