M-FOOTBALL 2014-NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS ALMOST TRIP WOLVERINES WITH LATE FOURTH QUARTER TD-10 TO 9.

DEJA VUE:
If this game gave you a feeling of déjà vu, it was not surprising, since the Wolverines made the same trek last year, traveling to Evanston, Illinois to battle the Northwestern Wildcats. M had won the past two years in overtime. Hopefully, this schedule oddity of two away games in a row will cease with this one.

It looked for a while that it would be another overtime win or loss. The Wolverines, thanks to a Frank Clark rush to exactly the right spot behind the line of scrimmage, caused NW QB Simeian to slip down, preventing a winning two point conversion.

This ended the threat of a tie and overtime with seconds left. NW had connected on a 3-yard pass with 3 seconds left to make it 10-9. Frank Clark lived up to his reputation and played an outstanding game. He knocked down passes, and was often in the NW back field.

BACKGROUND:
Again this year, the Wolverines were hoping to improve on their recent dismal road record while in Evanston, as they had last year, and they did.

This was not a win that will draw raves, but the kind of win that will raise eyebrows, and shake heads. Early in the third quarter the offense became a Wolverine offensive comedy of errors. Even so, a win is a win.The atmosphere surrounding M football would have reached an enhanced level of desperation with a loss.

There already was more than enough Wolverine desperation this year as a so-so season ticks out. The fate of the program still hangs in limbo this year. Lack of wins now could, should, and would guarantee major coaching changes after the season. Take your choice as to which of could, should, or would you think is applicable. Or are all of them are applicable?

That backs were to the wall could be said of any less than .500 team. It was now or never at Northwestern. It was winning now, or never go to a Bowl game this year. Likely a loss in this game would have put the salvaging of even a very mildly respectable season beyond their scope.

There still remains some slim hope of a bowl game. It appears that only winning out can save the coaches. That seems like a tall order for Team 135.  Good bowl or bad bowl, M needs those 15 practices a bowl affords.

M’s OFFENSE STRUGGLED MOST OF THE GAME AGAINST A PEDESTRIAN DEFENSE:
Michigan’s offense in this game was something to behold for mostly the wrong reasons. The first series of the second half was particularly remarkable for wrong reasons.  

It was an offensive comedy of errors. Funchess was in motion once and was hit by the center snap to Gardner in the spread. Gardner tripped over Smith in the backfield. What? Why? The football was grabbed from TE Jake Butt once for an interception. Thought Jake should have fought for the ball harder.

Devin Funchess’ game was off, especially earlier, as he muffed a couple of catches that he would normally make.  At times he seemed out of sorts, as did the offense as a whole. 

The offense was an unimpressive 1 of 12 on third down conversions, and 0 for 1 on 4th down conversions.

On the good side of the ledger, Funchess made a nice grab for an eighteen yard reception to set up Smiths 3-yard TD run  for the Wolverine’s only TD. Butt had a nice catch or two. Still the beginning of the third quarter was a display of remarkably poor offensive football.

Devin Gardner looked gimpy, slow afoot, seemed to have little burst, which could all be due to injury to a leg. As I have previously stated, his courage has to be admired, but his execution is sometimes lacking. He was again off target passing as proved by two interceptions that hurt the cause. Fortunately the Wildcats provided two in return.

On one of M’s interceptions, there was an open receiver on the sideline. In the first half the Wolverines were deep in Wildcat territory three times and engineered no points.

The offense made no notable scoring drives except for a single field goal drive.

Devin threw for 105-yards and hoisted his two interceptions. He had no TDs. With the Wolverines dominating much of the game on the ground, it is inexplicable that they were held to one TD.

Saturday evening this was not just a case of the Wolverine OL not showing up. Except for a few cases they played reasonably well.

RB De’Veon Smith took a while to warm up. Smith finally got going for a personal high of 121-yards which included the Wolverines only TD, via a three yard run mid-way into the third quarter.

Early in the game he missed the hole on an attempt by cutting outside once when he shouldn’t have, and then did not follow FB Joe Kerridge through the hole in a subsequent rush.

Later Smith produced some good runs. They were tough runs, hard runs, dragging people, especially helpful in crunch time, when the lead was still up for grabs. He toted 18 times for 133-yards, ran for a TD, and had a long of 34-yards.

M got its field goal as a result of a Wildcat miscue. Jehu Chesson captured the football at the NW 21.

Amara Darboh led the receivers with 4 catches for 41-yards with a long of 16, and he replaced the injured Norfleet at the punt return position.

At times, the offense seemed it was lost in a Purple Haze, if not a Purple Daze. They still did enough to win, but with zero style points. This win will not quell any anybody’s anxiety, or the clamor for change. This offense too often does not look well drilled or coached, and at times they look quite the opposite.  Most possessions Saturday secured no points. The Wolverines rushed for 168-yards, and passed for 109-yards.

LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE DEFENSE:
The Wolverine defense, especially the defensive line acquitted itself well for most of the game, but fell down late in the game allowing a field goal and a TD. For most of the game they were gangbusters against the run, but NW’s Trevor Siemien threw for 268-yards, and a TD. He also had two interceptions.Fortunately. Matt Godin grabbed one of those interceptions, soon after Devin had tossed one.

