by Andy Andersen
The Wolverines played their second prime time night game of this season Saturday in Evanston at Ryan Field. They were striving for their sixth straight win in what, at its start, was considered by many to be a throw away season.
Some understandably predicted that Brady Hoke’s first season would be fraught with all the problems new systems and coaching regimes inevitably and gratuitously provide. So far those types of bumps in the road have been seamlessly overcome and have not caused anything but some anxious moments.
While the biggest challenges of the season remain ahead, their 12/11 national ranking going into the game, which the coaches avidly swear is inaccurate and means nothing to them, will in fact change recent national perceptions of Michigan football if that level continues or advances.
Denard didn’t have an outstanding 1st half, throwing three pass inteceptions. Obviously, this seriously inhibited offensive production in the first half. But did he ever make up for it in the second half by piling up outstanding numbers. He had 338-yards passing, completing 17 of 26 with two TDs and three interceptions. Rushing, he was over 100-yards again with 113-yards and two TDs. Four hundred fifty one yards of total offense by Shoelace is remarkable. How about 14 of 17 third down conversions?
Coach Hoke on Denard Robinson playing well in second half … “He made some great throws, he’s a tremendous football player and he just let the ball float a little bit on him a couple times — just overshot it — that’s fundamentals and techniques and things that we have to constantly talk about, but the kid’s a competitor and he loves to play, he loves his teammates, and that’s what Michigan football is all about.”
Junior Hemingway had an outstanding game, gathering in 5 of 23 for 123-yards and Roy Roundtree caught 5 for 83.
PREGAME: There were concerns that the potent Northwestern Wildcat’s offense would overwhelm the Wolverines defensive backfield, with its refined passing game. With talented QB Dan Persa at the switch, and a talented backup available if Persa turned up gimpy, it was thought the Wildcats might dink and dunk enough on the short passing game to ruin the Wolverine’s chances. As for running game, most thought the Wolverines could stuff the ‘Cats running game, especially with their main rusher, Joe Trumpy, injured. Ans: M dominated time of possession, 37.57 to 22.03, but Persa had a great game, with the ‘Cats having more 1st downs.
Would the kick-off coverage be sufficient to quell yardage on kick-off returns? Ans: Special team continue to be somewhat of an adventure. A KO out of bounds,and a blocked field goal were perplexing, but they were not bad enough to swing the game from the win column.
Would Denard be Denard on the ground AND effective through the air? Throw interceptions? Would Devin play? Ans: Denard threw three first half interceptions, but he turned it around in the second half. And how! Devin not only played, he contributed to the victory. They did split out Denard a couple of times, with Devin under center, but without spectacular result.
Would the Wildcats simply be the better team as they were three years ago in Michigan Stadium in 2008, punishing the Wolverines 21-14 in the first year of another new coach and very significant program change? Then Nick Sheridan was the QB (12 of 36 passing), and Carlos Brown had 115-yards on 23 carries. That loss this seems an eon back now, and this team seems light years away from that time in toughness. Ans: The Wolverines were the better team Saturday, but the Wildcats have a remarkable offense, are well coached, and they played hard.
If you saw the game, the answers to most of these pregame questions are all self-evident. Some of them were concerns based on realities, and will apply next week as well.
THE GAME: The first quarter ended with the Wolverines tailing 7 to 14. Michigan scored first on a long Hemingway jump ball and a TD thrown to reserve TE Watson. But the ‘Cats marched for a score, Denard threw an interception, and NW marched for another score. Persa ran and optioned and the defense looked leaky, and the offense was tentative and mistake prone.
Denard threw his second interception in the early second quarter, but the defense held. Good runs were negated by penalties. Then a too flat punt by Hagerup was returned to Michigan territory when the Wolverine special teams players ran past the punt receiver. A serious momentum was building , and it was definitely blooming on the Wildcat side. That’s when Kovacs submarined a Wildcat back sprinting to the outside on 4th and 1 to hold and regain M possession of the ball. Big play!
