Split out wide for most of the game, Devin Funchess set career highs in receptions and yards. [Photo: Bryan Fuller, MGoBlog]
After two ugly victories against overmatched opponents, Michigan entered their game against Minnesota with a reshuffled offensive line and a pressing need to placate the fanbase by not playing down to their opponent. After a slow start, they did just that, scoring 28 second-half points en route to a 42-13 homecoming victory.
The natives were restless during a plodding first half in which the two teams combined for just eight real drives (the Gophers ran out the last 1:25 of the half), due mostly to a 16-play, 75-yard march by Minnesota—during which they converted five third downs—that saw them tie the game at seven. That came after Jibreel Black forced a fumble by Gopher quarterback Mitch Leidner on the game's opening possession; James Ross recovered and the Michigan offense capitalized with six runs in six plays, covering 35 yards and capped by an eight-yard Fitz Toussaint touchdown.
The ensuing Gopher drive ate up most of the first quarter, allowing them to not only knot up the score, but keep it close for the rest of the half. This was "old time Big Ten football" in the worst sense—slow-paced, run-heavy, and not particularly effective. Four consecutive punts followed, and the heated battle for field position eventually went in Michigan's favor—after Matt Wile's 55-yard boot was downed by Dennis Norfleet at the Gopher one-yard line, Minnesota was forced to punt it away from the nine, and Drew Dileo took a line drive kick well into Gopher territory. Four plays later, Devin Gardner hooked up with Devin Funchess—who spent most of the game lined up at wide receiver—on a post route for a 24-yard touchdown with 1:25 left in the half. Fitting the general tenor of the game, Minnesota decided to forego any chance at points, running twice and carrying three timeouts into halftime.
If that seemed questionable at the time, it looked more so after Michigan drove 75 yards in nine plays to open the second half, bolstered by an improved running game and the emergence of Funchess, Giant Wide Receiver. The first four plays of the drives were runs of 14, 5, 8, and 9 yards; a 21-yard back-shoulder throw to Funchess set up a two-yard Derrick Green touchdown to cap the drive. The Gophers could only respond with a field goal to cut the Wolverine lead to 21-10; that would be the closest they'd get for the rest of the game.
Much of the credit for that can go to Funchess, who finished with seven catches for 151 yards—both career highs—and set up a late Gardner touchdown run with a 46-yard grab on the right sideline. Even though the numbers don't bear it out, the running game looked improved as well; though Michigan averaged just 3.2 yards per carry as a team, Fitz Toussaint (right, Upchurch) had an impressive 78 yards on just 17 carries, adding a second touchdown run from 12 yards out to give Michigan a 28-10 third-quarter lead that proved insurmountable. Chris Bryant, the new starter at left guard, proved adept as a puller, which allowed Michigan to run the play they'd like to (eventually) make their offensive identity: power.
Most importantly, considering the troubles of the last two games, Michigan didn't turn the ball over once, the first time they've done so since their 58-0 win over these same Gophers in 2011, Brady Hoke's first season at the helm. After looking flustered against UConn, Devin Gardner was very sharp, connecting on 13 of 17 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown while showing a calmness in the pocket that wasn't present in previous games. Gardner wasn't needed much as a runner, carrying the ball just seven times for 17 yards and a TD; in a game like this, that's just fine.
While the defense had trouble getting off the field on third downs, allowing Minnesota to convert on 8 of 15 chances, they were otherwise solid; the Gophers mustered just 281 total yards on 4.5 yards per play and couldn't score a touchdown after their second drive. The inside linebacker duo of Desmond Morgan and James Ross combined for 19 tackles, making it tough sledding for any Minnesota run up the gut. While the Wolverines had trouble covering Gopher TE Maxx Williams, who finished with 54 yards and a touchdown on five receptions, the rest of the Minnesota passing offense generated just 91 yards. While the Gophers missed a couple chances for big completions late, Michigan made up for that when Blake Countess stepped in front of a Leidner throw and returned it 72 yards to complete the scoring with just 1:19 on the clock. The biggest concern on that side of the ball going forward may be the health of nose tackle Ondre Pipkins, who was carted off the field with a left knee injury; he's a critical backup behind Quinton Washington.
