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September 22, 2013

Wolverines pull off great escape

Coming back from a self-dug, two-touchdown hole against Connecticut's Huskies probably felt like running the Iditarod to Michigan's mushers. But for the second straight week, the Wolverines didn't get left out in the cold.

Brendan Gibbons' 21-yard field goal with 4:36 remaining sealed U-M's furious rally, in a 24-21 win over the Huskies. For a team struggling its way into the bye week prior to the Big Ten season, any win counted as a good win.

"Definitely," affirmed quarterback Devin Gardner, who overcame costly turnovers to cash in late. "Without a doubt. We faced adversity and we responded. We'd rather not let it come to that, but if that's what it takes on this day, we're happy with the win."

It came to that, all right. It came to the point where the Wolverines - who turned the football over four times to UConn's one - couldn't afford one more big mistake and still go into the Big Ten season an unblemished 4-0.

They were just tough enough, in front of a record crowd of 42,704 at Rentschler Field.

"I thought our team did a really good job being resilient, especially in the second half," Hoke said "Defensively for four quarters I thought we played awfully hard, played productive, did a nice job."

Generating only 289 yards of offense, the Wolverines counted on a defense that surrendered only 47 yards on the ground and made a crucial interception at just the right time to pull it off.

U-M began the comeback down a shocking 21-7, the victims of teeth-grinding giveaways and UConn opportunism. Gardner (11-for-23 passing for 97 yards and two interceptions) drove the Wolverines 75 yards in nine plays, the biggest involving a perfectly timed option pitch to Fitzgerald Toussaint (24 carries, 120 yards, two touchdowns).

The fifth-year senior tailback took the pitch racing to his right, dodged a pair of would-be tacklers, then cut all the way back across the grain, rumbling for a 35-yard touchdown. The instant offense, at the 5:37 mark of the third quarter, injected life into a crew that desperately needed a jolt out of neutral.

"I want to give credit to Devin for reading that very well," Toussaint said. "I give credit to the offensive line for staying on their guy. I got out there and made a play. I saw green grass, and I took it."

UConn's Chad Christian missed a 46-yard field goal attempt, keeping the Wolverines within one touchdown. But time kept ticking away, and when Gardner (who rushed for 64 yards and a touchdown on 19 tries) failed to make a fourth-and-two keeper at the UConn 22, questions arose about how many more chances the Wolverines might have.

Linebacker Desmond Morgan supplied one, almost immediately. He leaped up on a Chandler Whitmer throw over the middle, yanked the ball down one-handed, then bolted off on a 29-yard return to the Huskies' 12.

"It was just a simple zone coverage, and I did what I was coached to do - read off his eyes," said the former high school quarterback/running back. "Lo and behold, he threw it that way. I just jumped up and tried to make a play on it. Once I got the ball in my hands, it took me back to my high school days a little bit. I followed the blockers."

On the very next play, Toussaint swept left untouched for those dozen yards. He churned in to tie the game at 21-all with 9:49 left, setting up the final drama.

Toussaint also rushed for 22 of the final 36 yards needed to set up Gibbon's game-winner, and insisted he wasn't worried.

"That wasn't new," Toussaint said. "This is Michigan. We respond to adversity. We practice hard, and we're ready for anything. We always finish. That's what we're known for. That's what we put the emphasis on. That's what we came out there and did."

Gardner moved the Wolverines from the opening possession, but the turnover spigot remained open. He pitched a tipped interception to UConn's Jhavon Williams at the Huskies' 23 to open the game, but then cranked it up.

On Michigan's second possession, Gardner directed the Wolverines 69 yards on 12 plays for a touchdown. The U-M QB received a key pass interference call on third-and-13, UConn's Byron Jones flagged for manhandling Jeremy Gallon (four catches, 31 yards).

Gardner took it from there on a third-and-12 from the Connecticut 17. He weathered a heavy blitz, wormed his way through the line, dodged the Huskies' Ty-Meer Brown near the goal and barreled in for a 17-yard TD. That put the Wolverines up 7-0 in a first quarter in which the Huskies managed 37 yards and no forays beyond midfield.

Michigan bogged down on offense thereafter, but it looked as if it wouldn't matter. UConn couldn't move the ball at all … that is, until the alarm clock apparently went off in the middle of the second quarter.

Whitmer (16-for-32, 159 yards, two TDs) suddenly started connecting with receivers, moving the ball 56 yards in eight plays for the tying touchdown. Even after getting an apparent 40-yard TD bomb to Geremy Davis wiped off the board by a booth review, Whitmer picked his way downfield and found tight end Spencer Parker over the middle for an 11-yard touchdown with 3:54 remaining in the half.

All of a sudden, the Huskies had more than zip on the scoreboard, some zip behind Whitmer's throws, and Akron Zips flashbacks sizzling through the heads of Michigan fans. It got worse, before it got better.

Late in the half, the U-M defense forced a UConn punt, but an old saying came back to bite the Wolverines. They like to note, "Sometimes a punt is a good play," and in this instance, it was very good for the Huskies.

The Huskies' punt seemed to tumble harmlessly to the ground just inside Michigan's 10, but backed up … right into the ankle of rookie Da'Mario Jones, who never saw it coming. U-Conn's Obi Melifonwu dove on the loose ball at the U-M 9, and two plays later, Whitmer fired a swing pass to an open running back Lyle McCombs for the seven-yard go-ahead TD.

The Huskies bolted into the halftime locker room like the big dogs in the building, up 14-7, while the Wolverines had to be wondering what hit them. After intermission, they absorbed another gut punch.

On the third play of the half, Gardner tried to sneak out a final yard for a first down, but saw the ball squirt out of his hands. UConn's Brown scooped it up and raced in 35 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-7 just 1:21 into the second half.

The turnover plague struck again, turning into instant points and putting the Wolverines on the brink of disaster again.

For the second straight week, they avoided it - just barely. But they did, and Hoke insists there's time to recover.

"It was an away game with 38 guys first- and second-year players, against a team that has a very good coaching staff," Hoke said. "We all are trying to figure out where we are as a team. I liked how they responded, though. That's the positive about it."


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