A hush took over the Michigan Stadium crowd on Saturday for senior day.
The hope for fans, initially, was the chance to get to send Michigan football out of its final home game in 2022 with momentum.
Instead, all the focus was on star running back Blake Corum, young quarterback J.J. McCarthy and avoiding a near-stunning upset, as Wolverines kicker Jake Moody hit three fourth-quarter field goals — the final one with nine seconds left — to give U-M a slim 19-17 victory over Illinois.
“I’d say it’s even better, honestly,” Moody said of the moment the ball went through the uprights compared to all of his dreams about a moment like that. “This was my first game-winner I’ve ever had in my entire life. Never had one in high school, middle school, nothing like that.
“For it to be in my final game at the Big House, it was pretty magical. I’m just glad we could send out the seniors on a good note.”
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Corum, Michigan’s Heisman Trophy candidate, left late in the first half after suffering an apparent leg injury. He entered in the third quarter for one carry for 5 yards, but had to leave the game and would not return again. He finished with 18 carries for 108 yards and a score and two catches for 39 yards.
Harbaugh said after the game Corum was “cleared to go back in” but after a few snaps wasn’t quite right. Harbaugh added the knee is structurally sound, “which is great news,” but his departure seemingly sucked the juice from the stadium.
To make matters worse, Corum fumbled on the carry on which he was injured, for his first fumble of the year, deep in Illini territory in the final two minutes of the first half, which prevented Michigan from padding its lead.
In the second half, Illinois scored on an 8-yard run by Chase Brown — the first second-half touchdown allowed by the Wolverines since Oct. 1. Michigan dropped a potential go-ahead touchdown on fourth down on its next trip and the Illini needed just three plays to score their second touchdown of the day, again by Brown, and put the Wolverines in a 17-10 hole, their largest deficit of the season.
Brown, the nation’s leading rusher, had temporarily stolen the show in Ann Arbor, running 29 times for 140 yards and two scores against the top-ranked run defense in the country.
“We knew they were going to run the ball, but we’re the best run defense in the country,” said Rod Moore, talking about what changed on the ensuring three critical stops in the fourth quarter. “We just knew to nut up, stop the running game and give the offense the ball back.”
The Wolverines didn’t fold on defense, and after three stops of the Illini, they put the ball in the hands — or rather, on the foot — of Moody, the reigning Lou Groza Award winner as the nation’s best college kicker.
He delivered three kicks in the fourth quarter despite frigid temperatures and gusty winds (though they were at his back in the final stanza). His final boot, good from 35 yards, propelled Michigan (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) past Illinois (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten) and into its de facto Big Ten East championship game still undefeated.
Moody’s game-winner, his 25th of the season, tied Remy Hamilton (1994) for most in a single season. His final kick of the day was the 65th he’s made in his career, passing Garrett Rivas for the most in UM history.
“I’ve been watching Michigan football since I was a kid, a pretty decent historian of Michigan football,” Harbaugh said. “I am nominating (Moody) for legendary status.”
The final drive
Trailing by one, Michigan got the ball back with 2:15 left in the game and no timeouts remaining. After a quick out-route to Cornelius Johnson gained 3, quarterback J.J. McCarthy kept the ball for a gain of 4. Tavierre Dunlap was stuffed for no gain on the next play, bringing up fourth-and-3 with a running clock and the game on the line.
McCarthy found fourth-string running back Isaiah Gash on a flat route behind a blocking Colston Loveland to pick up the first down.
“That’s a new play for us, we just put that play in this week,” Harbaugh said. “That was a Blake play all the way, he got the most reps on it (in practice), Blake was the guy we wanted to run that play. I think Isaiah had one practice rep on that play.
“But talked about it on the sideline, he said he’s got it, he’d be able to execute it and he did a fantastic job doing it in the game at the most critical moment picking up that fourth down.”
McCarthy targeted Ronnie Bell on the next pass, which fell incomplete, but the Illini were flagged for pass interference to give Michigan a fresh set of downs on the Illinois 22.
Michigan gained 5 more yards on its next three plays, before an incompletion sent Moody onto the field for his final try.
