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September 14, 2013

Michigan dodges Akron bullet

The Wolverines played Survivor in a stunner of a 28-24 win over Akron Saturday afternoon. But there wasn't a celebrant in sight, and more than a few volunteers offering to vote U-M off an island of mistake-filled misery.

"This is embarrassing for the University of Michigan football team," fifth-year senior captain Taylor Lewan fumed afterwards. "Yeah, we won the game. We're 3-0. That's great. It was embarrassing. It was embarrassing.

It would have been a lot more embarrassing had Devin Gardner not driven the Wolverines 70 yards in the closing moments, culminating in Fitzgerald Toussaint's game-deciding two-yard touchdown plunge with 2:49 remaining.

Michigan still needed a fourth-and-goal stop in the north end zone to win. Akron quarterback Kyle Pohl took the Zips from his their own 75 to the Michigan 1, but three plays later, with five seconds remaining, they needed to make one more play to register one of the biggest shockers of all time at Michigan Stadium.

Instead, outside linebacker Brennan Beyer blew up the middle on a blitz, blasted Pohl and caused his end zone toss to flutter harmlessly out of reach, saving one scary afternoon in Ann Arbor.

"I saw that the ball was in the air, so I turned around to see what happened," Beyer said. "I was looking at my teammates, and their reaction told me that we had won the game, so it was awesome."

The awesomeness ended there.

Gardner labored through the ultimate all-or-nothing game, rushing for 103 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, and throwing for 248 more and two touchdowns on a 16-for-30 effort. But he threw three interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and fumbled deep in Akron territory.

"I wasn't myself today," Gardner insisted. "I can't really say much else. Pressure doesn't bother me, and they got to me today. I made a lot of bad decisions. I probably played my worst game ever, and it won't happen again."

His counterpart went 25-for-49 for 311 passing yards, gunning a pair of TDs. But Pohl also threw a point-blank end zone interception late, and couldn't convert the one throw that would have immediately ushered him into the Akron Athletic Hall of Fame.

Survival, indeed.

"We've got to do a better job," U-M coach Brady Hoke underscored. "You can't win championships with those mistakes."

Michigan received the supreme wake-up call five minutes into the second half, when Pohl fired a 28-yard touchdown pass to Zach D'Orazio. That gave Akron a 10-7 lead in The Big House, fixing every Zips fan's camera on the scoreboard and sending Appalachian State-type shudders through the rest of the gathering of 107,120.

It then appeared the Wolverines decided enough was enough.

Fitzgerald Toussaint (19 carries, 71 yards) ripped off a 24-yard run, and two plays later, Gardner raced right on an option keeper, slashed back to his left and dashed to the end zone untouched on a 36-yard TD bolt to put the Wolverines on top, 14-10.

The Wolverines quickly followed up the go-ahead drive by moving 86 yards in nine plays, Gardner again triggering the surge. His 35-yard run down the western sideline put Michigan in scoring position, before he found Jehu Chesson five yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Chesson made his first career reception count. He gathered in the throw, spun and bounced off a pair of would-be tacklers, then sped away on a 33-yard touchdown sprint. While Chesson and his teammates celebrated a 21-10 lead at the 3:23 mark of the third quarter, the big worriers of The Big House exhaled.
But not for long…

Moments later, Gardner side-armed a third-down throw toward the right flat that Akron's Justin March picked off in stride and rumbled away on a 27-yard TD return. Just like that, the Wolverines were again fighting for their lives.

"Any time you don't take care of the football, and I don't care if we're playing Saline High School or the Super Bowl champs, you can't turn the ball over," Hoke said.

Michigan dodged one bullet, when safety Jarrod Wilson picked off a Pohl pass in the end zone, blunting a 59-yard drive. On Akron's next possession, though, Pohl drove the Zips 67 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, firing a 40-yard pass to L.T. Smith (five catches, 125 yards) then rolling out for a one-yard TD toss to a wide-open Tyrell Goodman.

With 4:10 remaining, Michigan trailed, 24-21, and the rumble reached all the way to Boone, N.C. The final drives - Michigan's scoring effort highlighted by Gardner's 35-yard run, Akron's ill-fated final foray fueled by clutch 24- and 21-yard completions by Pohl - kept the crowd breathless until the last whistle.

The game began as expected, Gardner putting the fun into tight end Devin Funchess. Gardner gunned a 17-yard third-down completion to the sophomore on Michigan's opening drive, then flipped a five-yard toss that Funchess turned into a 48-yard touchdown bolt, jump-cutting like a running back then sprinting away for the score less than five minutes into the game.

But all of a sudden, an expected rout turned like a Shriner's clown car in a Thanksgiving Day parade.

Akron made it 7-3 at the 2:59 mark, after a shanked U-M punt led to Robert Stein's 45-yard field goal. Moments later, Brendan Gibbons' Michigan-record streak of 16 straight field goal makes went by the boards, Gibbons hooking a low screamer wide right from 45 yards out.

Stein then banged a 45-yarder off the left upright with only 43 seconds remaining in the half, and finished the first 30 minutes with a 55-yard miss. Between the 45-yard misfires, the Wolverines created a bushel full of misery following up last week's Notre Dame celebration.

Gardner experienced his ugliest half of the year, two of his three first-half turnovers blunting first-half scoring drives. After driving U-M from its own 27 to the Akron 26 early in the second quarter, Gardner felt the ball poked away from him on an option keeper, the Zips' Jamel Turner pouncing on it at the Akron 22.

Michigan cornerback Blake Countess got the ball right back, picking off a Pohl pass that tumbled through the hands of wideout Jerrod Dillard. Countess raced back 47 yards to the Akron 20, but three plays later, the Wolverines played giveaway again.

Gardner tried to gun one over the middle to a slanting Jeremy Gallon (six catches, 66 yards), but Akron's DeAndre Scott slashed in to intercept the ball inside the 10, taking another potential seven points off the board.

Gardner turned it over once more in the half, his throw over the middle banging off Funchess, ricocheting upward and settling into the hands of March at Michigan's 38. U-M's defense held, and Stein's 55-yard misfire sent the teams into the locker room with the Wolverines, almost unbelievably, clinging to the 7-3 edge.

A smattering of boos around The Big House accompanied them, and they themselves knew it was time to get it in gear.

They did, then stalled again, very nearly driving off a cliff of embarrassment. Fans often refer to results as "unacceptable," and even in a win, the Wolverines agreed.

"It's embarrassing," Gardner agreed. "We're going to respond. We won the football game. We're going to respond, I can guarantee you that."

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