The defense often held NW to three and outs, sometimes stopped fourth and one, but faded some in the late stages of the game. Were they on the field too often and too long?  Late in the game NW produced their only TD of the game to provide the suspenseful finish. It was the defense that did the most to preserve this victory.

When an interception went 79-yards to the M 15, the defense raised their hackles. They made two plays for a loss, and then forced Siemien into an intentional grounding call, which removed the threat of a field goal.

Frank Clark and Jake Ryan led the defense. Jake again had 11 tackles. They held the Wildcats to 60-yards rushing, while they lost 69-yards for minus 9-yards gained. The Wolverines were credited with 5 sacks for 59-yards of loss.

Mario Ojemudia had 2 of them.

They also made 2 interceptions. Frank Clark was outstanding. His last hurry preserved the last minute victory. Jake Ryan had an outstanding game. The entire defensive line played well.

WILL HAGERUP MAKES SPECIAL TEAMS SPECIAL:
Will Hagerup made special teams special on this day. He punted 7 times for 268-yards. He dropped two punts around the NW one yard line, providing outstanding field position. Matt Wile had one FG attempt blocked, but split the posts with his next one.

M CAN’T CALL THEM MILDCATS ANY MORE: Under Pat Fitzgerald, it can’t be safely presumed that the Wildcats can be labeled Mildcats, and that a confrontation with the Wildcats will find them a team that can’t compete with the Wolverines, thereby securing kudos for the Wolverines in easy victory. That hasn’t happened in several years. NW has been right there the last three years, but fortunately the Wolverines have prevailed by the slimmest of margins all three years.

Forget the fact that the Wolverines led the series 15-5-2 before last Saturday, or led at Ryan Field 19-7-0, also before Saturday. The ‘Cats had enough to handle the Wolverines this year unless the Wolverines played a great 60 or 60 plus + minutes. And they didn’t offensively. For the last few years it has taken a scramble to overtime and multiple OTs to beat them. That was avoided Saturday evening by only the narrowest of margins.

In 2013, it took the Wolverines three overtimes, with last minute heroics by Place Kicker Gibbons who hit a scrambling 44-yarder to tie in regulation, after a Gallon catch had taken the ball to MW’s 27. In the second OT, the teams traded field goals. In the third, Devin Gardner ran the ball in via an option on third and goal, and Devin ran in the two point conversion to put the game out of reach, for a final score of 27-19.

In 2012, with 18 ticks on the clock, Roy Roundtree caught a 53-yard gainer, and Gibbons again sent the game to OT with a 26-yard FG with just two seconds left. In OT, Gardner ran a one yard bootleg for a TD. The defense got tough and M had a 38-31 in a single OT victory.

THIS SEASON, THE ‘CATS HAVE HAD THEIR TROUBLES, AND WE HAVE HAD OURS. IN SOME WAYS EACH TEAM MIRRORED THE OTHER:
There were reasons that the Wildcats were only 2-3 in the Big Ten this season prior to Saturday, just as there were reasons for the Wolverines similar Big Ten record. The Cats have had significant injuries, more than the Wolverines. Both have fielded troubled Offensive Lines and porous pass protection. The Wildcats 4.4 yards per play, prior to last Saturday, was anemic. That placed them 123rd of 128 FBS teams. They had only scored 7 points in their last three halves prior to Saturday. They faced the possibility of being without three of their best and speediest receivers. Buckley, Vault, and Shuler were dinged. They missed some practice Wednesday.

But more disturbing for them was that Iowa disaster last Saturday. The Hawks sledge hammered them 48-7 in Kinnock. Wildcat QB Trevor Simian has had inadequate passing time and has taken a beating. Sound familiar? Fitzgerald bemoans a lack of experienced depth. So does Hoke.

NW notes cited the fact that M has not had back to back wins this year as encouraging to their cause. True, but they have them now.

The series had been hyper competitive and with M’s sometime inconsistent offense this season it seemed it would be close again, and it was. Saturday Trevor did much better than Devin in the passing game, which I found surprising.

BRIEF SCORING RECAP:
Michigan drew first blood after Chesson recovered a NW fumble at the NW 21-yard line at 6:09 of the third quarter. An 18-yard pass to Devin Funchess put it at the three, and De’Veon Smith took it into the end zone. M-7, NW-0.

At 7:26 of the fourth quarter NW answered with a 21-yard FG preceded by a 95-yard drive. M’s Henry made a notable 11-yard sack to stop the drive. The FG made it 7 to 3.

At 3:10 M answered with a 37-yard FG after the offense’s only real drive of the day. Now it was 10 to three.

At 00.03 NW then produced a three yard TD pass, after a 14-play 74-yard drive during the defense’s worst lapse of the day. It was now 10 to 9 and NW opted to go for two with no result as Frank Clark lived up to billing in the best way. Final: M-10, NW- 9.

Now it’s a week off, and the last home game of the season against Maryland for the first time as a Big Ten team.

As usual, a desperate Michigan needs another win.

 

Go Blue!