Michigan vs. Northwestern: 10 Things We Learned in Wolverines' Win

Adam Biggers@@AdamBiggers81Senior Analyst IINovember 16, 2013

Michigan vs. Northwestern: 10 Things We Learned in Wolverines' Win

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    Devin Gardner had 17 carries for 19 yards. But a five-yard carry was his most important.
    Devin Gardner had 17 carries for 19 yards. But a five-yard carry was his most important.Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

    Brendan Gibbons' 44-yard field goal as time expired in regulation was exactly what Michigan needed Saturday night to fuel its 27-19 victory over Northwestern in Evanston. 

    Without it, the Wolverines (7-3, 3-3) would have lost to the Wildcats (4-6, 0-6), who have been dropped by eight or less points in four conference losses. A loss, well, that wouldn't have been the desired result for Team 134 coach Brady Hoke, who entered Saturday with two straight setbacks. 

    Devin Gardner helped his situation in the third overtime with a five-yard rushing touchdown and subsequent two-point conversion run. Prior to the win against the Wildcats, Gardner had been questioned by fans and media, who have been quick to point out his sack rate and interception problems. 

    Despite being sacked no less than six times, Gardner didn't throw an interception or fumble the ball. 

    As usual, we learned from what Michigan showed us this week. We'll explore those lessons with this slideshow.

Gardner Finishes Rough Week on High Note

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    Gardner has 14 TDs and 11 INTs this season.
    Gardner has 14 TDs and 11 INTs this season.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Fans can get crazy and overstep boundaries. 

    Gardner knows all about that because of email and Twitter mentions from such ardent Michigan supporters this past week. 

    The hate campaign picked up after Gardner was sacked seven times during a 29-6 loss to Michigan State. He followed that up by being sacked seven more times in a 17-13 loss to Nebraska. Saturday, he was sacked no less than six times. 

    But he kept rolling with punches. Week after week, sack after sack, Gardner remained in position—barely, perhaps, but he stood tall. 

    Gardner won this week, so it's safe to say that he'll gain praise for a passionate performance in triple-overtime, one that saved his team's chances of winning 10 games this year. Gardner's redemption was great to see. If a player was deserving of a bounce-back moment, it was him. 

    At one time, he was considered a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate. "One time" was during the preseason and back in the spring, but he was mentioned as an athlete who could excel at the highest of levels in 2013. 

    He's lucky that he's still in one piece after facing three weeks of beatings. Now would be a good time for a bye week, but Michigan has already had its breaks. 

    This past week, people couldn't stand Gardner. This week, he'll be tolerable to those who turned on him days ago.

We Saw Glimpses of the 'Pro'

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    Michigan has a pro-style offense hiding somewhere.
    Michigan has a pro-style offense hiding somewhere.Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Coordinator Al Borges' pro-style offense reared its head during the first quarter of Saturday's win. There were elements throughout the game, obviously, but Michigan looked especially effective during the opening 15 minutes of the game, despite playing to a 3-3 tie. 

    Derrick Green, who'll get more mention later, looked stout. De'Veon Smith finally got a few carries after being dormant for weeks on end. 

    The Wolverines went 0-of-5 on third downs in the first half. They got away from their efficient ways of the first quarter prior to entering halftime, trailing 6-3. 

    Gardner opened the afternoon with a 17-yard pass to Jeremy Gallon. That was a good start. When calm, Gardner makes great throws. He made a handful of solid throws, feet planted, throughout the night. Borges' offense is late, but it look likes it's coming soon to a field near you. 

    However, it might just be on the road and only for a quarter or two.

Message to Fitz?

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    Fitz Toussaint had negative rushing vs. MSU and Nebraska.
    Fitz Toussaint had negative rushing vs. MSU and Nebraska.Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Fitz Toussaint, a senior who's taken the majority of the carries this season, didn't get one touch Saturday. 

    Not one. 

    Was it a way for Hoke to send a message? Was the intent to let Toussaint know that his job is up for grabs? 

    Possibly. 

    But Hoke's been tricky before, saying one thing but going with another player or situation just to make things interesting. He's been supportive of Toussaint, so it's safe to say that he'll contribute down the road.

    Deveon Smith and Derrick Green both get carries before Fitz Toussaint even thigh Hoke said he's still the guy.

    — Chantel Jennings (@ChantelJennings) November 16, 2013

Derrick Green Could Be No. 1

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    Green was steady Saturday. He had two carries on Gardner's game-winning TD drive.
    Green was steady Saturday. He had two carries on Gardner's game-winning TD drive.Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    With roughly a minute to play in the third quarter, Green, a freshman, may have won the No. 1 job over Toussaint. 

    It wasn't a touchdown, but it was a healthy 23-yard rumble up the left sideline. And he finished it by absorbing contact from a Northwestern defensive back. No problem. Green got up and walked away as if nothing happened. 

    Michigan needs that type of runner, one who can fall forward and get at least something when nothing is to be gained. Toussaint hasn't been able to do that this year. Green hasn't seen a ton of action, but it's evident that the Wolverines need to mix up the rotation. 

