A LOSS TO THE WILDCATS WOULD HAVE HAD THE WOLVERINES BATTLING FOR SECOND PLACE IN THE LEGENDS DIVISION. THEY ARE STILL IN THE HUNT.
Saturday, the Wolverines returned to the friendly confines of Michigan Stadium to confront the Northwestern Wildcats for the first of a critical two game home stand, that could play a big part in determining the course of the their season. The Wolverines needed to win to get into position to achieve a shot at the Legends title game, which they will have, if they can win out, and Nebraska losses again. Unfortunately, Nebraska owns the head to head tiebreaker. After the ‘Cats, the Iowa Hawkeyes come next, and then Ohio in Columbus. All three games are of equal importance, except for bragging rights, but first things first, and that was hosting, and trying to best the Wildcats. The ‘Cats made it a game. The Wolverines dramatic finish made it one to remember.
THIS YEAR’S WILDCATS: Coach Pat Fitzgerald brought a pretty decent Big Ten Football team to Ann Arbor. Seven wins and two losses through nine games is a good record, and three wins and two losses in the B1G is also decent. Their rush defense was fourth in the B1G prior to Saturday. Statistically they were more susceptible to the pass defensively only ranking 8th in the B1G, and the Wildcats were not in the top 100 in pass offense nationally. Actuality: They proved again their vulnerability in that area Saturday yielding 286-yards passing to the Wolverines.
Arriving in Ann Arbor tenth in total B1G defense seemed encouraging to the Michigan cause because M could stop the run. Actuality: The ‘Cats played a very good football game, moving the ball against the Wolverines with monotony, and converting far too many third downs (8 of 16). But the Wolverines moved the ball to counter. The Wolverines managed 7 of 10 third down conversions. NW cashed in on a controversial late 1st down that seemed to seal the Wolverines doom in regulation. There was more than one situation in this game that portended doom, but this is a team that does not quit and it saved them.
Unlike some past NW teams, this year’s edition is a rush first team, relying on the legs of Kain Colter, and tail back Venric Mark. Both Colter and Mark had admirable games Saturday, but both ended up nicked. Late in Saturday’s game Mark had the misfortune of providing a cushion for Frank Clark, and that ended his participation. Mark had rushed for 1,072-yards previously and he added 104 net yards on 23 carries Saturday, with one TD. He demonstrated he is a special team whiz that can return kick offs and break the big one, and he proved that Saturday, but his longest and a potential game breaking return of a KO to pay dirt was fortunately called back due to penalty. That play could have sealed M’s fate.
The Wildcats wanted to control the clock and dominate the line of scrimmage with the running game, and for much of regulation they did, and they did totaling 431 net yards to M’s 419, while establishing a time of possession for the game of 34.28 to M’s 25.32. In the face of Michigan’s pregame great pass defense statistics, NW wreaked a little havoc though the air at times, getting a couple of TDs, and securing 8 of 16 1st down conversions by air and ground. Kain raised Cain with M’s defense at times. QB Colter shared the task with Trevor Siemian. Siemian completed a just before the half two minute drill with six, which after the point, tied the game 14 up at the half.
NW threw 13 times and hit 21 for 183-yards. M completed 16 of 30 for 286-yards with 2 TDs. NW ran 58 times for 248-yards, but only one TD. M ran 32 times producing 133-yards and 3 TDs.
NW’s Colter was 8 of 14 for 89-yards and 1 TD, and Siemian was 6 of 7 for 87-yards and 2 TDs. Colter on the ground carried 24 times for 106-yards.
The last time the Wildcats took down the Wolverines, it was November of 2008, and Nick Sheridan was the QB, and Saturday it was too close for comfort again. NW played a good hard hitting game of football. None of that Mildcat stuff applies this year.
THE WOLVERINES DEFENSE: Looking at the stats from M’s first nine games, it seemed that the Wolverines matched up well with the Wildcats defensively. Actuality: the Wolverines gave up 31 points. What else needs to be said? The Wildcats managed 431-yards against the Wolverines yesterday. NW took the measure of the Wolverine defense. Yet, when crunch time came, it was the Wolverine’s defense that stared the Wildcats down, enabling a win, by stopping the ‘Cats cold in the late 4th quarter, and overtime. Kenny Demens and Desmond Morgan each had 9 stops.
Again, while Michigan’s defense struggled with the fine option running of Colter and Mark, they came alive in time, when the game was on the line. Late in the game, in regulation, a late hit by Beyer almost torpedoed the Wolverines. It was a possible game changer, but fortunately Beyer did not become a goat.
THE WOLVERINES OFFENSE: Pregame the continuing question was the offense. Could anyone other than Denard (if he played), or Devin (if he played) rack up significant yardage overland? Actuality: Denard wore headphones and Devin played an outstanding game. Would they be able to score in the red zone? Yes. By land and air. Would they avoid offensive errors? Actuality: Devin played a fine game, with only one interception. The Wolverines had a single fumble, after a 50-yard run. Devin was poised, knew when to throw the ball away, took some shots and hung onto the ball, and passed and ran well. His bootleg TD run in overtime provided the winning margin. On his one interception he may have misread man when it was a zone defense. He is my player of the game. He threw for 286-yards and 2 TDs, and also ran for two TDs, winning the game with the last one, and stretching for the pylon on the first one. He is a great athlete in his own right that has stepped up and out into the limelight.
