Michigan football's nightmare season seemed like it would only get worse Saturday night.
The Wolverines trailed, 17-0, in the first half of a game they were favored to win by 9.5 points, against a team they have not lost to since 2014.
Then they trailed, 42-35, in overtime after the defense collapsed late in regulation.
But Michigan found a way to win in triple overtime, 48-42, against Rutgers in a crazy, seesaw game.
And it may have found a new quarterback, too.
Here's how the Wolverines beat Rutgers on Saturday night and avoided the upset:
McNamara provides a spark
For a second consecutive week, McNamara replaced Joe Milton as Michigan's quarterback.
This time, the change seems permanent.
McNamara took over under center in the second quarter with the Wolverines trailing, 17-0, and promptly led Michigan to its first scoring drive — and eventually, a much-needed comeback win. He completed 27-of-36 passes for 260 yards and four touchdowns, earning a quarterback rating of 172.3.
The redshirt freshman's 46-yard touchdown throw to Cornelius Johnson seemed like the result of a blown coverage. But McNamara made plenty of other big plays. He was in control and got the ball out quickly and accurately. With a free rusher in his face, he completed a slant to Chris Evans to complete a crucial fourth down on Michigan's go-ahead touchdown drive.
The offense still struggles to run the ball and the comprehensive issues this season cannot all be attributed to the play of Milton. But McNamara has now entered the game in two consecutive weeks and lifted the offense off the ground. And after Saturday's comeback, it would be a surprise if he was not the starter going forward.
Signs of life
Michigan seemed down-and-out after fumbling away its first possession.
The Wolverines gave up 17 consecutive points, and the offense, defense and special teams all made crucial mistakes that seemed to doom Michigan to a fourth consecutive loss. But Michigan picked itself back off the mat — thanks in large part to McNamara. The defense made several crucial stops in the second half, with a key pass breakup in the end-zone from Hunter Reynolds that might have saved four points and a sack from Josh Ross later that led to a Rutgers punt. On special teams, the Wolverines got a key 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Giles Jackson to begin the third quarter. And slowly but surely, Michigan seemed to build its confidence. The sideline began to emanate a palpable energy. And it all culminated in a 12-play, 85-yard touchdown drive that took 6:10 off the clock and gave the Wolverines an eight-point lead.
Michigan was on the brink of collapse after missing a field goal to start overtime and trailing by seven in the second overtime. But the Wolverines' offense came through and delivered the victory, and the defense was able to make up for its mistakes with a game-ending stop.
Michigan's season has not gone the way anyone within the program anticipated, and the Wolverines seemed somewhat shell-shocked during their three-game losing streak. In each loss, Michigan proved unable to respond to early adversity, and that was most apparent in last week's blowout loss to Wisconsin. The Wolverines seemed to reach a new low point in that game after falling behind, 28-0, in the first half. They were poised to reach another low had they lost to the Scarlet Knights for the first time since 2014.
But they pulled off the comeback, and now they have something tangible to build on as they try to turn this season around.
Make no mistake, this is still a very flawed football team. Rutgers was 1-3 and has consistently been the worst team in the Big Ten over the past half decade. And yet the Scarlet Knights looked like the better team for a good portion of Saturday night's game. Michigan's defense struggled, giving up 482 yards, and lost middle linebacker Cam McGrone and safety Brad Hawkins to injury. It's still somewhat unclear how the Wolverines can improve on that side of the ball. The offense, which was stumped last week against Wisconsin, took a significant step forwards. That's one good sign for a team that will have to outscore opponents to win. Meanwhile, Michigan played with an energy and confidence that have been missing since the season opener.
This is a young team in the midst of a rebuild, and it felt like the Wolverines were desperate for a win. Well, they got one — now, we'll see whether they can build off of that, with a winnable game against 0-5 Penn State next weekend.
It wasn't pretty. But the Wolverines picked themselves back off the mat and earned a much-needed victory as questions about the future of the program grew louder and louder over the past several weeks. Those questions haven't been answered yet — but there certainly would have been more of them had Michigan lost to the Big Ten's perennial doormat.
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football survives in triple overtime at Rutgers, 48-42