Silence reigned at Michigan Stadium on Saturday for Seniors’ Day.
The first hope fans had was a chance to send Michigan football out of its last home game in 2022 with momentum.
Instead, it focused entirely on star running back Blake Corum, young quarterback JJ McCarthy and avoiding an almost mind-bending excitement when Wolverines kicker Jake Moody scored three field goals — the last nine seconds remaining — to UM in the fourth quarter to deliver a narrow 19-17 victory over Illinois.
“I’d say it’s even better, honestly,” Moody said of the moment the ball went through the post compared to all his dreams of a moment like that. “That was my first game winner I’ve ever had in my entire life. I never had one in high school, middle school, nothing like that.
“That it was in my last game in the Big House was pretty magical. I’m just glad we were able to send the seniors out with a good grade.”
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Corum, Michigan’s Heisman Trophy nominee, left the team late in the first half after apparently suffering a leg injury. He came in for a 5-yard carry in the third quarter but had to leave the game and would not return. He finished with 18 carries for 108 yards and a score and two catches for 39 yards.
Harbaugh said that after the game Corum was “cleared to go back in” but after a few snaps it wasn’t quite right. Harbaugh added that the knee was structurally sound “which is great news,” but his departure seemed to suck the juice out of the stadium.
To make matters worse, Corum fumbled with his injured carry-on deep in Illini territory in the final two minutes of the first half, preventing Michigan from extending their lead.
In the second half, Illinois scored on an 8-yard run by Chase Brown — the first second-half touchdown the Wolverines have allowed since October 1. Michigan dropped a possible fourth-place go-ahead touchdown on its next trip and the Illini needed just three games to score the second touchdown of the day, again from Brown, and put the Wolverines in a 17-10 hole , their biggest deficit of the season.
Brown, the nation’s leading rusher, temporarily stole the show in Ann Arbor by running 29 times for 140 yards and two points against the nation’s top-ranked running defense.
“We knew they were going to let the ball run, but we’re the best running defense in the country,” said Rod Moore, discussing what had changed with the three crucial stops in the fourth quarter. “We just knew that we had to pull ourselves together, stop the game in progress and give the ball back to the offensive.”
The Wolverines didn’t fold on defense, and after three stops by the Illini, they put the ball in the hands — or rather, on the foot — of Moody, the reigning winner of the Lou Groza Award for the nation’s top college kicker.
He delivered three kicks in the fourth quarter despite freezing temperatures and gusty winds (although they were behind him in the final stanza). His last shoe, good from 35 yards, propelled Michigan (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) past Illinois (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten) and into their de facto Big Ten East championship game , which is 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 of his career, passing Garrett Rivas for the most in UM history.
“I’ve watched Michigan football since I was a kid, a pretty decent historian of Michigan football,” Harbaugh said. “I nominate (Moody) for legendary status.”
The Last Ride
Trailing one, Michigan got the ball back with 2:15 in the game and no timeouts remaining. After a quick out route to Cornelius Johnson won 3, quarterback JJ McCarthy kept the ball for a 4 win. Tavierre Dunlap was stuffed without a win in the next game, putting fourth and third on the lead with a running clock and the game .
McCarthy found Isaiah Gash on a flat route behind a blocking fourth-string Colston Loveland to take the first down.
“This is a new game for us, we just brought this game in this week,” said Harbaugh. “It was a Blake game through and through, he had the most repeats (in practice), Blake was the guy we wanted for this piece. I think Isaiah had a practice repeater for this piece.
“But he spoke about it on the sidelines, he said he has it, he would be able to execute it and he did a fantastic job at the most critical moment of the game in coming back that fourth deficit.”
McCarthy targeted Ronnie Bell on the next pass, which was 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 in the next three games before Moody was sent on the field for his last try due to an error.
“Naw man,” Bell said when asked if anyone on the touchline was nervous as he entered that final game. “We see the work he’s put in since we’ve been here. No, I didn’t doubt him for a second.
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 final frame of the game.
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 games. These are clutch plays that had to be done and that were done.
“Man, well done passing game.”
When Illinois stole the momentum
For a long time in the second half on Saturday, it looked as if the Wolverines had actually fallen into a classic “trap game”. Faced with an Illinois roster that dropped its last two games to seriously hurt its Big Ten West chances, the Wolverines immediately struggled on offense.
With just four points leading from the half, the Wolverines were under pressure to repeat the success of the previous games in the second half – Michigan had outplayed opponents in the third and fourth quarters 117-3 in the last five games – but it didn’t happen early.
But after a 45-yard kick from Moody extended the lead to seven, Illinois got to work. After Brown made an 11 win, Michigan was tagged for having too many men on the field, moving the ball into Wolverines territory. Brown ripped off an 8-yard score in third and second place.
Michigan got two first downs on his next drive, both on third-down conversions — a 9-yard run by CJ Stokes on third-and-5 and then a 20-yard pass to Gash on a screen pass Third and 10th
Facing fourth and seventh place finishers on the Illinois 37, coach Jim Harbaugh left his offense on the field. McCarthy, expecting an offside flag on defense, threw a ball low on the left touchline to Andrel Anthony, but the ball bounced off his hands and fell imperfectly for a turnover on downs.
Illinois responded three games later with a 37-yard touchdown carried out by Brown, and suddenly Michigan was down by a touchdown for the first time all season.
Wolverines fight back
After an offensive three-and-out, boos rained down from the stands in the Big House. But the Wolverines’ defensive and special teams persevered.
Illinois’ subsequent drive moved back from midfield, hampered by a fumbling snap on third and eighth by DeVito in the shotgun formation. He chased the ball down and fell on it for an 11-yard loss, forcing an Illini punt from their own 34 and potentially solid field position for UM.
Bell, playing on special teams in place of injured AJ Henning (who was not playing Saturday), made an electric play on the punt return, breaking two tackles and running 39 yards up the right touchline to start the Wolverines in Illinois Territory .
Bell tore his ACL on a punt return in the first game of 2021, the first game in that position in nearly two full seasons.
“I just wanted to ask him to catch them fairly,” Harbaugh said. “But from the first punt he gave it back and that huge, huge punt return that he had in the fourth quarter was big.”
But the stagnant offense only managed a first down and had to settle for another Moody field goal from 41 yards to make it 17-13.
Illinois, looking to finish the game, drove 42 yards into Michigan territory and hit the UM 33. Too close for a punt but too wide for a field goal, Illinois coach Bret Bielema kept his offense in fourth place on the field -7. With no receivers open, DeVito scrambled only to be tripped by DJ Turner after a 2-yard gain.
“We just identified some of the plays that worked for them, some of their strengths that came into play and worked on that,” said Kris Jenkins. “We played free football, dug deep and made these adjustments.”
Eventually, the Wolverines’ offense began to deliver. In third and eighth with just under six minutes to go, McCarthy picked up a fumbling snap, rolled right and completed an 11-yard pass to Johnson for a first down. Four games later, at fourth-and-4, McCarthy found Roman Wilson moving in the game with a win of 9.
Two incompletions followed — a drop from Gash on a possible touchdown and then a miss from a wide-open Loveland with the endzone in sight — and Michigan opted for a 33-yard field goal from Moody to make it 17-16 bring 3:14 to play.
Michigan then forced a three-and-off while using all three timeouts to give the offense — well, Moody — one last chance.
“I think I’m just going to enjoy this one,” said Harbaugh when asked for his initial thoughts on next week’s showdown in Columbus. “Probably in about six hours I’ll be thinking about Ohio State’s game.”
Contact Tony Garcia at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @realtonygarcia.