On a blustery, cold day in Evanston, both offensive units that showed up to play at Ryan Field were a direct reflection of the weather. Michigan pulled out a sloppy, narrow 10-9 victory over Northwestern after the ‘Cats failed to convert a two-point conversion attempt with just three seconds left in the game.
The loss sends NU to 3-6, essentially (dire circumstances of 5-7 bowl eligibility excluded) in need of three straight wins to close the regular season in order to reach a bowl game. The Wolverines, with the win, move to 5-5, and can clinch a spot in postseason play with a win in their next game on the Nov. 22.
After the two teams traded punts early in the game, Michigan senior linebacker Jake Ryan intercepted senior quarterback Trevor Siemian at his own 47-yard line with 4:10 to go in the first quarter. The Wolverines looked to be in prime position to score (that is a theme in this game, remember it), but were stopped on 4th down on the Northwestern 16. After five straight punts between the two teams, sophomore Matthew Harris picked off Gardner on what, again, seemed like a promising scoring chance for Michigan at the Northwestern 11-yard line. Siemian returned the favor on the ensuing possession when his pass was tipped at the line and caught by sophomore defensive tackle Matthew Godin at NU 35 with under a minute remaining in the half.
Again, however, the Wolverines failed to capitalize, and had to settle with a late first half 41-yard field goal attempt. After coach Pat Fitzgerald took two timeouts to ice senior kicker Matt Wile, junior cornerback Nick VanHoose broke through the line and blocked the attempt. So the teams headed to the locker room deadlocked at zero.
Following two traded punts midway through the third quarter (there were 13 total in this game), a Michigan drive stalled near midfield. Wolverine senior punter Will Hagerup sent a booming kick downfield towards senior punt returner Tony Jones, who couldn’t securely catch it. A swarm of Wolverines pounced on his mistake, and set their offense up with much better field position at NU’s 21. This time the Wolverines capitalized on two plays, finishing the easy drive with a three yard run from sophomore De’Veon Smith to put Michigan up 7-0 with 7:23 to play in the third quarter.
“I want to say when I came up to it, I forgot to lock my elbows,” Jones said. “It was a very costly mistake. I take full responsibility for it. It was a crucial play in today’s game, and it helped to decide the outcome. It hurts.”
Michigan’s next drive seemed to be following a similar trend after a Northwestern punt, but senior safety Ibraheim Campbell picked off Gardner at his own 26 and ran it back 79 yards the UM 11. Somehow, the ‘Cats found a way to not score on three plays that gained a net of -28 yards: one negative run, a two-yard sack and another, which was exacerbated by an intentional grounding call, pushed them all the way out of the field goal range to the Michigan 43, where they were forced to punt.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter Northwestern mounted a drive from all the way back at its own one-yard line. With quick passes off of rollouts and crosses over the middle, the ‘Cats worked their way down to the Michigan six-yard line on 19 plays for 95-yards. After the drive stalled on 3rd and goal, Mitchell split the uprights to cut Michigan’s lead to 7-3 with 7:26 to go.
Michigan responded with a long drive of their own that ended in a field goal, giving them a 10-3 lead. Siemian lead his team down the field from his own 26 almost exclusively through the air, converting on three third downs and throwing a touchdown pass to Jones in the back corner of the end zone with just three seconds left. The 74-yard drive took 14 plays, and made the score 10-9 in favor of Michigan.
“We definitely used our tempo to our advantage [on that scoring drive],” Jones said.
Then, in a moment of pure chutzpah, Fitzgerald elected to go for a 2-point conversion rather than allowing Mitchell to attempt to all but send the game to overtime.
“I made that decision with six minutes left in the game,” he said. “It was not really chaotic. We already had our plan in place, we knew what we were going to do. We didn’t score a lot of points, so I felt like I would take a one-play opportunity. It’s three yards on one play to go win a football game.”
It was all or nothing. Siemian rolled right out of the pocket, and as he took a step back in an attempt to elude pressure, he slipped and fell on his backside. Despite the outcome, he said he did not doubt his coach’s decision.
“I thought it was the right call,” Siemian said. “Everybody was pumped up about it, like “’heck yeah, we’re going to win this thing.’”
Strong pressure from Michigan broke the play, however, and that as they say, was all she wrote.
The ‘Cats will try to bounce back next week, but it threatens to be very difficult on the road against a ranked Notre Dame team. Nonetheless, Jones said he’s confident in his team’s ability to regroup.
“It’s tough,” Jones said. “But it’s a tight knit group. We’re going to stick together and find a way to respond. We’ll come back tomorrow, watch the film, get our bodies right and come back ready to work next week.”
Studs & Duds
Defense: Michigan’s offense was equally anemic to Northwestern’s, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the effort that unit left out there today. Matthew Harris had a great game, with an INT, forced fumble (recovered by UM) and a big pass breakup on a deep attempt to junior wide receiver Devin Funchess. It was nice to see them bounce back after a truly embarrassing performance at Iowa last week.
Trevor Siemian: What?! Yep, that’s right. Trevor Siemian. Did he struggle in the pocket and hold on to the ball for way too long as usual? Yes (4 sacks, -59 yards, yikes). Did he throw two interceptions? Yes. But for the first time in forever (read to the tune of the song from Frozen), he stepped up and made several big throws in high-pressure situations on those two long, sustained scoring drives. I was impressed by several of his throws today, especially in terms of his short range passing ability.
Trevor Siemian: Ahhh you knew I couldn’t resist. Take all the negative aspects I just mentioned and drag them down here. It was a rough game for the offense, obviously. He was forced to beat the Wolverines through the air, and he could not do it. The lack of scoring falls on him.
Two-point conversion call: Had to let the public know how I felt about this one. This was the wrong call. I don’t understand how you can trust an offense that has been the definition of inconsistency to make a play of that magnitude. And logistically, the call makes no sense. You’re playing at home, you should feel good about your chances in overtime. They don’t pay me the big bucks to make those calls, but I, for one, would never go for it there, even in NCAA ’08 on my Wii. (Yes, I would be steadfast in this opinion even if the ‘Cats had won 11-10).