EAST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Michigan was making a mess of another game against a heavy underdog, when Desmond Morgan snatched away Connecticut’s chance for a huge upset.
Morgan’s one-handed interception in the fourth quarter swung the game Michigan’s way and the 15th-ranked Wolverines dodged another potentially embarrassing loss with a 24-21 victory against UConn on Saturday night.
A week after Michigan needed a last-second stand to hold off Akron at the Big House, Brendan Gibbons kicked a 21-yard field goal with 4:36 left to give the Wolverines (4-0) their first lead of the second half.
“We’re Michigan. We don’t play to everyone else’s level and for the last two weeks we have. But we’re going to step it up,” defensive end Frank Clark said.
Chandler Whitmer threw two touchdown passes and Ty-Meer Brown returned a fumble 34 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter that put UConn (0-3) up 21-7.
Quarterback Devin Gardner turned the ball over three times for Michigan and the Wolverines also muffed a punt inside their 10 that led to a UConn touchdown. Fitzgerald Toussaint carried the offense with season-high 120 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.
Toussaint broke a 35-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, and scored from 12 yards out right after Morgan’s pick with 9:56 left.
Against the Zips, Gardner threw three interceptions and lost a fumble and the Wolverines came away feeling more relieved than victorious. Gardner wasn’t much better this week, going 11 for 23 for 97 yards. He ran for 64 yards and a 17-yard touchdown in the first quarter. But his defense had to bail him out, specifically Morgan.
After star Connecticut linebacker Yawin Smallwood stopped Gardner short on a fourth-and-2 at the Huskies 22 with 11:23 left in the fourth quarter, the record crowd of 42,704 at Rentschler Field was rocking and starting to believe an upset was in the making.
But Morgan made the play of the game, leaping high and snaring Whitmer’s pass over the middle with his right hand.
“It was just a simple zone coverage,” Morgan said. “I just dropped back and did what I was coached to do, kind of read off his eyes and lo and behold he threw it that way so I was just trying to jump up and make the play on it. Once I got the ball in my hands I was just trying to follow the blockers.”
He returned it 29 yards to the 12.
“That’s going to be replayed a long time in Michigan history,” Gardner said of Morgan’s pick.
On the next play Toussaint swept untouched around the left side to make it 21-21 with 9:49 left.
“We contained them for a long time but not long enough,” UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said.
Michigan forced a three-and-out on the next series and got the ball back around midfield, but its drive stalled at the 4 and Gibbons made the short kick to give Michigan a three-point lead with 4:36 left.
UConn’s last drive reached midfield, but Michigan pushed the Huskies backward and they came up a 3 yards short on a fourth-and-29.
UConn, playing without leading receiver Shakim Phillips, managed only 206 yards.
The Huskies limped into the most high-profile nonconference home game they have ever played, trying to avoid their first 0-3 start since 2001 and take some heat off Pasqualoni in his third season.
But Michigan had three turnovers in the first half that helped give UConn a 14-7 lead. Turnover No. 4 came on its first possession of the second half. Gardner tried to sneak on a third-and-short, but as he slid down the line, he bumped into one of his linemen and the ball popped loose.
Brown picked up the ball and had a couple of teammates escorted him into the end zone.
Michigan finally responded with a drive, going 75 yards, the final 35 by Toussaint, who made it 21-14 with 5:37 left in the third.
The Maize and Blue’s visit to Rentschler Field was a major event in these parts. More than 2,000 temporary seats were brought in to meet demand for tickets. Former UConn basketball star Ray Allen made the trip and Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who grew up in Michigan and almost played for the Wolverines, also took in the game.
“All the effort that was put into it from the university, to the fans to everyone who had a part of tonight’s game showed everyone who was watching that this was true, big-time college football,” Pasqualoni said. “Would have been great to win.”
The Huskies didn’t appear to be in any condition to challenge Michigan, having already lost at home to Towson and Maryland — at least without help, and Michigan gave it to them.
Gardner threw a first-quarter interception deep in UConn territory. He redeemed himself with a 17-yard touchdown run to give Michigan a 7-0 lead with 1:52 left in the first. UConn ended the quarter with one first down.
But Michigan couldn’t take advantage and Whitmer through two TD passes in the second quarter to put UConn up 14-7 at half.
Gardner didn’t complete a pass in the second quarter and for the second straight week Michigan looked disjointed against an inferior opponent.
The Wolverines will go into their off week undefeated — if not totally satisfied with their play, especially the turnovers.
“We’ve got a major league problem and we’ve got to fix it because that’s not going to win championships,” coach Brady Hoke said.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at http://www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP