Michigan Monday – Call It a Comeback?
by Tony Gerdeman
It took three overtimes, but it was all worth it as Michigan (7-3, 3-3) got a 27-19 win over Northwestern (4-6, 0-6) in the rain in Evanston, Illinois.
This game was about as pretty as you'd expect a three-overtime game that featured a combined 46 points to be. The Michigan offense went four quarters without scoring a touchdown, which was the second time in three games they have done that. Fortunately for them, the overtime periods moved the ball much closer to the endzones, and it resulted in two Michigan touchdowns, the latter being the game winner.
It was a must-win for Michigan, as the very real possibility of losing out was looming over the program. This win at least gives them a one week reprieve, even though it doesn't necessarily fix any of the ongoing problems.
Devin Gardner was again below average throwing the ball, and the only reason he wasn't terrible is because Northwestern dropped four or five interceptions, and I may be conservative in that estimate. I'm not convinced Gardner can see linebackers anymore, but that may be because he's assuming all 11 defenders are blitzing him.
The running game was better this week, but it still wasn't very good. It was good enough to get the win, which is relatively great at the moment. But it won't be good enough at Iowa unless it gets much better.
Defensively, Michigan did all they needed to do. They kept the plays in front of them, and strung out Northwestern's option game extremely well. I think it's pretty significant that they've only given up four touchdowns in their last 12 quarters of regulation football. They appear to be getting better.
It really was a game that Michigan had no business winning, but when it came time to win or lose, the Wolverines were the only team that knew what to do. Given their respective seasons, I think that might say more about Pat Fitzgerald than Brady Hoke.
When Michigan Was On Offense
Michigan ran the ball as well as they have in a few weeks, but still managed just 139 yards on 44 carries (3.2 ypc). Devin Gardner lost 40 yards on sacks, so if you take that out, the Wolverines rushed for 179 yards on 39 carries (4.6 ypc). While that's a pretty good number, it's not great.
Fitzgerald Toussaint didn't play, as Brady Hoke said he was dealing with an injury. In his place, freshman Derrick Green started and rushed for 79 yards on 19 carries (4.2 ypc). Fellow freshman De'Veon Smith was the number two, and finished with 41 yards on eight carries.
It should be noted that Smith was never stopped behind the line of scrimmage, which is unheard of these days for a Michigan running back. Combined, Green and Smith carried the ball 27 times for 120 yards (4.4 ypc), and were only tackled behind the line of scrimmage three times. Without even bothering to do the research, I'm going to say that that's Michigan's best performance of the season by far when it comes to avoiding tackles for loss.
This was the first extended look we got at both players, and I think each of them showed something. Green still has issues making the first man miss, but he showed some wiggle and shake on more than one occasion. He also had a 23-yard carry, which was the longest for anybody on Saturday. Smith, meanwhile, got his first real action since the season opener, and he looked promising. He was consistently getting good gains, and twice picked up seven yards on first and 10. A running game like that will make the passing game much less problematic.
Green and Smith's success begs the question of why running backs coach Fred Jackson and offensive coordinator Al Borges kept putting Fitzgerald Toussaint out there when he wasn't productive. Much of Michigan's success on the ground can be attributed to Northwestern's poor run defense, but it's not like Toussaint has been solid against shaky run defenses to this point.
Despite the relative success of the running game, I think it's notable that only one of Northwestern's opponents averaged fewer yards per carry than Michigan's 3.2, and that was California (2.6 ypc) in the season opener, and they were breaking in a new pass-heavy offense with a true freshman quarterback.
Devin Gardner finished 24-43 for 226 yards and a touchdown. Northwestern came into this game leading the Big Ten in interceptions, and yet they did nothing but drop them against Michigan.
Gardner was sacked five times as Northwestern did what everybody since Michigan State has done and just attacked as much as they could. It paid off in bad throws, but the Wildcats and their terrible stone hands were unable to capitalize. It was remarkable just how pitiful it was. If Gardner doesn't make improvements, I can't see the season ending well for him at all, and I question whether he should be at quarterback next year for the Wolverines.
When Michigan Was On Defense
The Wolverines really did a fantastic job defending the Wildcats' offense. Northwestern rushed for 143 yards on 49 carries (2.9 ypc), and their longest run by a running back was just 12 yards. They stretched plays out very well, and they didn't get beaten by Northwestern's option game. In the past, the pitch has had great success against Michigan, but that was not the case in this game.
