Nikhai Hill-Green says the team didn’t flinch when adversity hit against Rutgers

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It wasn’t pretty, but No. 19 Michigan got a victory over Rutgers for its first Big Ten win of the year.

The Wolverines now sit at 4-0 this year after winning, 20-13, in a game that shouldn’t have been as close as it ended up being.

The maize and blue were up 20-3 at halftime and looked to be headed towards another dominant victory led by quarterback Cade McNamara who threw for 156 yards in the first half. But then the third quarter came, and it became a tale of two halves for Michigan, especially offensively. The Wolverines had 42 total yards in the final two quarters and had four straight possessions going three-and-out.

The theme this year has been the offense putting up massive numbers, but the defense ended up being the savior in this one. There may have been a lot of bending by the defense, but it never truly broke. It had two straight dominant possessions which ended on a turnover on downs, and then the next (and final) possession was when David Ojabo got Rutgers to commit its first turnover of the season by forcing a fumble that was recovered by Junior Colson.

After the game, Jim Harbaugh stressed how important the red zone defense was, noting that they practice for situations like we saw on Saturday.

“I was really proud of them,” Harbaugh said. “We found a way, and defense – I thought they really competed right to the fumble. Thank goodness for redzone defense, we put a lot of time into it and we practice it a lot. The defense was in a bad position, offensively we weren’t moving the ball – three-and-outs on four straight drives to start the second half – the show of the character of the defense I’m really proud and pleased of that.”

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What Jim Harbaugh said after Michigan football's win over Rutgers

This may not have been the win the players, fans, or coaches expected to see, but linebacker Nikhai Hill-Green made sure to note the defense preaches ‘to win’ regardless of how pretty the win may or may not be.

“Something we preach on defense is win,” said Hill-Green. “What’s important now, what’s important today, coming off a win and making key playing coming down the stretch. Today wasn’t good enough, we know that — on both sides. We’ll get it fixed and we have to execute better and play team football.”

As Harbaugh noted, Michigan had four straight three-and-outs in the second half, so the defense was on the field a ton in the third and fourth quarters. Hill-Green shared how the fatigue level may have affected the team.

“We rotated a little bit,” said Hill-Green. “Like I said, Kalel Mullings and Junior Colson played their butts off (coming in for Josh Ross) and I’m super proud of them. Were just conditioned and built for it. I feel like we could have went out there and played another whole game.”

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The most pivotal sequence came late in the fourth quarter. Rutgers couldn’t make a third-and-1 nor could it then convert a fourth-and-1, but the Michigan offense went three-and-out. On the next drive, the maize and blue called ‘game’ as Ojabo forced the only turnover surrendered by the Scarlet Knights this year.

Hill-Green says that it was in crunch time that the defense saw adversity and was ready to face it.

“We were just being proactive,” Hill-Green said. “We never react to an offense; we make them react to us. We were ready when they weren’t. They thought they were going to catch us off guard, but we were ready. We just bode up, did our jobs, and executed.”

Last year’s Michigan team may have folded during this second half of misery, but this team held it together and fought for the win. It’s a telling sign about this year’s squad that it can be on the ropes and still not fold under pressure.

“I think as a team we didn’t flinch at all,” said Hill-Green. “Offense they know they’re going to clean their stuff up, but I feel they didn’t flinch, they did what they could do, and we did what we could do. We didn’t flinch at all, and we got the win.”

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