“Nah man,” Bell said when asked if anybody on the sideline was nervous entering that final play. “We see the work he’s put in since we’ve been here. Nah, didn’t doubt him for a second. Money Moody.”
After completing just 4 of 11 passes for 45 yards in the second and third quarters, McCarthy went 9-of-15 for 76 yards in the game’s final frame.
He finished the day 18-for-34 for 208 yards and had seven rushes for 19 yards.
“I was super happy with the passing game because we needed it to win,” Habaugh said. “And the clutch plays. Those are clutch plays that needed to be made and they were made.
“Man, good job passing game.”
When Illinois stole the momentum
For a long time in Saturday’s second half, it looked as if the Wolverines were indeed caught in a classic “trap game.” Facing an Illinois squad that had dropped its previous two games to seriously dent its Big Ten West chances, the Wolverines struggled right away on offense.
With just a four-point lead coming out of halftime, the pressure was on for the Wolverines to replicate previous games’ second-half success — Michigan had outscored opponents, 117-3, in the third and fourth quarters over the past five games — but it didn’t happen early.
But after a 45-yard Moody kick extended the lead to seven, Illinois went to work. After Brown ripped off a gain of 11, Michigan was flagged for too many men on the field, moving the ball into Wolverines territory. Brown ripped off an 8-yard score on third-and-2.
Michigan picked up two first downs on its next drive, both on third-down conversions — a 9-yard run by C.J. Stokes on third-and-5 and then a 20-yard pass to Gash on a screen pass on third-and-10.
Facing fourth-and-7 from the Illinois 37, coach Jim Harbaugh left his offense on the field. McCarthy, who expected an offsides flag on the defense, lofted a ball deep down the left sideline to Andrel Anthony, but the ball bounced off his hands and fell incomplete for a turnover on downs.
Illinois answered with a 37-yard touchdown run by Brown three plays later, and suddenly, Michigan trailed by a touchdown for the first time all season.
Wolverines claw back
After a three-and-out by the offense, boos rained down from the stands at the Big House. But the Wolverines’ defense and special teams persevered.
Illinois’ ensuing drive moved backward from midfield, stymied by a fumbled snap on third-and-8 by DeVito in the shotgun formation. He chased down the ball and fell on it for a loss of 11 yards, forcing an Illini punt from their own 34, and potentially solid field position for U-M.
Bell, on special teams in place of the injured A.J. Henning (who didn’t suit up Saturday), made an electric play on the punt return, breaking two tackles and scampering up the right sideline 39 yards to start the Wolverines in Illinois territory.
Bell had torn his ACL on a punt return in the first game of the 2021, this was the first game back in that position in nearly two full seasons.
“I was just going to ask him to fair catch them,” Harbaugh said. “But from the opening punt he was returning them and that huge, huge punt return he had in the fourth quarter was big.”
But the stagnant offense managed just one first down and had to settle for another Moody field goal, from 41 yards out to make it 17-13.
Illinois, looking to put the game away, drove 42 yards to into Michigan territory, reaching the U-M 33. Too close for a punt, but too far for a field goal, Illinois coach Bret Bielema kept his offense on the field on fourth-and-7. With no receivers open, DeVito scrambled, only to be brought down by DJ Turner after a 2-yard gain.
“We just identified some of the plays that were working for them, some of their strengths coming into the game and worked off of that,” said Kris Jenkins. “We played complimentary football, dug deep and made those adjustments.”
Finally, the Wolverines’ offense began to deliver. On third-and-8 with just under six minutes remaining, McCarthy picked up a fumbled snap, rolled right and completed am 11-yard pass to Johnson for a first down. Four plays later, on fourth-and-4, McCarthy found Roman Wilson, in motion on the play, for a gain of 9.
Two incompletions followed — a drop by Gash of a potential touchdown, and then a miss of a wide-open Loveland with the end zone in his sights — and Michigan settled for a 33-yard field goal from Moody to make it 17-16 with 3:14 to play.
Michigan then forced a three-and-out, while using all three timeouts, to give the offense — well, Moody — one last chance.
“I think I’m going to just enjoy this one,” Harbaugh said when asked for his initial thoughts on next week’s showdown in Columbus. “Probably about six hours from now I’ll be thinking about the Ohio State game.”