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The 9 most critical plays that kept Michigan football undefeated through 6 games

Wolverines 6-0 heading into bye week

Defensive back Daxton Hill #30 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates a defensive stop in the first half against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium on October 9, 2021 in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Defensive back Daxton Hill #30 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates a defensive stop in the first half against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium on October 9, 2021 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (2021 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The Michigan football team remains undefeated midway through the season, but it hasn’t been easy getting to this point.

After coasting through three non-conference games, the Wolverines faced much more adversity during Big Ten play. So far, Jim Harbaugh’s team has found a way to respond to every tough situation, and we should recognize the plays that made 6-0 possible.

We’ve narrowed down all the big plays of Michigan’s season to nine that stand out as the most important.

Criteria

First of all, there are no plays included from the first three games. Michigan crushed Western Michigan, Washington and Northern Illinois from start to finish, so even though there were some great plays in those games, none of them were overly impactful on an individual basis in keeping the undefeated record alive.

Only plays that actually resulted in or led to game-changing moments were considered. If a team converts a third-and-14 only to punt three plays later, that third down probably wasn’t the most important play, after all.

That being said, special emphasis was put on swing plays, such as turnovers, drive-ending defensive plays and third-down conversions that turned possible punting scenarios into first downs and, eventually, points scored.

These plays are listed in chronological order.

Fourth down stop

Score: Michigan 20, Rutgers 13

Game situation: Rutgers ball, fourth-and-2 on Michigan’s 39-yard line with 5:24 left in the fourth quarter.

Michigan didn’t feel any pressure until the second half of the Rutgers game, when the Scarlet Knights whittled a 17-point deficit down to a one-possession game in the fourth quarter.

The Wolverines clearly couldn’t move the ball offensively, so the onus fell on Mike MacDonald’s defense to make a play as Rutgers drove down the field and tried to tie the game or take the lead.

Rutgers put together three straight excellent drives leading up to this one -- a 12-play, 91-yard touchdown drive, a 12-play, 58-yard field goal drive and an eight-play, 59-yard drive that resulted in a missed field goal.

The Scarlet Knights drove into Michigan territory with ease for the fourth time in a row to begin this series, and they faced a relatively harmless third-and-1 at the 38-yard line.

That’s when Michigan stuffed Kyle Monangai for a one-yard loss to set up a fourth down. Greg Schiano tried to trick Michigan with a quick snap while Noah Vedral looked toward the sideline, but Johnny Langan was stopped a yard short.

With just over five minutes remaining, that ended up being a critical defensive stand.

Ojabo’s strip sack

Score: Michigan 20, Rutgers 13

Game situation: Rutgers ball, second-and-10 on Rutgers’ 29-yard line with 1:37 left in the fourth quarter.

Jake Moody missed a 47-yard field goal a few minutes after the defensive stop, turning the ball back over to Rutgers with one last chance to score.

It certainly felt like the type of game in which Schiano would try the two-point conversation for the win if Rutgers scored. The nervous energy was palpable inside Michigan Stadium.

Those nerves didn’t last long, though. On the second play of the drive, David Ojabo spun past an offensive lineman and barreled into Vedral, forcing a fumble that Junior Colson recovered.

For Rutgers, that fumble marked the first turnover of the season. For Michigan, it sealed a fourth-straight victory.

Daxton Hill’s sack

Score: Michigan 13, Wisconsin 10

Game situation: Wisconsin ball, third-and-9 on Wisconsin’s 26-yard line with 14:09 left in the third quarter.

Michigan's Daxton Hill hits Wisconsin's Graham Mertz during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

A quick 10-point spurt by Wisconsin right before halftime erased the momentum Michigan worked an entire half to build. Coming out of the locker room, the Badgers’ first offensive drive felt like a critical one.

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz had started to find his groove, but when he dropped back to pass on third-and-9, Daxton Hill burst through the line untouched and brought him down for a nine-yard loss.

Mertz left the game with an injury after the hit. Thankfully, he was checked out at a hospital and released, and he actually recovered in time to start Wisconsin’s game against Illinois the following weekend.

Hill’s sack ended an important drive for the Michigan defense, but it also greatly affected the Wisconsin offense for the rest of the game. Without Mertz, the Badgers punted three times and turned the ball over twice before a garbage time touchdown that came with Michigan up 28.

Mertz’s health is most important, but there’s no denying how much his absence changed the feel of the second half.

Roman Wilson converts on third down

Score: Michigan 13, Wisconsin 10

Game situation: Michigan ball, third-and-10 on Wisconsin’s 48-yard line with 10:41 left in the third quarter.

Michigan's Roman Wilson catches a pass in front of Wisconsin's Caesar Williams during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

On Michigan’s ensuing offensive possession, Cade McNamara faced a long third down near midfield with the game still very much up in the air. Even without Mertz, Wisconsin stood on the verge of getting the ball back down just three points.

Michigan’s passing attack struggled for most of the first half, particularly in one-on-one jump ball situations for Cornelius Johnson and Daylen Baldwin. This time, McNamara decided to give Roman Wilson a chance.

Wilson beat his defender and created at least two yards of separation, but McNamara under-threw him. Wilson adjusted to the ball, came back and made a spectacular catch through contact to turn what otherwise would have been a punt into a first-and-goal from the 10-yard line.