    It's not often that 19 carries for 79 yards wins a starting job, but it may have been good enough to do it at Michigan.

Michigan Can't Convert Gimmes

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    Gardner and UM failed to cash in on a botched punt.
    Gardner and UM failed to cash in on a botched punt.Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    It was already embarrassing enough for Michigan to trail Northwestern 9-6 on the road. But it was more so after the Wolverines failed to convert an early holiday gift into points in the fourth quarter. 

    With about 9:37 to play, Brandon Williams shanked a punt to the right sideline. Michigan took over near its 30-yard line and had four plays to get at least three points. 

    That didn't happen. 

    Gardner, despite a 24-yard rush during the drive, couldn't put together two plays in a row. He'd gain some but then lose many more. De'Veon Smith had a couple of carries before Gardner, in typical fashion, gave way to the defense on 4th-and-1.

UM Gets Burned by Michigan-Bred WRs

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    Tony Jones went to Grand Blanc, the same school as Justice Hayes.
    Tony Jones went to Grand Blanc, the same school as Justice Hayes.David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

    This is more coincidence than anything else, but the Wolverines have been charred to a crisp by former Great Lakes State prep stars: Allen Robinson of Penn State and Tony Jones of Northwestern. 

    Jones, a former Grand Blanc star wideout, helped move the chains with timely catches throughout the game. He finished with five catches for 35 yards, but his efforts helped set up two field goals from Jeff Budzien. 

    Jones was a 3-star rated prospect and wasn't recruited by Michigan, according to his Rivals profile.

    With a last-second acrobatic sideline grab, Robinson helped Penn State knock off Michigan during a 43-40 four-OT thriller in Happy Valley. The former Orchard Lake St. Mary's standout was a 3-star recruit, per 247Sports, who didn't receive an offer from Michigan. 

    Payback? That's possible. Robinson and Jones probably wanted to show Michigan what it was missing. No harm in that.

Michigan Must Improve on 3rd Down

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    UM won't win the battles if it can't get it together on third down.
    UM won't win the battles if it can't get it together on third down.Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

    According to the Big Ten Network's live broadcast, Michigan has gone 5-of-37 on third down since losing to Michigan State. That stat was highlighted prior to the end of Michigan's win over Northwestern, so it may have slightly changed. 

    That being said, the Wolverines have been absolutely horrid during third downs since falling 29-6 to the Spartans. They went 2-of-18 Saturday, according to ESPN. Michigan's third-down offense was ranked No. 9 in the Big Ten prior to beating the Wildcats, touting a mere 41 percent success rate.

Gardner Got Lucky

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    Devin Gardner has 11 INTs this season. He's lucky he's not at 17 after Saturday.
    Devin Gardner has 11 INTs this season. He's lucky he's not at 17 after Saturday.Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

    As mentioned earlier, Gardner deserves credit for a gutsy performance in overtime. 

    But let us remember how he got there, and that was by being incredibly lucky. He was. Don't argue against it. Had Gibbons missed that game-tying field goal, Gardner's name would be mud right now. 

    Had Gardner not made up for his mistakes with a few big plays, his name would be mud right now. 

    If Northwestern would have intercepted at least one or two of what should have been at least six or seven picks...well...you know what Gardner's name would be right now. 

    Not a good one.

Look at UM's D for a Brief Moment

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    B/R social media

    Michigan's defense has been steady, but not great. Allowing nine points to anyone in regulation, even Northwestern, is quite the feat. That's a stout Greg Mattison defense. Although it has struggled this year, Mattison's unit showed signs of improvement, particularly in the pressure department. 

    Kain Colter wasn't a threat to pass, but he was a threat to run. However, when he scrambled, Michigan responded more times than not. Colter has shredded defenses for 100 yards and a few touchdowns, but he was held to 78 yards and one score Saturday. 

    The Wolverines didn't allow Trevor Siemian to carve them up all afternoon. He doesn't have the greatest arm in the league, but Siemian is athletic enough to make the necessary throws that topple lazy secondaries, which Michigan has had during the past three weeks. 

    Siemian finished with 138 passing yards in the 27-19 loss.

Winning Cures...but UM Is No Longer 'Sick'

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    Good friends: Butt celebrates his first TD with Devin Funchess.
    Good friends: Butt celebrates his first TD with Devin Funchess.Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

    A road win would remedy the common cold. 

    But Michigan's offense must have some strange strand of the flu, because winning a game in sloppy fashion just won't cut it this week. The Wolverines need to show more before people start talking about their "cured" offense. 

    That probably won't be until next year. Overtime points, for all intents and purposes, don't count in this equation. Look at regulation: six points versus MSU, 13 versus Nebraska and now nine versus Northwestern.

    Throw the offense on life support. 

    Nevertheless, Team 134's scrap with the Wildcats should prove to be positive, if even for a few guys. Freshman tight end Jake Butt scored his first collegiate touchdown this season, an 11-yard pitch-and-catch from Gardner. 

    He'll likely reflect on the game and use it for motivation. 

     

    Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.