Despite the close calls and consternation from the nonconference slate, Michigan now sits at 5-0 and 1-0 in the Big Ten, and after two harrowing wins over bad teams the Wolverines beat Minnesota in a wholly acceptable fashion—the slow pace masked a dominant effort until the game broke open late. In the end, Michigan scored five touchdowns on eight offensive drives, with the defense adding a sixth for good measure while forcing Minnesota to fight for every yard. It wasn't pretty in any aesthetic sense; the score, however, speaks for itself.
After Beyonce appeared on the Big House scoreboard, Eminem gave an astoundingly bizarre halftime interview, Devin Gardner threw the most inexplicable interception in the history of interceptions, the game-sealing interception went through James Ross's fingertips, and a couple of questionable pass interference calls set up Michigan's final score, this was the only way it could end—with a Tommy Rees pass ricocheting off Raymon Taylor's foot and into the stratosphere, landing safely in the arms of Blake Countess, who kneeled in the end zone and effectively ended a game full of lunacy even by Michigan-Notre Dame standards.
The Wolverines held a 34-20 lead to begin the fourth quarter and looked to have the game in hand after the defense forced a quick three-and-out; with the way Michigan had been able to move the ball, victory seemed assured. After a Devin Gardner keeper lost four yards on second down, however, Michigan's newly-christened #98 took a snap from his own 16-yard line, scrambled back into his own end zone to avoid a hellacious Notre Dame rush, then desperately chucked the ball ... directly into the arms of Irish DE Stephon Tuitt. The play stood on review, beginning a snakebit sequence for Michigan that hushed the record-setting crowd of 115,109 into a nerve-wracked silence.
Michigan's next drive started with a seven-yard pass to Jeremy Gallon, in the midst of a record-setting night of his own; then Gallon didn't get up, and the fans watched in horror as he limped off, favoring his hamstring. A false start by Devin Funchess on the next play negated most of the original gain. On second-and-eight, Gardner rushed for four yards—and both Funchess and Taylor Lewan came up hurt, though Funchess's boo-boo actually gave Lewan time to recover from what appeared to be a poke in the eye. After Gardner shorted a third-down pass to a gimpy Gallon, the Wolverines had to punt—which Matt Wile shanked 21 yards into the Notre Dame sideline, setting up the Irish at their own 48. Five plays later, Notre Dame's Kyle Brindza connected on a 40-yard field goal, and in less than three minutes the Michigan lead had been cut to just four.
A lesser quarterback may have wilted after committing such an egregious error; Devin Gardner (right, Upchurch), however, is no such quarterback. Gardner found a wide-open Fitz Toussaint in the flat for a 31-yard gain two plays after Toussaint broke left for a 22-yard rush, his best on an otherwise tough night. A very questionable pass interference penalty gave Michigan a first down at the Notre Dame 14-yard line. Three plays later, another pass interference flag on a goal line pass to Funchess (less questionable this time, though still not the most obvious of calls) gave the Wolverines first down and goal to go. On second down, Gardner stared down an unblocked Tuitt and threw a dart to Drew Dileo, who ducked into the end zone; the 41-30 score would hold up as the final margin after Rees's second pick, coming on first-and-goal from the Michigan six, took a most unusual path into the arms of Countess.
Until all hell broke loose, the story of the game was Gallon, who finished with career highs of eight receptions, 184 yards, and three touchdowns. His first touchdown came when he utilized his cloaking device, as Gardner found him uncovered in the middle of the field; 61 yards, one great Jehu Chesson block, and a few missed tackles later, Michigan led 10-0 with 5:35 left in the first quarter.
