Three third-quarter interceptions spark Michigan football victory
PISCATAWAY — Michigan’s No. 5 football team has focused all season on generating takeout. It didn’t quite pay obvious dividends: The Wolverines entered Saturday’s game with just five interceptions in eight games, tied for second in the Big Ten.
Earlier this week, co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale expressed even more urgency. In an impassioned press conference, Clinkscale made it clear that the takeaway is on all three levels of defense — line, linebackers and secondary — doing their part.
“It’s defense, it’s not rocket science,” Clinkscale said. “Like, play your ass, play hard, get physical, find the ball, go play.”
Sometimes it seems as simple as it sounds.
On Saturday night, Michigan landed three interceptions in the third quarter to turn the tide in Piscataway, thwarting Rutgers’ aspirations for a stunning upset.
“Defenders see the ball, see the ball come out of the quarterback’s hand, you got a taste for that,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It’s fun, you know? … It’s a lot (more fun) to turn around, have your eyes on the ball and intercept it.
It’s fun, and it’s also crucial. For 30 minutes, the Wolverines found themselves firmly on the ropes. SHI Stadium had come to life, ignited by an aspiring performance from the Scarlet Knights. At halftime, a quartet of men dressed in Revolutionary War gear fired a cannon that shook the windows of the press room. It didn’t look like the Big Ten’s doormat.
But Michigan’s defense emerged from halftime a different unit. Takeout changed the game, almost instantly.
“That’s kind of what I was preaching at halftime,” graduate linebacker Mike Barrett said. “They’ve done a few pieces, but we have to go out and do some ourselves.”
Barrett seemed to take her own message to heart. After the Wolverines regained the lead early in the third quarter, Barrett dropped back into coverage on the ensuing Rutgers drive. Scarlet Knights quarterback Gavin Wimsatt threw his pass directly into Barrett’s arms, putting Michigan at the Rutgers 10-yard line.
The Wolverines scored two games later.
Then, on the next drive, the ball finds Barrett. Wimsatt’s pass went through the hands of receiver Aron Cruickshank and into the lap of Barrett, who made his way past Cruickshank and raced into the end zone.
“The best kind of interception,” Harbaugh said with a smile.
“As a defense we always say we shouldn’t depend on offense,” Barrett added while sporting the team’s hallmark. turnover lovers. “If they can get three points on the board, we should win. So we said to ourselves, someone has to come and make a play. We have to get the ball back on offense, put them in a better position to score .
And that’s exactly what Michigan did. Later, freshman cornerback Will Johnson – playing a higher number of snaps with graduate cornerback Gemon Green sidelined – joined the party, notching his first interception as a Wolverine. Johnson’s interception and ensuing 29-yard zigzag return put Michigan at the Rutgers 31-yard line.
Again, three plays later, the Wolverines found the end zone, burying the Scarlet Knights in a 25-point hole.
“Game changers, huh?” said junior running back Blake Corum. “We knew at halftime that this was what we needed. … You really need players like that. You need games like this. They passed.
When the interception spree ended, Michigan turned the game upside down. Now, with eight interceptions this season, the Wolverines have tied last season’s total. And Johnson’s interception – a demoralizing blow that pierced through any notion of an upset – sent a gaggle of Rutgers fans fleeing for the exits.
But it wasn’t just Johnson, or just Barrett. Takeout is a team effort, the same one Clinkscale pointed out three days earlier.
“It took tremendous team defense,” Harbaugh said. “They defended nine practices (in the second half) and only gave up a first try. It’s quite special.
On Saturday, the interceptions were exactly that.