Saturday, November 16, 2013

Michigan 27, Northwestern 19: Near Death Experiences

Evanston, Ill. (file photo)

Michigan headed to Evanston looking to avoid its first 3-game losing streak during the Brady Hoke era. Meanwhile, Northwestern looked to snap its calamitous 5-game losing streak, both for pride's sake and the opportunity to get one win closer to bowl eligibility (with two more remaining on the schedule).

Things started off well for the Wolverines on offense, powering down the field with Derrick Green, De'Veon Smith and some quick passing for a 12-play, 63-yard field goal drive. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, that's about where the first half offensive success ended.

Northwestern answered with a long field goal drive of its own to tie it, and added another one at the end of the first half to go up 6-3.

Michigan was not exactly impressive on the ground, but they were in the black this time, rushing for 40 yards in the first half; baby steps, as they say.

Once again, the Wolverine defense performed admirably as the offense floundered, giving up six first half points and just 2.8 yards per carry.

Michigan was fortunate to enter the half down just 6-3, as Devin Gardner tossed several passes that were nearly intercepted, with at least one of them looking like good bets to be returned for six.

As has typically been the case, the Wolverines were completely helpless on third and long situations. For whatever reason, Michigan seemed to go away from Green and Smith in the second quarter despite having success with them early in the game.

The Michigan defense bent to start the second half but did not break, eventually forcing a punt after a well-defended third down option play. Now, it was Al Borges's turn to dial up the offensive equivalent of a timely blitz, with about 27 minutes between Michigan and a 6-4 record.

The third quarter did not go much better for the Wolverines. Again, Michigan found success on the ground with Green and Smith, but couldn't extend drives through the air.

Northwestern's Jeff Budzien tacked on another field goal to put the Wildcats up 9-3 late in the third quarter. The song remained the same for Team 134, as the defense continued to cover for a flailing offense in this game just like weeks past.

Michigan went back to Green on the ground, and the young power back reeled off a 23-yard carry down the left side into Northwestern territory. Naturally, Michigan's last play of the quarter, a play action pass, resulted in a sack, as Tyler Scott simply beat Michael Schofield on the edge. The initially promising drive ended with another sack on 3rd & 23. If you've watched Michigan at all this season, none of this is incredibly surprising.

Michigan got its first big breaks of the game, unexpectedly from the special teams. First, after the referees talked it over, they ruled that Michigan had successfully downed a punt at the Northwestern 1-yard line. Then, after forcing a three-and-out, NU punter Brandon Williams booted a 7-yard punt, giving Michigan the ball at the NU 10.

Michigan ran Green left to the short side for a loss of one on first down, and threw incomplete on second, setting up the least surprising 3rd & goal from the 11 of all time. Strangely, Michigan set up in the I-formation and went to play action, fooling no one. However, Gardner got a pass off to a single-covered Jeremy Gallon in the end zone, but tossed it well over his head.

After another Brendan Gibbons field goal, the Wolverines were down 9-6 with 11:45 to go, but Michigan had seemingly squandered its best opportunity to get into the end zone.

Michigan did get another break when Northwestern was marked just short of a first down after the referees had indicated that it was in fact a first down. Met with a 4th & 2 deep in NU territory, Brady Hoke elected to go for it rather than kicking a chip shot field goal to tie it. Sometimes, bravery in excess isn't bravery at all.

Nonetheless, Michigan got the ball back with zero timeouts and 2:18 to play. Gardner picked up a 4th & 4, then another. However, after taking an awful sack, Michigan faced 3rd & 23. Gardner completed a pass to the NU 29, with the clock ticking down under 10 seconds.

Michigan raced onto the field, snapped the ball with one second left and Brendan Gibbons booted the game-tying field goal as time expired, a Dadaist flourish in the rainy Evanston night.


In the overtime period, Gardner hit Jake Butt in the end zone off of play action, the freshman tight end's first career touchdown score. Northwestern quickly answered, tying the game at 16.

The Michigan defense held the 'Cats to a field goal in the second overtime period, however, giving the Wolverine offense a chance to win it with a touchdown. Michigan survived a Devin Funchess fumble scare, only to have it paid back in kind when Jeremy Gallon dropped the winning touchdown pass in the end zone on 3rd & 8. Nonetheless, Gibbons sent the game into the third overtime period with another field goal, as both teams remained determined in their quests to induce heart attacks within their respective fanbases.

Al Borges called Green's number again, but near the goal line Devin Gardner went to work. No. 98 kept on an option play to the right and plowed his way into the end zone, then converted the ensuing 2-point play after beating the NU defense to the edge. Up 27-19, Michigan needed one more stop.

Northwestern didn't have a miraculous comeback in it, faced with 4th & 23. Amusingly enough, Thomas Gordon ended the game with a diving interception in the end zone, a fitting ending to a game in which many far easier potential interceptions were dropped.

For the second season in a row, Michigan stole a win against the poor, snakebitten Wildcats; this one might be worse for Northwestern fans than last year's was.

In any case, Devin Gardner and the Wolverines rallied, especially after the still questionable decision to not go for the game-tying field goal late. Al Borges's offense even managed positive rushing yardage, with Derrick Green running for a whopping 79 yards on 19 carries.

All's well that ends well.

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