The Irish responded quickly, albeit fortuitously, as Rees's third-and-goal pass bounced off his intended receiver, George Atkinson, and directly into the hands of T.J. Jones on the very next drive. After a Michigan three-and-out, Notre Dame opened the second quarter with a 44-yard field goal from Brindza, knotting the game at ten.
From there, Michigan took control of the game. Gardner capped off the ensuing drive by audibling to an option play at the last possible moment, scoring on a two-yard keeper as Brady Hoke tried—and, fortunately, failed—to call a timeout as the play clock ticked down to one. After the teams traded field goals, Countess undercut a Rees pass for his first career interception, weaving through the Irish offense to give Michigan great field position at the Notre Dame 23. It took four plays for Gardner and Gallon to connect for another touchdown, this one a perfectly-thrown ball low and outside which Gallon scooped up for a 12-yard touchdown. At the half, Michigan led 27-13, held a 268-199 advantage in total yardage, and appeared to be in total command of the game.
After a halftime show featuring Beyonce—yes, that Beyonce—doing the intro honors via scoreboard video and the band playing a few of her greatest hits as the stadium lights dimmed to reveal a Maize and Blue laser show, Michigan received to open the second half. A promising drive stalled when Ishaq Williams sacked Gardner at the Notre Dame 41, forcing the Wolverines to settle for a Matt Wile punt. Rees engineered a 12-play, 90-yard drive that ended with a 20-yard pass to tight end Troy Niklas, who bulled over Jarrod Wilson and into the end zone to once again cut the deficit to seven.
Once again, Gardner and Gallon stretched the lead out to 14, this time on a bootleg pass to Gallon on a crossing route; this year's new #21 dove over a defender and reached the ball over the pylon for a 13-yard score. The game looked well in hand when Notre Dame's next possession ended when Rees, facing a heavy blitz, overthrew a corner route on fourth down, setting up Michigan at their own 17.
Three plays later, Gardner lost his mind, as many in the stands surely did when he tried his patented weaving escape, only to find himself dead to rights in the end zone. It wouldn't be a Michigan-Notre Dame game without a ridiculous finish, and only the 2009-2011 games compare to tonight's in my (admittedly recency-biased) memory.
In the end, one good tipped pass deserved another, and the PA guy not-so-fondly known around here as Special K delivered a trolling worthy of the heated rivalry with a triumphant playing of "The Chicken Dance", a fittingly absurd end to a fittingly absurd game.
The feeling was boredom, interspersed with brief moments of Norfleet-related anticipation that ended an ankle-tackle away from being actual excitement.
Boredom, in this case, was a great feeling—a pleasant return to normalcy for Michigan. A home opener against a directional Michigan school, a 50-point lead heading into the third quarter, a fourth quarter spent looking up numbers of various freshmen and walk-ons while fretting about burned redshirts; this is how it's supposed to go, fergodsakes.
The Wolverines got on the board before the Big House crowd even got a chance to see the much-anticipated new offense, as freshman defensive back Dymonte Thomas screamed off the edge to block a Central Michigan punt on the opening drive of the game; senior receiver Joe Reynolds scooped up the loose ball and took it 30 yards to give Michigan a 7-0 lead.
A muffed punt by Dennis Norfleet, recovered by Delano Hill at Michigan's seven-yard line, led to an inauspicious start for Devin Gardner; after his first pass of the season was dropped by Devin Funchess, he telegraphed a quick out to Drew Dileo, and CMU's Jarret Chapman jumped the route for an easy interception.
Michigan's defense held strong, though, forcing the Chippewas to settle for a field goal. Gardner was in fine form on the subsequent drive, picking up a first down with his legs, then buying time for Drew Dileo to find a wide open hole in the Central defense on a 3rd-and-4 for a 36-yard catch-and-run. On the very next play, Gardner stood tall in the pocket, couldn't find an open receiver, and waltzed untouched into the end zone for a 22-yard score (right, Upchurch).
