The Michigan Wolverines have posted a 25-3 record over the last two seasons, in large part due to their execution late in close games. Since 2021, Michigan has played in seven one-score games and has posted a 5-2 record in those contests. I revisited the fourth quarter in each one of these to better understand how Michigan mostly escaped with a victory — and if that formula is replicable in 2023.
2021 Rutgers (U-M victory, 20-13)
Rutgers was held to a field goal to begin the fourth quarter, and those would be the last points scored in the game by either team. Over the final three possessions, Rutgers missed a field goal, turned the ball over on downs, and was forced into a fumble.
Michigan’s offense wasn’t much better, however, punting twice and missing a field goal. In fact, the Wolverines barely raised a pulse in the second half only, completing one pass and gaining two first downs.
This game was won by Michigan’s defense and no one else.
2021 Nebraska (U-M victory, 32-29)
After trading touchdown drives to start the final quarter, Nebraska clung to a three-point lead, 29-26. It wasn’t an electric finish by either offense, but over its final two drives, Michigan’s unit at least mustered two field goals.
In comparison, the Nebraska offense sputtered down the stretch by surrendering a forced fumble and a turnover on downs. It’s crazy to think how different the 2021 season could have been without two forced fumbles against Rutgers and Nebraska.
2021 Michigan State (U-M loss, 37-33)
I detailed this in full two weeks ago, but this final quarter was a disaster for the Wolverines.
The Spartans alternated touchdowns and three-and-outs over their final four possessions, and the door was open for a Michigan victory. But after kicking a field goal early in the quarter, the Wolverines took a page from its early season opponents and finished its final three drives with a fumble, turnover on downs, and a game-ending interception.
The game ultimately did not matter outside of the coveted bragging rights and the inundation of “TUCK COMIN” on Twitter for a few months.
2021 Penn State (U-M victory, 21-17)
With six minutes remaining, a loss felt inevitable. The Wolverines had begun the quarter with a three-and-out and a three-and-strip-sack. Penn State had scored 10 unanswered points to seize control in the final quarter and Michigan’s anemic offense was 75 yards away from the end zone.
Six plays later, Michigan tight end Erick All took a crossing drag route 47 yards to the house to seize victory from the jaws of defeat.
This game and, this play specifically, can be pointed to as the moment Michigan stopped being the Michigan of old and finally took that long-awaited step as a program.
2022 Maryland (U-M victory, 34-27)
Similar to the Rutgers game in 2021, the Big Ten home opener was a little too close for comfort. This wasn’t as close as the game against the Scarlet Knights, but the Wolverines needed a three-possession surge to salt this victory away.
With Michigan leading 24-19 with just over nine minutes remaining, the Wolverines chipped in a field goal and relied on the defense to protect the 27-19 lead. Trailing by eight with a chance to be a hero, quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa tried to force a pass into double coverage that was tipped and intercepted by safety RJ Moten.
Running back Blake Corum put the Wolverines up 34-19 on the subsequent possession and iced the game. Maryland added a late touchdown with for style points, but it didn’t matter in terms of outcome.
2022 Illinois (U-M victory, 19-17)
This felt like the end of Michigan’s magical season. Corum had gone down with a knee injury, 1-B running back Donovan Edwards was unavailable also due to an injury, and Michigan was struggling on both sides of the ball against a physical Illinois team.
Michigan wasn’t perfect in the fourth quarter, but it again did just enough to preserve that zero in the loss column. Offensively, the Wolverines generated points — albeit just three field goals — on their final three possessions, culminating in a Moody game-winner.
A familiar play helped spark this comeback for the Wolverines.
Defensively, Michigan shut the water off on the upset-minded Illini. Following two consecutive scoring drives in the third quarter, Michigan held Illinois to two three-and-outs and a turnover on downs on its final three possessions of the afternoon.
Somewhere, Illinois head coach Brett Bielema is still sulking on Twitter.
2022 TCU (U-M loss, 51-45)
I detailed this in full (releases in a few hours on www.maizenbrew.com) and this was by far the most infuriating of all the fourth quarters.
Following an offensive firestorm in the third quarter which saw a combined 44 points scored, the Wolverines trailed by 11 but had just forced a fumble and set up shop at the TCU 27.
Michigan promptly scored and suddenly, at 41-38, fans believed the Wolverines could complete the comeback. At least until three plays later, when TCU scored on a rub route from 76 (!!) yards out.
The Wolverines’ offense sputtered the next two possessions resulting in consecutive three-and-outs while the Horned Frogs added a field goal between Michigan’s two failed drives to stretch the lead to 51-38.
Michigan’s defense finally slowed down the TCU attack and the Wolverines answered with a much-needed touchdown drive. The Michigan defense AGAIN rose to the challenge and got the ball back to the offense with 52 seconds remaining, once again needing 75 yards.
Unfortunately, there was no Penn State magic this time. No heroic drive or anything even resembling positive momentum. The clock finally struck midnight on a disheveled offense as its drive and season ended in a broken play and a turnover on downs.
Looking at 2023, Michigan is going to need to have more consistent offensive answers and vastly better red-zone execution for close games. Safety blanket Jake Moody is gone and the defense can’t always be the ones to shoulder the burden.
While Michigan’s offense has had its moments late (2021 Penn State, 2022 Maryland) where it rose to the occasion, it is going to have to become a more common occurrence if the Wolverines are going to win 15 consecutive games.