It’s not just that they came back to win, it's how quickly things turned in the beginning. Michigan had the braggadocio to take the ball after winning the coin toss; they were then hit squarely in the face, took a nasty shot to the body, then took another one to the face. These were not the kind of hits that come together over a long stretch to wear someone down. These were the kind that rock you to your core, that are designed to get you to pack it in and move on.
They didn’t, though. It took those three shots to jar much productivity out of Michigan, which gained –1, 1, and 21 yards on its first three drives. But on the fourth drive, Michigan was able to find success with both the conventional (a handoff to Ben Mason on 3rd-and-1, Karan Higdon’s violent running up the middle) and the bizarre (a play featuring jet action with Ambry Thomas followed by a faked handoff to Higdon and a flipped ball to Donovan Peoples-Jones on an end around, which resulted in DPJ outrunning The Gaz up the sideline and 25 yards).
That drive didn’t do much to cleanse the palate, as both teams played hot potato with offensive futility on the next four drives. Northwestern’s offensive line had difficulties throughout the game, particularly with heart-consuming Chase Winovich and his defensive line compatriots. The line pushed Northwestern to 3rd-and-13 on their fourth drive only to be granted a fresh set of downs on a Lavert Hill hold. That fresh set didn’t matter, as it ended with Winovich running down a play from the backside and Winovich bulling back a lineman and diving at the legs of Clayton Thorson as Kwtiy Paye unloaded on him.
Michigan, which ended the day with 11 penalties for 100 yards, saw 4th-and-3 from Northwestern’s 41 on their fifth drive turn into 4th-and-8 when Zach Gentry moved early. On their next drive, a 15-yard Shea Patterson run was wiped out on a Jon Runyan hold, flipping 1st-and-10 to 2nd-and-20. Nico Collins caught a quick pass from Patterson and ended up with 17 of the 20 necessary yards, but he stayed in bounds, allowing the clock to dwindle. Collins caught a pass on the next play as well, but his toe was out of bounds and Michigan’s chance to cap the half with optimism went out with it.
Until Pat Fitzgerald stepped up to the plate, that is. Fitzgerald wasted two of his timeouts trying to…ice Will Hart? Maybe? No, that’s not a thing. He wasted the timeouts anyhow, ran one play after receiving the ball, then let the clock run out, giving Michigan the biggest, best gift you could ever get Don Brown: halftime.
Northwestern had the ball six times in the second half. On those six drives, they scored zero points. In the third quarter, they ran the ball seven times for two yards and passed two times for 22 yards. In the fourth quarter, they rushed five times for –11 yards and passed four times for 43 yards. Brown and his safeties adjusted to Fitzgerald’s All Slants offense while the defensive line continued its dominance irrespective of personnel; Rashan Gary was injured in the third quarter, and his absence opened the door for increased rotation from some of the younger linemen. Kwity Paye looked capable, generating pressure often and finishing with two TFLs and two sacks. Michael Dwumfour flashed his Hurstian first step a few times and found himself flushing Thorson into converging teammates on third down on Northwestern’s next-to-last drive. Josh Uche also finished with two TFLs and two sacks, including the one that sealed the game.
Michigan did not have the lead until the four-minute mark in the fourth quarter, with two third-quarter Nordin field goals keeping them within striking distance. Then, on Michigan’s tenth drive, Shea Patterson started to look like himself. Patterson’s throws looked hurried and slightly off their typical dead-on placement until he hit Zach Gentry for 13 yards on an out to the sideline and again for 22 yards later with a ball that arrived just before the Northwestern defensive back’s hands. Karan Higdon took care of the rest, bouncing for a yard to the Northwestern five-yard and then running into the end zone almost untouched on the next play; he finished with 115 yards on 30 carries.
Higdon was a key component of Michigan’s final drive, taking a second-and-10 carry five yards, then seeing a cutback lane on the next play that he hit hard only to come up a yard short. Michigan let the clock run down to 46 seconds, took a timeout, and sent the offense back onto the field. An attempt to draw Northwestern offside proved futile, however, and Michigan took the delay of game penalty in order to punt.
Northwestern’s panic offense found some success, completing passes of nine, 10, and 15 yards to move from their own 15-yard line to almost midfield. Then, on 2nd-and-10, Winovich found himself the recipient of a double team, while Uche bent the corner on the opposite side and wrapped up Thorson with form that had to make defensive line coaches around the country smile. The clock ran out, and Michigan escaped with the slim lead they took all game to build.
There will be another football with a winning score placed in the glass display case at Schembechler Hall, but that doesn’t leave Michigan without much work to do. The offense looked out of sync most of the evening, with receivers sometimes seeming to not anticipate the ball coming their way. Receivers also flubbed opportunities to eek out extra yards or run out of bounds and stop the clock. The defense, for as much work as they were able to do at halftime, will be looking once again at how to stop quick slants.
And then there were the penalties. Minus the phantom holding call on Karan Higdon (!), Michigan gave away field position, ended drives, and breathed life into Northwestern by way of mental miscues. The silver lining in the sloppiness is that Michigan will not only get an opportunity to work on those things from the friendly confines of Michigan Stadium next Saturday afternoon, but they will get an opportunity to work on them with their larger goals still intact.