|This was the scene for most of the first half (image via Zimbio)
Ugly. That was a terrible performance by everyone except Michigan’s front seven and Northwestern’s secondary. Each team turned over the ball 3 times, nobody could move the ball consistently, quarterbacks were falling down without being touched, and there were no big plays except when Northwestern safety Ibraheim Campbell returned an interception 79 yards. The Wildcats are banged up, and their offensive line isn’t very good. Michigan’s top skill players – Devin Gardner, Devin Funchess, Dennis Norfleet, and Derrick Green – are all limping or out entirely.
Michigan’s defensive tackles have matched the secondary in interceptions. Matt Godin’s interception gives the tackles two (Willie Henry had a pick against Utah), while cornerback Jourdan Lewis has 2 – and is the only player in the secondary to record an interception. The Wolverines now have 5 picks on the season after linebacker Jake Ryan got one in this game, too, but it has been a largely unproductive season for Michigan’s defensive backs.
Quarterback play is wretched. Devin Gardner made some terrible decisions in the passing game, much like he did last year at Northwestern. He finished the game 11/24 for 109 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. Michigan was winning the field position battle in the first half, playing in Northwestern territory almost the entire time. That added up to 0 points. On the play that turned into Campbell’s interception, Bo Dever was wide open deep on the right sideline, but Gardner tried to hit Freddy Canteen in the middle of the field. Gardner looks indecisive, doesn’t throw on time, and won’t tuck the ball and run with any authority. When he does make a quick decision, it’s usually the wrong one.
Offensive line improvement. Michigan fans may not like to hear it, but this offensive line is getting better. The Wolverines did a good job of keeping pressure off of Gardner, and they were opening up decent-sized holes in the running game. Northwestern did not get a ton of penetration, and while they don’t have any huge playmakers on the defensive line, this still represents a step forward for Michigan. Fans who want head coach Brady Hoke and offensive line coach Darrell Funk gone after this season are not gathering convincing evidence on the field from the offensive line. Of course, Michigan’s skill players aren’t doing much with the holes provided, either.
Running back situation. Last week I called for Drake Johnson to get more playing time, and he did (10 carries for 30 yards). However, he and De’Veon Smith both looked bad early. I thought Smith, in particular, looked indecisive and slow to the hole in the first half. He spent way too much time dancing in the backfield, trying to wait for something better. One of the coaches on the sideline – presumably Fred Jackson – must have talked to Smith, because when he finally decided to hit the line with authority, the running game took off. Smith finished with 18 carries for 121 yards and 1 touchdown. Johnson, meanwhile, is the faster of the two backs, but he struggles to break tackles. I believe we saw the last of him when he fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Joey-on-the-Spot Kerridge.
The wide receivers are slow. This is not new news, but it is painfully obvious. Funchess has more speed than he’s showing, but I just don’t see him running hard. I think his ankle is still bothering him. Maybe that’s what’s sapping his concentration, since he seems to drop half the passes thrown his way. Jehu Chesson has decent speed, but he has been banged up and has perhaps the worst hands out of the entire receiving corps. Norfleet is out. Gardner – who is playing poorly anyway – has limited options, none of whom can get separation unless the defense blows a coverage. Unfortunately, there’s not much help in sight. I have hopes for Maurice Ways, who I think is going to surprise some people when he hits the field. Drake Harris, who is redshirting along with Ways, used to be fast before he had a two-years-long hamstring injury. I am not counting on him to return to form. Da’Mario Jones can’t seem to find his way onto the field.
The defensive line made Northwestern look silly. When backup defensive end Mario Ojemudia bull rushes through your offensive line for 2 sacks, you know things are bad. Michigan totaled 6 sacks, including 1.5 from Frank Clark, 1 from Brennen Beyer, and 1 from Willie Henry. Michigan’s defensive line made Northwestern’s linemen, quarterback, and play calling look silly at times. Color guy Ed Cunningham kept questioning Northwestern’s decision to call dropback passes, and I actually agreed with an analyst for once. The Wildcats finally seemed to have some success when they called shorter pass routes and kept backs in the backfield to protect the quarterback. It just took them a long time to realize it. Northwestern just couldn’t handle trying to block Michigan’s defensive line one-on-one while waiting for routes to develop. Clark, in particular, had a great game, especially in the first half.
Jake Ryan is a monster. He had 11 tackles, .5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, and 1 pass breakup. He and Clark could both feasibly earn Defensive Player of the Week honors in the Big Ten, which Ryan also won last week against Indiana. I thought all the linebackers played well, including Joe Bolden (7 tackles) and James Ross III (5 tackles).
Everyone except Jourdan Lewis is a step slow. Michigan’s secondary just isn’t making plays this year. Everyone seems a step slow, even against a Northwestern offense that is slow and lacking playmakers. The one exception appears to be Lewis, but even he a) should have been called for pass interference at least once and b) should have intercepted a pass thrown to Kyle Prater. The commentators praised Lewis for batting down the ball, but he should have planted his back foot and gone up to get the pass at its highest point. Meanwhile, whenever backup cornerback Delonte Hollowell is in the game, I think opposing offensive coordinators target him; he is, of course, the guy who allowed Northwestern’s lone touchdown. That has been his M.O. this year. I believe Notre Dame, Utah, and Northwestern have all scored touchdowns against Hollowell on flat routes near the offense’s left sideline.
Pat Fitzgerald’s decision at the end of the game. With Michigan hanging onto a 10-9 leading with a pending extra point attempt, Fitzgerald decided to go for the two-point conversion. I agree with the decision, but not the execution. Northwestern had momentum at that point, but for the entire game, Michigan dominated defensively. It seemed to take everything Northwestern had to muster that late-game rally. After losing for two straight years in overtime, it’s understandable that Fitzgerald wanted to go for the win. The maxim is that you should go for the tie at home, and go for the win on the road, but Michigan had been the more consistent team in this one. Northwestern had been hitting short passes late in the game, and I believe they should have continued with what was working. They should have gone with max protection and tried to hit someone short. Instead, they rolled quarterback Trevor Siemian to the right, and when Frank Clark ended up in his face, Siemian’s foot slipped and he fell to the ground. Game over.
What does this all mean? It means Michigan’s offense is still terrible, and Michigan’s defense is pretty good. The Wolverines managed just 256 yards, went 1-for-12 on third downs, 0-for-1 on fourth, and had just 13 first downs the whole game. The defense allowed -9 total rushing yards, and while Northwestern threw for 273, it was largely on dink-and-dunk passes late in the game.