That 38-yard catch set up a J.J. McCarthy touchdown run to give Michigan a 20-10 lead, which ultimately turned out to be the winning play.

Backbreaking interception

Score: Michigan 23, Wisconsin 10

Game situation: Wisconsin ball, first-and-10 on Wisconsin’s 25-yard line with 12:13 left in the fourth quarter.

Even though McCarthy scored the winning touchdown several drives earlier, the true backbreaking moment came from Hill.

Moody drilled a 48-yard field goal to put Michigan up 13 points, and considering Wisconsin’s offensive limitations, the ensuing drive figured to be a must-score for the Badgers to have any chance.

Well, if you blinked, you probably missed their drive.

Chase Wolf dropped back to pass on the first play and tried to loft a pass over Hill’s head. Hill picked it off at the 35-yard line, and Michigan went up 31-10 just six plays later.

That moment put a stamp on Michigan’s first win at Camp Randall in 20 years.

Erick All converts third down

Score: Nebraska 22, Michigan 19

Game situation: Michigan ball, third-and-8 on Michigan’s 37-yard line with 14:16 left in the fourth quarter.

Tight end Erick All #83 of the Michigan Wolverines runs in open field against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the second half at Memorial Stadium on October 9, 2021 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (2021 Getty Images)

Michigan’s strongest dose of adversity came at the end of the third quarter in Nebraska, when the Cornhuskers completed a 12-point comeback by scoring two touchdowns and picking off a pass in a matter of minutes.

Coming off his first career interception, McNamara took the field with Michigan trailing for the first time all season. Memorial Stadium sounded like a sold-out rock concert calling for an encore.

Everyone could feel the game hanging in the balance when an incomplete pass set up third-and-8 from Michigan’s own 37-yard line. Nebraska had seized control, and punting the ball back to Adrian Martinez would have been a nail in the coffin.

But McNamara kept his composure and the offensive line gave him enough time to find Erick All across the middle for a catch-and-run of 14 yards. That extended Michigan’s drive, and three minutes later, Blake Corum scampered 29 yards to retake the lead.

Considering the atmosphere and the game circumstances, that answer kept Michigan’s perfect season alive.

Hassan Haskins’ 50-yard run

Score: Nebraska 29, Michigan 26

Game situation: Michigan ball, second-and-3 on Michigan’s 25-yard line with 6:26 left in the fourth quarter.

Michigan’s lead didn’t last long, as Nebraska drove straight down the field and scored its fourth touchdown in five drives. Corum got stuffed at the 18-yard line on the kickoff return, putting even more pressure on the offense in a must-score situation.

All game long, Michigan battled for every yard. The Wolverines lacked explosive plays on offense, forcing McNamara and company to be nearly perfect in high-stress situations.

Hassan Haskins picked a great time to buck that trend. After gaining seven yards on first down, he took the ball again and burst through the line untouched, hurdled a defender and sprinted all the way down to Nebraska’s 25-yard line.

Michigan’s drive eventually stalled (despite another third-and-long conversion to All), but Haskins’ long run was enough to get into Moody’s range, and he tied the game with a short field goal.

Adrian Martinez fumble

Score: Michigan 29, Nebraska 29

Game situation: Nebraska ball, third-and-1 on Nebraska’s 34-yard line with 1:45 let in the fourth quarter.

The No. 1 turning point in the Michigan-Nebraska game came with just under two minutes remaining. Nebraska faced a third-and-1 in a tie game with all three of its timeouts and plenty of time to set up a game-winning score.

Martinez took the snap and gained first-down yardage, but before the officials blew the play dead, Brad Hawkins stripped the ball, picked it up and ran down to Nebraska’s 18-yard line.

Should the play have been blown dead? It was certainly close, but ultimately, Hawkins’ play snatched control of the game out of Nebraska’s hands and handed Michigan a chance to end it with one first down and a short kick.

Final stand

Score: Michigan 32, Nebraska 29

Game situation: Nebraska ball, fourth-and-10 at midfield with 54 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson #97 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates a late turnover against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the second half at Memorial Stadium on October 9, 2021 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (2021 Getty Images)

Michigan failed to pick up a first down, and that conservative approach gave Nebraska one last opportunity to tie the game with a field goal or win it with a touchdown.

The drive got off to a promising start, as Martinez hit Samori Toure for a 25-yard gain to midfield on the very first play.

But two incompletions and a screen pass for no gain set up fourth-and-10 -- a second chance for the Wolverines to clinch the game.

Martinez decided to test Hill deep down the right sideline. A catch would have put Nebraska well within field goal range with plenty of time to try to win with a touchdown. But Hill had perfect coverage on Toure, and the pass fell incomplete to give Michigan an impressive comeback win in a hostile road environment.

Honorable mentions

  • Corum’s 67-yard touchdown run to take a 10-0 lead over Washington.
  • McNamara’s flea flicker touchdown to Johnson against Wisconsin.
  • All’s 12-yard catch on third-and-9 that ultimately made Moody’s game-tying kick at Nebraska a 31-yard attempt instead of a 41-yard attempt.
  • Moody’s 31-yard field goal to tie the game against Nebraska, and his 39-yard game-winner a few moments later.

About the Author:

Derick is a Senior Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.