The Michigan Wolverines (7-3, 5-1) defeated the 24th-ranked Northwestern Wildcats (7-3, 3-3) in a 38-31 overtime decision on Saturday. Michigan escaped the jaws of defeat late by completing a Hail Mary pass to set up the game-tying field goal that forced overtime.
Northwestern always seems to leave the door open against good teams, but this gap through this door was incredibly narrow with only 18 seconds to drive down the field and score the field goal. Nevertheless, sometimes magical things happen in college football and Devin Gardner capped a great day with the big pass to Roy Roundtree.
As a result, Michigan narrowly escapes a loss that could have knocked them out of the race for the Legends Division championship. A wild game that could have easily gone the other way ends up in the win column for Michigan. If Michigan ends up in Indianapolis, this will be the turning point game and likely the most memorable win of the season for the Wolverines.
Let’s take a look at how each of the position units grade in this important win for the Wolverines, as Michigan stays at least in a first-place tie for the lead in the Legends Division. Thanks for reading, and feel free to give your own grades below.
Overall Game Grade: A-
If not for a late interception, this would have been a nearly-perfect game for Gardner in only his second start of the season. Gardner tore through the Northwestern defense in the first half, and he stayed accurate until the fourth quarter.
Gardner ended up with 286 yards passing on 16/29 passing, which averages to about 10 yards per attempt. Of course, those numbers were boosted significantly by the 53-yard pass right before the end of regulation, but that counts just as much or more than anything else. Gardner was pinpoint accurate on many throws and could have had slightly better numbers if not for receiver drops.
In addition, Gardner added 47 yards rushing on nine carries, which normally came on good reads where none of the receivers could get open. With the exception of two designed runs, Gardner only put himself at risk when it was necessary to get the first down. That bodes well for keeping him healthy, as it now looks unclear when Denard Robinson will be comfortable enough to play again.
Gardner proved that he could make great decisions on when to get rid of the ball, and his throws were largely perfect. Add in the efficient runs and this was great work out of someone who played receiver until two games ago. Michigan might have a new team MVP if the Wolverines end up in the Rose Bowl.
Overall Game Grade: C-
It was a good thing that Devin Gardner has come in and taken over the offense with a lot of success because the running game has largely not picked up the slack in Denard Robinson’s absence. Michigan pounded away 21 times at the Northwestern line with Fitzgerald Toussaint and Thomas Rawls, but only ended up with 93 yards from these attempts.
Those numbers look better than they were though, as Toussaint had a 50-yard run in the first half that ended in a fumble by the goal line to ruin the big play and the drive. Take that play out of the mix, and the running game was awful against the Wildcats (43 yards on 20 attempts for a 2.1 average).
Rawls did score one of the touchdowns in the red zone, and Toussaint added one touchdown reception. Those plays saved this unit from a failing grade, and more needs to come from these players when Michigan tries to keep Ohio State’s offense off the field in two weeks.
Overall Game Grade: A
When a backup quarterback throws for 286 yards and two touchdowns, you know the receivers have accomplished the mission. The game-turning 53-yard pass play with 10 seconds left was just as much effort on the part of Roy Roundree as it was a good throw from Gardner. That catch was all toughness from Roundtree, even though it may have been offensive pass interference at any other point of the game.
Before that catch, Jeremy Gallon was more of the star of the game with seven receptions for 94 yards. Every time Devin Gardner needed a big play from a receiver, Gallon seemed to know how to get open enough to make a catch. With two big targets playing so well, it makes the game easy for a pinpoint passer like Gardner.
Gerald Robinson had a big drop early and Jeremy Jackson failed to get a catch, but that does not matter with as god as Gallon and Roundtree played. Drew Dileo added a single reception for 13 yards and ran some nice complementary routes that helped the bigger target find openings in the defense.
Overall Game Grade: B
Before the surprising turn of events at the end of the game, it looked like the final touchdown for Michigan would have been the leaping grab made by freshman Devin Funchess, who continues to impress when called upon. Similar to the Roundtree catch later in the fourth quarter, Funchess just went over his defender and made a better play on the 8-yard touchdown reception.
The tight ends did not add much to the passing game, but the run blocking was decent when needed on the perimeter. The only real openings until late in the game seemed to come when Fitzgerald Toussaint would run to the boundary, and that usually cannot be done successfully without a good sealing block from the tight end.
Without the touchdown pass, this grade goes down significantly. But with the freshman Funchess on the loose, defenses can never feel easy putting a linebacker in coverage against that aspect of the Wolverine passing attack.
Overall Game Grade: B-
As always, a good offensive performance must be driven by a good effort from the offensive line. Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield anchored the end of the line and gave Devin Gardner a favorable amount of time to make reads and complete passes. Until the fourth quarter, the only time Northwestern got a ton of pressure on Gardner was when blitzes were called.