But offensively the Wolverines failed to get a 1st down out of the Power I on third down, and it seemed they had to punt. But no! On fourth and one they did not line up to punt. Denard struggled for the 1st down, and then ran for 17 on the next play. Denard was under center and fired to Gallon. After the twenty-five yard TD, and the Gibbons EP, it was tied 14-14.
A wide open Wildcat receiver grabbed a pass for 39-yards and it was first and goal. The review sustained the call on the field by confirming the catch. The Wildcats secured the TD on a short run. M 14-NW 21.
In the last minutes of the second quarter and half, Denard hit Junior Hemingway for 23. Denard misfired, and then threw his third interception of the half. NW methodically marched to the 20, then to the 7, with 25 seconds left in the half. NW passed into end zone incomplete. A catchable pass into the end zone was dropped by the ‘Cats, and time ran out, but not before the ‘Cats hit a short field goal. The half was over with the score M 14, NW 24. It was somewhat of a relief that half was finished. The ‘Cats should have had 7 out of that last drive.
Northwestern outplayed Michigan in the first half, making fewer errors and penalties while the Wolverines had silly penalties, three interceptions on offense, no takeaways on defense, and sometimes appeared to never have seen a hurry up offense. Still the game was within reach, and Denard was healthy, and this is a second half team.
M received to start the second half, converted a 1st down, and then hit a 57-yarder to Roy Roundtree. Denard lost a shoe, but ran around right end for 6. M-21, NW-24.
Michigan mistakes continued, this time the special teams. The KO was out of bounds, but Persa was sacked. Van Bergen hit Persa on 3rd down in what was a fine defensive stand.
Denard fumbled a snap picked it up and hit Koger for 45-yards. Denard split wide with Devin in, and Smith got 6. Denard toted to the one-yard line on a 12-yard run. Devin went in and Denard was out. Toussaint was stopped as was Devin on a QB sneak. Both attempts were up the middle. Gardner scored on a naked boot. M-28, NW-24.
Momentum was swinging hard to the Wolverines. Coach Hoke on the momentum shift in third quarter … “I think our guys defensively all knew we could play better, we all knew we needed to get more bodies to the ball, and I thought they did a nice job of coming off the football — Mike (Martin), Ryan (Van Bergen), and (Craig) Roh in there were fighting like heck — and Will Campbell, we’re running some guys in there, he’s good and keeps us fresh.” The defense had 4 sacks and 5 TFls by game’s end.
Brandon Hawthorne intercepted. The interception was reviewed, and confirmed. Then it was Denard for 22-yards by land, and Devin to Jackson for 17-yards by air. The Wolverines were threatening as the third quarter ended.
Shaw scored in the 4th on a 2-yard run after a good drive. M-35, NW-24.
NW drove, and Thomas Gordon recovered a ripped out fumble. The play was reviewed and the fumble confirmed. M is driving with a 19-yarder to Gallon. Nice Shaw run, but the drive stalled and a Gibbons FG attempt was blocked. The recovered fumble facilitated no points but did run clock.
NW drove, but on fourth down Kovacs nailed Persa and his helmet flew off. The play was whistled dead and NW coach, Pat Fitzgerald, went nuts, earning a penalty. For all intents and purposes this finished the Northwestern threat, but the Blue scored one more to cap it, with Denard running in from five yards out after a nice drive. The key play was an 18-yard Denard throw to Hemingway. Final: M 42- NW-24.
Most did not anticipate that the Wolverines would be going for seven in a row when meeting Michigan State this season, but here it is.
The Spartans will be out for blood as usual, and will be resplendent in their new uniforms, designed especially for this occasion. So much for their traditional green and white duds. They should redo Sparty to match. He is still Kermit green.
Of course this will be the most important football game in Brady Hoke’s fledgling tenure as Head Football Coach of the Wolverines. The players should be animated too. They should be, because they have been had by the Spartans the past three years. They need to prove this year is different.