From there, the Wolverines didn't look back. A 38-yard run on a Dennis Norfleet reverse set up a one-yard touchdown run for Fitz Toussaint, who looked back to his old self—aside from missing a couple open cutback lanes—in rushing for 57 yards on 14 carries. After another Gardner hiccup—an overthrow to Gallon that resulted in his second interception—led to a second Jason Wilson field goal, cutting the lead to 21-6, the redshirt junior quarterback roared back with an 11-play, 76-yard drive capped by a 16-yard touchdown pass to his favorite target, Jeremy Gallon. After Raymon Taylor jumped an Alex Niznak throw to the perimeter, nearly taking the interception back for a touchdown, Gardner finished the first half with a four-yard scoring run, again making his trip to the end zone look downright easy. Despite the pair of turnovers—and a punt block for a touchdown that didn't count towards the yardage numbers—Michigan held a 243-139 edge in total offense and a 35-6 halftime lead.
The onslaught didn't stop there. Michigan's opening drive of the second half featured a 45-yard play-action pass from Gardner to Reynolds; two plays later, Toussaint tallied his second score of the day from two yards out. After another quick defensive stop, freshman running backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith combined to run on each of Michigan's ten plays, including a 30-yard Green scamper on a zone stretch and the five-star's first career touchdown on a goal-line scrum.
Sacks by Brennen Beyer and Mario Ojemudia forced another three-and-out, and from there the backups took over. Freshman quarterback Shane Morris quarterbacked the next drive, completing a 36-yard pass to Devin Funchess before Thomas Rawls rumbled into the end zone from five yards out, giving the Wolverines a 56-6 lead as the third quarter expired.
The rest, as they say, was academic. The fourth-quarter monotony was broken briefly by a 36-yard punt return by Norfleet, who was one man away from scoring; a Morris interception on a tipped pass; and a forced fumble by freshman cornerback Channing Stribling just two plays later, recovered by Delonte Hollowell. That third play led to a 30-yard Gibbons field goal—his 14th consecutive make, tying a school record held by Remy Hamilton*—that gave the game its final margin: 59-9, Michigan.
Funchess sporting his new Ron Kramer Legacy jersey (Bryan Fuller/MGoBlog)
Aside from the two picks, Gardner looked like the superstar he's expected to be in his first year as the full-time starter, averaging 10.8 yards per attempt and rushing for 52 yards on seven carries; CMU couldn't keep him in the pocket and couldn't stop him when he escaped, including one play in which Gardner comically olé'd an awaiting defender hoping to hit him on the sideline.
His ESP-level connection with Gallon showed, as well; Gallon caught four passes for 47 yards and had a second touchdown catch wiped out when Taylor Lewan
wandered downfield illegally rode his donkey too far even from the generous blocking zone they give linemen on play-action these days. Funchess and Reynolds both impressed, as well, and while each left the game due to injury, those dings appeared minor. Brady Hoke said after the game that Funchess left the game due to a cramp (an unfortunately-placed one, given the rather sensitive area he clutched after his long catch), while there was no report on the status of Reynolds.
Defensively, Beyer was a consistent presence in the backfield as a lineman in Greg Mattison's nickel package, tallying a sack and another TFL. Cam Gordon, playing in place of the injured Jake Ryan, looked fantastic in tallying a pair of sacks among his 2.5 TFLs, lining up at both strongline linebacker and defensive end and playing both well. Desmond Morgan took to his new position as the MIKE with aplomb, leading the team with seven tackles despite heavy rotation in the front seven. While the much-balleyhooed Frank Clark recorded a lone QB hurry, his backup, Mario Ojemudia, came up with a sack and looked like a very solid option at weakside DE.
Of the true freshmen to see their first action—and there were many—it was Stribling who impressed the most; he was Michigan's field corner when they went into the nickel package, and while he gave up a couple catches, he showed off his playmaking ability by stripping CMU's Andrew Flory after one of those receptions. Linebacker Ben Gedeon also played well in his first career action, tallying four tackles; "The Freak" didn't look out of place at weakside linebacker.