Coach Hoke on Devin: “I think Devin was very consistent. I thought he stayed in the game and managed the offense. He had the one bad throw, probably two of them during the course of the game. He’s just got to see the field a little better, but he moved our offense. I thought he did a nice job on third down; I think we were 7-of-10, which is pretty good.”
Devin was chased hard for my player of the game accolade by Roy Roundtree. Roy caught well going 5 for 139. The hands were there. Roundtree’s opportunistic 4th quarter catch in regulation, where he snagged a pass re-directed by the defensive back, and no doubt saved the win. Late in the game and down three points M’s chances of winning the game seemed slim if not impossible. Impossible until Gardner hit Roundtree for a 53-yard gain, and Roy made his improbable catch. That set up Brandon Gibbons FG to send the 31-31 game into overtime, with only a pair of seconds left on the ticker. Gibbon’s kick was for 26-yards. Jeremy Gallon caught 7 for 94-yards.
Coach Hoke on Roundtree’s catch: “We had to get ourselves into field goal range. We used the three timeouts in the right manner earlier. It was one of those things, we got some good field position because of the punt return, so that really helped us. It got us into a good area. Then, it kind of fell into Roy’s hands. He did a tremendous job fighting for it, keeping his eye on the football, and he came down with a big one.”
Without Denard the Wolverine rushing game has been spotty at best this season. It is a shame that at this late date in the season the offense is unsettled because of an injury to Denard, and the fact that the ground game has not lived up to either expectations or last year’s effectiveness. I hoped to see Denard at full rushing capacity, if not full passing capacity. His injury is a shame.
The Wolverines were attempting to go 12-0 at the Big House under Coach Hoke, and that’s the way it was-finally.
THE GAME AND BRIEF SCORING RECAP: The Wolverines received, stalled and punted. The Wildcats went to work advancing with a spectacular one handed catch. This for a team that the statistics said could not pass. Venric Mark scored on a three yard run. M-0, NW- 7.
A 10-play, 78-yard drive featuring a 32-yard catch by Roy Roundtree on the NW half of the field, and an eight yard gallop by Devin Gardner in which he stretched for the pylon, and scored, resulted in a 7-7 game. It was reassuring to know that the offense could move the ball without Denard against this group in a critical game.
Fitz Toussaint showed some life in the second quarter with a nifty fifty-yard run, but the ball was poked out, and recovered by the ‘Cats. M’s Joe Bolden saved the day, when NW returned the favor and donated the ball back. On the foundation of a 17-yard Devin Gardner scramble, Thomas Rawls plowed into the end zone for six on a one-yard run, and suddenly it was M-14, NW 7.
But those pesky ‘Cats would not leave well enough alone and tied the score before the half. Coach Fitzgerald inserted passing QB Trevor Siemians, and he produced a 56-yard drive culminating in a 19-yard TD pass. At the half it was knotted a 14- all.
After that it was worrisome as the ‘Cats would receive to start the second. Those worries were justified. 10 plays and 75-yards later they had another TD. M-14, NW-21. Then they hit a 34-yard field goal, and it was M-14, NW 24, and it was looking like we might be out of the race.
In the final quarter, the Wildcats made some mistakes that hurt. There was a costly a block in the back penalty. The Wolverines were buried at their own nine-yard line, but not in despair, having had the benefit of two back to back passes to Roy Roundtree. Then came the TD strike to Freshman TE Devin Funchess with under 10 minutes in the game. Great throw and catch. The ever improving Funchess is definitely earning his scholarship. M-28, NW-24.
The wily Wildcats set off on a journey of clock domination which lasted about five minutes and ended with a 15-yard scoring pass. The receiver was so open it was painful, and Michigan was behind again M-28, NW 31.
Enter Dennis Norfleet, who hauled the ensuing KO 37-yards to the M 42. Seemingly trapped he reversed direction and scampered up the side line. Gardner then threw an interception and I thought for sure, this time it was over. The ‘Cats ran the clock down to 18 seconds, and the Wolverines had it at their 38.
Enter Roundtree, as he became the recipient of the spectacular 53-yard grab described above, which Gibbons promptly flew the ball thru the uprights for three, and it was 31 all and overtime was on tap.
NW won the toss and forced M to go first. Devin Gardner finished the game with a roll out around end for a third and one, one-yard score. M-38, NW-31 and it was up the defense. They rose to the occasion, and by stopping the ‘Cats cold, preserved the win.
Both teams played well in a very competitive and exciting game that was worth the price of a ticket on a decent football day, in a beautiful setting, played when some feel a football game should be played.
It looks like Devin Gardner can carry the load, and he is a great athlete. He has restored confidence in the belief that there will be an experienced candidate for the position in the QB competition next year. The injury to Denard has a real downside in almost all respects, but it has not hurt a thing that Devin has had the chance to acquire real game winning experience.
Hopefully Denard will be back at the helm next week and at 100%, for his last fling in Michigan Stadium. Crowd appreciation for him should be as momentous as it is deserved. Will we ever see his like again?
Bring on the Hawkeyes!