No.13 Northwestern's window of opportunity to make a national statement by beating No.18 Michigan on the road seemed to shut as soon as it opened. The 'Cats Panic(ked)! At the Big House, writing sins and tragedies from the beginning as Jehu Chesson returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown to set the tone for a 38-0 beatdown.
It was all downhill from there. Northwestern (5-1, 1-1 B1G) went three-and-out on the ensuing possession, and the Wolverines (5-1, 2-0 B1G) responded immediately, putting together a seven play, 59-yard drive to go up 14-0 with 10:20 remaining in the first quarter. The 14-point deficit was NU's largest of the season at that point.
The 'Cats showed some signs of life following the second score, putting together an impressive drive all the way to the Michigan 25. But Coach Pat Fitzgerald elected to try a 42-yard field goal on fourth-and-1, and Jack Mitchell was unable to connect. That decision backfired, as Michigan took over and capitalized on an already tired NU defense, grabbing a commanding 21-0 edge with 2:35 left in the first quarter.
"I really felt like we needed to get points on the board," Fitzgerald said about his decision to try a field goal. "We got maybe half a yard on the play prior [to fourth down]. Any points would've been critical and I felt confident in Jack. Obviously it didn't make a difference in the game, but I wish it would've."
"I think we played terribly, but I don't want to discredit Michigan," Fitzgerald said. "I never want to insult an opponent that kicks your butt the way that we just got our butts kicked. They played very, very well."
Other than a third quarter Michigan field goal, the second half consisted of the teams trading punts and the Wolverines preserving their third consecutive shutout in front of a raucous crowd of over 100,000 people that stayed until the end to watch their team's defense and quarterback Jake Rudock put on a clinic for the second straight year (Michigan allowed just nine points to NU last season, and Rudock quarterbacked the Iowa team that beat NU 48-7 last season).
"He takes a good snapshot of what we're doing and I think he really understood our defense and what we were trying to do," senior safety Traveon Henry said about Rudock's performance. "He makes good decisions and it looked like he had a good control of the offense."
Northwestern couldn't get anything going on the ground save for a few nice runs from Justin Jackson (the ballcarrier), and Clayton Thorson, by and large, couldn't burn Michigan with his arm often enough. From start to finish, it was as simple as that.
"I don't think it was on Clayton's shoulders," Fitzgerald said. "I thought we had way too many drops, and I thought our offensive line was getting pushed back into his lap all day. We've got to play better, and we've got to coach them better."
As the great muse Brendon Urie once put it, "it's much better to face these kinds of things with a sense of poise and rationality." The poise of this young team will be tested next week in a home tilt against 6-0 Iowa, a game that still carries great importance in the wide open Big Ten West race. All Northwestern can do now is forget this disappointing outcome and look towards next Saturday's Homecoming game at 11 a.m.
"We've just got to flush this," senior superback Dan Vitale said. "100 percent, deep down in our hearts we know we're a much better team than what we showed today. If we can get the attitude back to where we need it to be, I think we're going to be OK."