It wasn't the best effort against Northwestern's run game this year, as Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota all held the Wildcats to under 100 yards rushing, but it's not so bad when you consider that in the two games prior, Iowa and Nebraska gave up 225 and 245 yards to Northwestern, respectively.
The Northwestern running backs were held to just 74 yards on 23 carries (3.2 ypc). Granted, they no longer have Venric Mark, but the Wolverines were more than ready to handle anything else that the Wildcats ran at them.
Kain Colter rushed for 78 yards on 19 carries (4.1 ypc), and he was 4-6 passing for just 26 yards. He was pretty well neutralized. Trevor Siemian was 19-28 passing for 153 yards and an interception. He was also not much of a factor. He was only sacked twice, but he is a quarterback who has regressed as the season has gone on.
Linebacker James Ross III led the team with 13 tackles and had a sack on a blitz that Michigan fans have probably been hoping to see out of him since he signed. He looked extremely fast, and Siemian had no chance to get away from him. Ross has played well, and was back in the starting lineup this week.
With Ross back in the lineup, Desmond Morgan was back at middle linebacker. He finished with seven tackles. Jibreel Black, who started at defensive tackle again, was very effective against the option. His quickness inside is hard for teams to deal with when they're not running directly at him.
Overall, it was a very good defensive effort. They held Northwestern to 179 yards passing, which is 164 fewer than the Buckeyes managed back in October. Michigan held Northwestern to nine points in regulation in Evanston, which should be acknowledged.
The Special Teams
You have to give the special teams an A+ in this game, because if it wasn't for their field goal with no timeouts and the clocking winding down to tie the game, there would be no victory. The amount of organization that it takes just to get an offense off of the field and a kicking unit on it and in position is no small matter, and that's not even talking about the execution that has to come after. Brendan Gibbons' 44-yard field goal to tie the game and send it into overtime was spectacular and should be on some type of field goal highlight film, if such a thing is ever invented.
What Does It All Mean
It means that Michigan won't be playing a team like Northwestern again the rest of the regular season. In other words, they won't be having any wins handed to them moving forward.
Iowa is up next, and while they're certainly not a great team, they are fundamentally sound and will generally force a team to earn what they get. Defensively, Michigan should be okay because the Hawkeyes are very vanilla, but they will attack the Wolverine linebackers in pass coverage. Considering how well Michigan has done defending the edges in the running game of late, it will be interesting to see how they handle Iowa's between-the-tackles attack.
Offensively, I have no idea what to expect from Michigan. I don't believe they will be able to run the ball. Devin Gardner has been blitzed so much this season that he's bailing out before he even needs to. Given that Iowa doesn't really blitz, will this give him time to get comfortable and make the proper throws, or will it just put more defenders in the passing lanes that Gardner will invariably never see?
If there is still a passing quarterback somewhere inside Devin Gardner, he could re-emerge against the Hawkeyes. If he can't throw the ball with ample time to read a defense, however, then it might be time to think about Gardner as a wide receiver next year.
After all, Al Borges has to be getting pretty antsy to install his entire offensive package. Perhaps a sophomore Shane Morris with an offseason of starter's reps can better do this. Then, after a few years of that, maybe it will finally be a proper time to judge Borges' performance as the Michigan offensive coordinator.
But no sooner than then.
The Road to the Big One
August 31 Michigan 59 – Central Michigan 9 (1-0)
September 7 Michigan 41 – Notre Dame 30 (2-0)
September 14 Michigan 28 – Akron 24 (3-0)
September 21 Michigan 24 – Connecticut 21 (4-0)
October 5 Michigan 42 – Minnesota 13 (5-0, 1-0)
October 12 Penn State 43 – Michigan 40 (5-1, 1-1)
October 19 Michigan 63 – Indiana 47 (6-1, 2-1)
November 2 Michigan State 29 – Michigan 6 (6-2, 2-2)
November 9 Nebraska 17 – Michigan 13 (6-3, 2-3)
November 16 Michigan 27 – Northwestern 19 (3OT) (7-3, 3-3)
November 23 at Iowa
November 30 vs Ohio State
December 7 Big Ten Championship Game
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