The Wolverines traveled to Evanston, Illinois Saturday evening hoping to halt the downward slide in their football fortunes. Championship hopes were dashed by a second Big Ten loss last Saturday.
Prime contributors to that circumstance were still observed in regulation, such as the lack of push by the OL, the consistent inability to handle blitzes continued to stymy TDs, and general offensive success. The regulation 60 minutes of this game against the Wildcats screamed continuing offensive free fall.
The Wolverines only converted 2 of 18 third downs, with the two successful conversions waiting for overtime. They were welcome and necessary then, but definitely overdue. M was two of four converting 4th downs. The most mind bending call was when they opted to convert a fourth and two when a field goal that could have tied the game was in range. A FG probably would have sent the game into overtime without the later heroics. I like the fact they went all out for a win, but realize it probably more sensible to kick the field goal for the tie. All in all, there were four quarters of dismal offensive performance, even though there was a bit of a ground game by D. Green and and D. Smith. Devin was definitely struggling in the face of more blitzing.
The offensive woes prior to Saturday’s overtimes are illustrated by 12 quarters and 4 over times (PSU), with just one TD. The Northwestern defense played hard and well, the Wolverines could not mount any effective red-zone offense, and could only conjure up 9 FG points in regulation. They appeared be headed for another disturbing loss. The offense seemed to be free falling without a parachute.
They could hit FGs, but TDs were scarcer than a mother in laws sympathy. Devin Gardner’s running was throttled, passes just missed. Fortunately, although interceptions were offered they were also missed. As in the past two games, the weather was windy and rainy, a detriment to completions. Devin was sacked, time ran down.
Finally as the fourth quarter elapsed, Jeremy Gallon caught a pass to the NW 27, with just a measly 12 seconds left. Then heads up special teams play saved the day.
As time drained in the 4th quarter, and NW led 6-9, it looked like a certain loss.
M was unable to score the winning regulation TD, though have golden opportunities, and with time running out, trailing 6 -9, in what had been a hard fought, but pug ugly offensive game, the field goal team had to scramble to beat the clock.
The clock had a single second left. It seemed the Wolverines had exhausted all their options, and ruined their opportunities. But there came the unlikely reprieve. In one of the most bizarre plays you will ever see, the field goal team, with about one second left on the clock, team rushed onto the field. Drew Dileo slid into position to set a hurried but perfect snap. Brandon Gibbons hit the ball perfectly 44-yards through the uprights to create a 9-9 tie, with no time on the clock.
Fortunately the officials had hurried to set the spot. In most unlikely fashion the Wolverines were reprieved from the edge of despair, the sure ruination of a season, and a chance at a good bowl game. Special team Coach Dan Ferrigno deserves mention for getting his hurry up team so ready.
Offensively, these were not the same Wolverines in the three overtimes. They converted a couple of third down efforts into first downs, and scored a couple of TDs. Much of the credit goes to Devin, as he used his talented legs. He collared a running TD and the mandatory third OT two point conversion. He was as great in OT as he was bad in regulation. His play rose to the need of the occasion. As did the offensive line.
Devin Gardner proved again he is Michigan’s best runner. Taking 5 sacks, and with the Wildcats owning 14 TFls, it was another rough afternoon for M’s offense. For the most part, Devin was stymied as a runner in regulation, but the offense finally mastered the red zone by scoring two TDs. He hit 24 of 43 passes for 226-yards and 1 TD with a long of 24-yards. He ran 17 times for 19 net yards which included the game winning TD, and two point conversion in the 3rd and final OT.
That Devin was not intercepted was a minor miracle. The Wildcat DBs constantly jumped the routes, and for a while the M receivers did not come back to the ball or otherwise adjust to this. Late in the game, that improved some, as I recall. The wet, nasty conditions were probably the reason for the drops on both sides. The opportunity to add to the number of DG’s interceptions, and for the Wildcats to control the ball game thereby, were there in number. Devin did not seem comfortable until the overtimes.
At RB, Derrick Green got the call and he had his best opportunity and performance of the year. He ran 19 times for 79 net yards with a long of 23. He ran tough and is a hammer. De’Veon Smith hauled 9 times for a net of 39-yards. Being banged up, Fitzgerald Toussaint did not play.
Again Jeremy Gallon led the receivers with 115-yards, but no TDs. He was close to connecting with Devin several times but the timing between them was not perfect Saturday. Jake Butt nabbed the first M TD in overtime with a beautiful one handed grab. Jake caught 3 for twenty with a long of 11. The Wolverines are now 9-2 in OT games.
