ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A few of Michigan’s players held their breaths.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, a devout Catholic, may have reached for a nearby set of rosary beads. Or he may have at least recited a quick “Our Father” under his breath.
Almost all of the Michigan football team watched as Wilton Speight’s pass sailed through the air, parallel to the sideline, and into the hands of his teammate, Amara Darboh.
Their faith, however, didn’t waver. Saturday at Michigan Stadium, the No. 4 Wolverines knew Darboh was going to make a pivotal catch with less than eight minutes left in a 14-7 win against No. 8 Wisconsin.
Darboh’s touchdown catch broke open a physical — and, at times, frustrating — game against the Badgers.
“It was perfect,” Darboh said of Speight’s pass. “It was one-on-one coverage out there. The safety was in the middle and I got inside my guy. Wilton just threw a perfect ball and I had to run it in.”
On first-and-10 from Wisconsin’s 46-yard line, Speight dropped back as Darboh ran along the Michigan sideline. Then, he sent an arching throw towards the northwest corner of the field. Darboh found his way behind Wisconsin cornerback Derrick Tindall — who had intercepted Speight earlier in the game — and got two sure hands on Speight’s offering.
Then, Darboh zipped into the end zone as Tindall fell to his knees and then onto his chest at the base of the block-M in the end zone.
— Michigan On BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) October 1, 2016
“We all really love that play,” said Speight, who finished 20-of-32 passing for 219 yards and a touchdown despite getting sacked four times. “It’s a play-action, where I can take a shot. I saw someone go high, one-on-one with Darboh, and that’s probably the best scenario that, as a quarterback, that I get here, a one-on-one with Amara Darboh.
“It was still solid coverage, so I needed to put it in one spot and one spot only. And he made a great play.”
While Darboh was reserved when discussing the decisive play, his teammates were in awe, first on the field, and then off the field, after the game.
“I was blocking, I blocked somebody and when he stopped rushing, I looked up and I could see Darboh had (the defender) beat,” Michigan running back Ty Isaac said. “I couldn’t really see where the ball was but for some reason, I just felt like I knew he was going to catch it, wherever it was.”
Isaac broke into a sprint down the field. Then, he saw Darboh pause for a split second and catch the ball.
“I just started going crazy,” Isaac said.
Michigan receiver Jehu Chesson was on the opposite side of the field, running a route identical to Darboh’s along Wisconsin’s sideline.
“So, I looked over,” Chesson said. “I saw the ball in the air and I saw he beat his man. I have complete faith and trust in Darboh that he makes those types of plays. The kid has ice in his veins, right?”
As his players raced towards the end zone, Harbaugh finally exhaled.
“You’re holding your breath there the last split seconds of the play to see that it doesn’t get deflected,” Harbaugh said. “But I really felt good when the ball was in the air.”
About the only thing that outshined Darboh’s touchdown catch Saturday was Jourdan Lewis’ one-handed interception that sealed the win for Michigan, a catch that for many was reminiscent of Charles Woodson’s one-handed interception in 1997 at Michigan State.
While Lewis’ right-handed snag was one for the highlight reels, Darboh’s catch in the clutch was a game-changer. And Speight’s long bomb didn’t just bring a sense of joy. In a grind-it-out, physical game that was ultimately decided by one play, Darboh’s touchdown brought the Wolverines — who seemingly had it so easy in their first four games — a certain sense of relief.
And as Darboh wheeled into the end zone, Michigan cornerback Channing Stribling finally let out a deep breath. Like many of his teammates on the sideline.
“I was just looking at the sky and I thought, ‘Thank you,’” Stribling said. “We needed that one. We knew the offense was going to make a play and when I saw the ball up, I thought, ‘It’s Darboh or Jehu. It’s one of them.'”