The only major points of concern were Gardner's two picks—hopefully those can be chalked up to opening-game rust, as he otherwise looked like a Heisman candidate—and the play of the safeties. Jarrod Wilson and Josh Furman blew a couple assignments, though there's a good chance that neither is starting by mid-September—strong safety Thomas Gordon sat out the game for a "violation of team rules" and Courtney Avery could factor in at free safety when he recovers from knee surgery, hopefully in time for next week's game but more likely for Akron. The offensive line had its moments, good and bad; Al Borges called for a lot of zone running plays instead of asking for his two new guards, Kyle Kalis and Graham Glasgow, to pull; Kalis played a very solid game, featuring a bone-crushing body-slam on Gardner's first touchdown run, while Glasgow and center Jack Miller had their ups and downs.
Michigan's fans trickled out of the stadium throughout the fourth quarter, content that their team took care of a MAC opponent like Wolverines should: devouring them alive. There was little reason to stay, more competitive football games to watch, and celebratory beers to drink. Cheers to a new season, a 1-0 record, and zero heart attacks.
*If you've just woken up from a three-year slumber, this is somehow not a joke.
21 plays. 60 yards. Zero points.
That was Michigan's second-half offensive output, after Denard Robinson averaged over 20 yards per carry and Devin Gardner a hair under ten yards per pass in the first half. The Wolverine defense held Ohio State to two field goals in that same span despite three drives starting in their own territory, but it was for naught in a 26-21 heartbreaker.
It's too easy to pin a game on a coach, but after this game it's tough to figure out who else is to blame—Al Borges's second-half playcalling is the story today. Michigan's running backs, ineffective the entire year even with a healthy Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint, were stymied on three third down attempts in the final 30 minutes. In the end, Vincent Smith mustered just 12 yards on five carries, Thomas Rawls a mere two on his five. That enabled Ohio State to load up against Robinson, still apparently unable to throw the ball, when he entered the game as a quarterback.
There were other problems, of course. Fumbles by Robinson and Gardner prematurely ended drives in the final half; Michigan's last drive finished with a Gardner interception. While the defense put forth a heroic effort late, they were repeatedly burned early by Braxton Miller—who finished with 189 yards on 14-of-18 passing—and had trouble stopping Carlos Hyde (146 yards on 26 carries) up the middle.
This despite prospects looking good early. A 75-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree answered a Hyde score on the opening Buckeye drive. The Wolverines took a 14-10 lead on a goal-line plunge by Gardner. And Michigan's 21-20 halftime edge came courtesy of a spectacular 67-yard scamper by Robinson, who shed simultaneous tackling attempts by Christian Bryant and Travis Howard and broke free from the pack for a vintage Denard touchdown.
But the tides turned on Michigan's opening drive of the third quarter, when Brady Hoke took a timeout after initially sending out the punt team following a zero-yard Rawls run on third-and-three. It was Robinson who took the field at quarterback for fourth down; the blocking broke down inside, leaving him no crease to reach the sticks as Ryan Shazier brought him down for a two-yard loss.
From that point forward, turnovers and questionable playcalls doomed the offense. Two Drew Basil field goals represented the entire scoring output of the second half; that was all the Buckeyes needed to secure their sixth straight home victory against Michigan and an undefeated season, one which ended today thanks to a postseason bad.
Michigan will play on, but it won't be in a BCS bowl. The question before this season was whether Al Borges was the right offensive coordinator for Denard Robinson. After this game, the question might expand, to whether or not he's the right offensive coordinator for this program moving forward.
In a way, it was fitting.
Denard Robinson's Michigan Stadium career did not begin according to script. It started with a fumbled snap, then became something magnificent.
It ended with him unable to throw a football, but still very able to take the Big House's collective breath away.