On defense, the Wolverines had been somewhat inconsistent this season (allowing big plays, long third down conversions, demonstrating a poor pass rush, some poor pass defense) in prior games, sometimes looking good, and sometimes not. They did the job Saturday. The earlier injury of M’s best defensive player, Jake Ryan did not help. In spite of a slightly miraculous recovery, the question remained was Jake entirely back to form? It seemed to me Saturday that he is getting there. The M defense played well in the overtime, as well as regulation, stopping the Wildcat threat to score a TD in the third overtime. Jabreel Black got a 14-yard sack, Safety Thomas Gordon missed an interception but clinched the win by picking off a Wildcat pass in the end zone for the last play of the game. Thomas Gordon and three others had 7 stops. James Ross III had 11 tackles.
The Wildcat’s two QBs, Trevor Siemian and Kevin Colter shared time, Siemian the leading passer. Siemian rushed 7 times for a net minus 9 yards, and was 16 of 25 for 137-yards. He threw the Hail Mary for the last play of the game which was intercepted by Thomas Gordon to end the Wildcat’s chances. Colter rushed 19 times for a net of 78-yards and a TD. He was 4 of 6 passing for 26-yards. Michigan earned 337 total offensive yards to 304 for the Wildcats.
Northwestern got off to a tremendous start to the season but had struggled in the Big Ten having no wins. Saturday they lost their 6th Big Ten game. Winning the Wolverines stepped towards a better bowl, to restoring some self-confidence, to proving that they could win away from home. Saturday there was redemption in winning. They do have a proven knack for keeping away games close.
M received and proceeded to the NW 8-yard line with Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith carrying, but stalled and they were forced to settle for a twenty-five yard three. NW matched that and the quarter ended 3-3. Michigan’s defense held at the five to force the FG. There were 20 mile an hour winds, and no offensive fireworks.
Matt Wile misses a 51-yard FG. NW nailed another field goal, this time for 22-yards, in the second quarter. The defense had held at their five to force the FG. The half ended M-3, NW-6. This quarter was not a thing of beauty for those sitting in wind and rain. Or for those that appreciate M offensive prowess.
M went down 3 to 9 in the third as the offense continued to sputter. Fortunately, the defense kept NW to field goals. The first four drives of the second half resulted in punts. Matt Wile punted from about the fifty and the punt was downed at the NW one. Terry Richardson had made a spectacular play to prevent the ball coming out to the twenty by leaping over the goal line and flipping the ball back. A review of the play sustained Michigan’s interests. The subsequent NW punt was shanked and the ball was on the NW ten. The offense could not convert their 9th ninth third down conversion attempt.
Early M hit a 28-yard FG and it was 6-9. NW was held scoreless by the defense, while Michigan continued to squander opportunities, but hit the spectacular last second FG of 44-yards described above to make it 9-9, and secure overtime.
After the ten minute mark in the fourth quarter had come a controversial play call. From the five, with four minutes on the clock, a Gardner bootleg was stopped on 4th and short. Why not a reasonably sure field goal to tie instead? In regulation, a successful Gardner run was not a sure thing. But the hurry up FG saved the day, even if it did not win the game. The half and regulation ended tied at 9-9.
Both teams managed TDs in the first OT. Tight end Jake Butt snared an 11-yard Gardner pass with one hand for six. M-16, NW-9. NW answered with a one yard run by Colter. M-16, NW-16. How long is this going to last?
Michigan’s defense held and forced NW to kick a 36-yard FG. M-16, NW-19. Then Jeremy Gallon did not pull in what appeared to be a catchable end zone toss, so again it was Gibbons. This time from 29-yards out. M-19, NW-19. And on it goes.
Evidently, Devin Gardner was determined to end things the right way, and right now. He pushed the ball into the end zone for six on his fourth carry, cutting into the end zone on a power run. Then he garnered the two point conversion, running to the left flag, and it was finally over, the improbable victory secured. M-27, NW-19.
When, the offense found itself in the overtime. Gardner displayed an iron will. The offensive line in the overtime blocked well. The RBs contributed. The TD drought was over. The play calling in OT was unblemished.
Some confidence in the offense has been restored. They will continue to have ups and downs, but they displayed Saturday a mental toughness in the face of adversity by displaying an extraordinary will to win, of never quitting.
They Wolverines will have to be as tough or tougher in their next two games. The competition will get tougher. All the problems that have surfaced this season are not over for all time, but in this instance they were surmounted, if not bettered. They are still in the hunt for a 10 win season and a good New Year’s Day Bowl. Bring on the Hawkeyes.