Despite the solid play in pass blocking, the offensive line did not open big holes for Fitzgerald Toussaint in the middle throughout the game. The few times Toussaint broke a big run, the openings were usually along the outside. The line still had to avoid giving up big negative rushing plays, but the running game is not thriving in large part because the line is not dominating.
Still a successful effort on the whole thanks to the strong effort in pass blocking. Gardner only went down to one sack, although he likely saved the line on a couple other times with good decisions to throw the ball away or run for the first down.
Overall Game Grade: C
Northwestern ran 79 offensive plays in this game, and a large reason for that number was the inability for Michigan to get off the field on defense. Considering that 58 of those plays were runs, clearly the impetus was on the defensive line to make the stops. That simply did not happen for most of the game, as Northwestern kept scoring against the Wolverines throughout the game.
After giving up a touchdown on the opening drive, Michigan began to generate more negative-yardage plays against the option. However, the Wolverines would get two big stops and then would nearly always get burned by Kain Colter or Venric Mark. If Northwestern had stayed completely dedicated to the run, Michigan may have worn down considering Frank Clark and Quinton Washington were getting pushed around as early as the second quarter.
The defensive line also did not get much pressure in the passing game, where Colter and Trevor Siemian combined for 67% passing. One highlight was the lone turnover of the game for Michigan, which was forced on an athletic play by Jibreel Black. But that turnover was not enough to generate more than a mediocre grade here.
Overall Game Grade: C+
With the struggles of the defensive line to break through and make big plays on a lot of option reads, the duty fell to the linebackers to pursue plays and make sound tackles. For the most part, this unit did just that against Colter and the Northwestern running backs. Venric Mark did not break many tackles when Jake Ryan or Kenny Demens caught hold of him.
The problem this game with the linebackers was the pass coverage when Northwestern forced Michigan into pass coverage. Cameron Gordon was completely turned around on a third-quarter touchdown pass, and Kain Colter is a good enough quarterback to exploit that mismatch. Kenny Demens also got beat right down the center of the field on the touchdown that put Northwestern ahead in the fourth quarter.
Even when Michigan dropped into nickel coverage on two different occasions in the game, the linebackers still were not able to shut down the passing lanes. That made things too easy, especially for prolific passer Trevor Siemian. Whenever the defense did generate a stop, the linebackers usually had a lot to do with it. That moves this grade up, despite the clear need for better play.
Overall Game Grade: D
After the first 28 minutes in the first half, Northwestern had only passed the ball twice. The defensive backs were locking down the Wildcat receivers and forcing Northwestern into a completely one-dimensional offense. Then Trevor Siemian led the offense out for a two-minute style drive and the defensive secondary lost their collective minds.
Siemian finished the game 6-for-7 on his passes, and the Michigan defenders were too passive in these situations. Instead of pressing the receivers and forcing tough throws, Raymon Taylor and the others played zone and got burned by good throws from Siemian. J.T Floyd and Thomas Gordon also did not clamp down on these routes as quickly as they have in other games this season.
While part of the blame comes from the defensive line not forcing Colter or Siemian to throw under duress very often, the play was simply not good enough in obvious passing situations. Thankfully Michigan will not play another team with a great passing attack this season, but this could be troubling in bowl season.
Overall Game Grade: C+
The special teams did not play a major role in this game until a late field goal, which is usually a good sign. Brendan Gibbons did everything asked of him, hitting all five extra-point attempts as well as the tying field goal under pressure. Gibbons has been solid in recent weeks and presents no hesitation in the coaching staff when Michigan needs a score.
However, the decision to keep kicking to Venric Mark in the punting game and the kicking game almost cost Michigan dearly on a couple of occasions. Michigan should also consider not taking the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs anymore, as it just is not profitable on most attempts. The execution was OK, but the game plan could have been better in these aspects.
Will Hagerup did boom those three punts though, averaging 51.3 yards with none of the punts hitting the turf for a favorable roll. Even with the offense does not move the ball, Hagerup keeps the defense in good field position nearly every time.
Overall Game Grade: C
Once again, Michigan appears to have been out-coached in an important Legends Division game. Michigan came in with a good game plan and adjusted to let Devin Gardner have more and more leeway to run the pro-style offense. The offensive play calling was good throughout the game, as evidenced by the touchdown scored in each quarter.
The defensive adjustments were where the coaching staff was lacking in this game. It did not appear as if the correct adjustments were made based on which Northwestern quarterback was in the game. The coverage was too soft against Trevor Siemian and that really burned Michigan. Plus, it took a long time for Michigan to put extra guys in the box to slow down the option rushing attack.
Of course, at the end of the day all that matters are results, and Michigan escaped thanks to the heroics of Roy Roundtree and Devin Gardner with less than 20 seconds left. That makes whatever mistakes the coaches made disappear into the night. The Wolverines may not be so lucky in the future though.