Robinson trotted out onto the field with the starters not as a quarterback, but as a tailback, taking a handoff from understudy Devin Gardner for three yards. Over the course of the game, he'd accumulate 98 rushing yards on 13 carries and add two receptions—the first of his career—for an additional 24 yards, lining up everywhere from quarterback to wingback to receiver in a 42-17 victory. While it wasn't the ending anyone had hoped for, there was at least still a little of the Denard magic left, especially on a 40-yard run to end the first quarter that featured an ankle-breaking juke of Iowa safety Tanner Miller.
Once again, the star was Gardner, who accounted for six touchdowns—coming on Michigan's first six possessions—with three through the air and three on the ground. Iowa's soft zone defense looked helpless in its attempts to stop the Wolverine passing game; Gardner finished 18-of-23 for 314 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception, with all three scores meeting little Hawkeye resistance. Jeremy Gallon had a career-high 133 receiving yards on five receptions, while Roy Roundtree turned in a second consecutive stellar performance with five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown.
Al Borges used the threat of Gardner and Robinson to give Iowa's defense fits, perhaps giving a glimpse of what's to come in Columbus next week. A triple(!) reverse to Denard unfortunately was called back due to a hold. The threat of a Denard jet sweep opened up a cavernous hole for a Vincent Smith throwback screen, which the senior back took in for a fitting senior day touchdown. The most interesting wrinkle met a most unfortunate end when Fitzgerald Toussaint suffered a gruesome leg injury after taking an option pitch from Robinson.*
The defense gave up a score on Iowa's second drive before stiffening up, allowing just 221 yards in the final three quarters as an endless array of dumpoffs to tight ends and running backs couldn't sustain any real threat. Greg Davis was Greg Davis, Greg Mattison was Greg Mattison, and that went as expected. With Desmond Morgan out with an undisclosed injury, James Ross may have established himself as the weakside linebacker of the future, finishing with 12 tackles (9 solo) while showing advanced instincts and sideline-to-sideline speed.
Aside from the pregame festivities and quarterback-related dramatics, it was a mundane beating of a hapless Iowa squad. That much, at least, went according to plan. And while Denard Robinson's Big House finale may not have had a fairytale ending, there are worse ways to go out than with a few more virtuoso runs and a resounding victory.
Of course, Robinson's story isn't over yet. In Columbus, the stage is set for one final twist.
*There's no official word on Toussaint's injury except that he's currently undergoing surgery (via Hoke), but the ESPN replays and this photo from Eric—WARNING: GRAPHIC—tell an ugly story. Best wishes for a speedy recovery, Fitz.
A referee makes an arbitrary approximation of the spot of the football as Kain Colter is brought to the turf. A couple of guys dressed like crossing guards then take out an extremely precise ten-yard chain. The referee, staring at the football like it's the bottom line of an eye chart, determines that the play has resulted in a first down by the smallest of possible margins. For all intents and purposes, the game is over, decided by an educated guess made at breakneck speed.
Football is the worst.
The contest continues, however, and Michigan sells out against the run for a stop. For a moment, it looks like Jeremy Gallon could provide a miracle as he briefly breaks free after fielding a line-drive punt, but he's tackled at the 38.
18 seconds remain. No timeouts remain. Little hope remains.
But then the backup quarterback hucks the football to the impossibly-skinny senior receiver, improbably left in single coverage, and this wisp of a man somehow bats the oblong projectile out of the air and controls the ricochet, an absurd feat of concentration and athleticism that brings 110,000 despondent humans screaming to their feet in elation.
Football is the best.
From that point, victory feels strangely academic given the prior proceedings. Brendan Gibbons, Keith Stone cool, splits the uprights from 26 yards out for the tying field goal. Three plays after Devin Gardner finds Roundtree again to give Michigan first-and-goal on the opening overtime possession, he fakes a give to Fitz Toussaint, breaks contain, and lopes into the end zone unimpeded. Northwestern can only get within two yards of that blasted first-down marker on their subsequent series before Kenny Demens stonewalls Tyris Jones in the hole on fourth down.
The stadium erupts, again hopelessly in love with the greatest game known to man. Michigan 38, Northwestern 31, football forever.