ANN ARBOR — A week ago, the Michigan football team perched itself atop the college football world and reveled in a defining win over a nationally ranked opponent.
Saturday at Michigan Stadium, the Wolverines put their own national relevance at stake against a Mid-American Conference opponent, in a game that many believed would be a blowout. Instead, the mid-major almost pulled off a stunning upset.
A defensive stand on the game’s final play helped Michigan preserve a 28-24 win over Akron. It also helped the No. 11 Wolverines preserve their collective dignity.
Yet instead of celebrating a close win, the Wolverines addressed the postgame media contingent with long faces — and strong words.
“It was embarrassing,” Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “We didn’t prepare. This is on the seniors, and this is on the leadership of this team. Extremely poor, poor leadership.”
Fitzgerald Toussaint’s touchdown with 2:49 left gave the Wolverines a four-point lead, but on its final drive, Akron moved the ball to Michigan’s 16-yard line and after referees reviewed Kyle Pohl’s 14-yard pass to L.T. Smith, it set the Zips up at Michigan’s 2-yard line with less than 30 seconds left in the game.
Jawon Chisholm lost two yards on the next play. Facing fourth-and-3, the Zips called a timeout with five seconds left and returned to the field for the game’s last play.
Zips quarterback Kyle Pohl dropped back, then sent an off-balance pass toward a receiver in the end zone.
“I was blitzing up the middle,” said Michigan linebacker Brennen Beyer, who hurried Pohl on the final play. “To my surprise, it opened wide up. [Defensive tackle] Jibreel [Black] opened the gap wide up. I got to the quarterback as fast as I could and tried to get a hand on the ball. I don’t really know what happened after.”
Beyer hit Pohl after he released the throw, and his pass fell behind Zach D’Orazio. It seemed as if 107,120 collectively exhaled.
Beyer’s hurry of Pohl kept the Wolverines (3-0) from adding an infamous chapter to the program’s history, yet it didn’t take away the bad taste of the fact that Akron kept Michigan on its toes throughout the game. For a few moments, some may have wondered if this game would go into the dubious annals of Michigan football, a category that includes a 34-32 loss to FCS opponent Appalachian State in 2007 and a 13-10 loss to MAC opponent Toledo in 2008.
In the wake of Saturday’s near-upset, Lewan made a vow.
“We will not come out like this again,” the All-American lineman said.
Akron coach Terry Bowden was aware of a potential storyline involving an upset, even if if appeared to be an outside shot for a team that lost 27 straight road games prior to this weekend. He considered the odds against his program in facing a team of Michigan’s caliber. But Bowden also knew the emotional weight Michigan’s 41-30 win last week over Notre Dame carried — and the potential hangover effect that win could have on the Wolverines.
“On the bus coming up here, we put the Notre Dame game on,” said Bowden, whose team trailed 7-3 at halftime. “We saw how emotional that was, how drained they were, and how it was played. You kept saying to yourself as a coach, as an old coach, ‘they can’t get that type of emotion again after that.’ So I was crossing my fingers that it was the case.”
On a back-and-forth afternoon, the Zips intercepted Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner (16 for 30 passing, 248 yards, two touchdowns) three times and gained 418 yards of offense against the No. 11 Wolverines, who struggled to separate themselves from the Zips (1-2).
“They got to me,” Gardner said. “I probably played my worst game ever. It won’t happen again.
“We’re going to respond, and that’s what we talked about all summer, responding to adversity.”
Devin Funchess’ 48-yard touchdown catch gave Michigan a 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the game, and Robert Stein's 45-yard field goal for Akron cut Michigan's lead to 7-3 with 2:59 left in the first.
After a scoreless second quarter in which Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons and Akron kicker combined for three missed field goals, Pohl capped a methodical 10-play drive by connecting with D’Orazio for a 28-yard touchdown, which gave the Zips a 10-7 lead 5:04 into the third quarter.
Gardner’s 36-yard touchdown gave Michigan a 14-10 lead less than two minutes later, and with 3:23 left in the third, Gardner hit Jehu Chesson for a 33-yard touchdown for a 21-10 lead.
Fourteen seconds into the fourth, Justin March’s 27-yard interception return cut Michigan’s lead to 21-17, and Akron regained the lead on Tyrell Goodman’s one-yard touchdown catch with 4:10 left. Toussaint’s touchdown gave Michigan the cushion it needed, but the Wolverines’ final stand was the deciding factor.
Michigan safety Thomas Gordon offered a positive spin, considering the win a wake-up call.
“We’re happy it happened right now," Gordon said.