Michigan-Northwestern: Giveth, Taketh

Devin Gardner et al keep Michigan's divisional hopes alive with some late game magic. - US Presswire-Rick Osentoski

The Michigan defense struggled to defend the option and a mobile quarterback, as has been the case many times before. But, as has also been the case, the Wolverines engaged in some late game heroics to keep its increasingly dissipating divisional hopes alive.

Michigan 38 (7-3), Northwestern 31 (7-3)

Fitzgerald Toussaint charged into the open field early in the second quarter. There was acres of space to be taken, and it was a rare instance of him having the opportunity to seize that space, unhindered. He sped along like one who hadn't had the chance to do so in some time, a cathartic impulse played out between the white lines of a football field.

Watching a long run in motion is a stream-of-consciousness affair, as opposed to the dramatic, abrupt jump cut of the long pass. You watch a run like this happen, and a million things run through your head as the ball carrier runs away from everyone. The play opens up (yes maybe possibly), a tackle is broken downfield (oh it's all coming together), the space is there for the taking (go go go GOOOOOO), the back picks up speed and maneuvers around obstacles, getting closer and closer and closer (possibility? nay, certainty!), and the end is almost reached, inspiring more far-reaching thoughts (could we have a run game? is this the beginning of that?).

Of course, the abstract realm of the stream-of-consciousness superhighway is known to throw a few unforeseen obstacles in the path of those who embark upon its road, a road made of thoughts that become dusty and useless before they are even said or thought.

Jared Carpenter approached from behind. In his best Peanut Tillman impression--he of Chicago's NFC North team--he dislodged the ball from Toussaint near the Northwestern 10 yard line. The ball flipped into the air, suspended for a moment that seemed to last forever. This comet eventually came down, landing within the grasp of Roy Roundtree.

Roundtree_medium

The ball landed in his hands, and crisis had seemingly been averted. Yes okay that was bad but it's okay and we are fine. Michigan had a wide receiver ready to snag the ball out of the air and save Michigan's touchdown drive, a fortuitous coincidence. Of course, this being college football, it might have been better if Michael Schofield and Ricky Barnum were down there attempting to corral the fumble.

The ball slipped out of Roundtree's grasp, and Northwestern recovered.

Fast forward to the end. Devin Gardner steps up, plants, and launches a pass downfield to a single-covered Roy Roundtree. He is near the Northwestern 10 yard line, on the same side of the field as the aforementioned fumble. The initial play was the point, and in every point lies the seeds of a counterpoint, a balancing argument or occurrence. This counterpoint doesn't always happen immediately, and so we don't always recognize it as such.

Northwestern's Daniel Jones rose up to bat the ball with his free hand. Again, the ball hung in the air, suspended like a styrofoam planet in an elementary school science project.

This time, it wasn't stream-of-consciousness in action. It was a logical, ordered progression of prior events. An action and a response. A point, followed by a counterpoint. Roy Roundtree came down with the ball this time, because of course he did.

The game of college football gives and takes, without warning and seemingly on a whim.

When the end is near, you simply have to hope that the game rules in your favor. On Saturday, it did.

The Offense

Not counting overtime, Michigan put on the 31 points against the Wildcats, the third most in a single game that the 'Cats had given up this season (behind Syracuse's 41 and Penn State's 39). Michigan accomplished this, again, with almost zero running game to speak of and a quarterback who had been playing wide receiver just two weeks ago.

With a Northwestern offense that was actually challenging Michigan's defense all game long, the pressure was on the Michigan offense to keep up. After last week's game at Minnesota, many took a cautiously optimistic approach to Devin Gardner's outing, and justifiably so. However, against a Northwestern team that fields a very solid front seven, Devin Gardner came through once again.

Gardner went 16/29 through the air, good for 286 yards (9.9 YPA) and a pair of touchdowns to one late interception. Gardner's yardage figure through the air was the second-highest by a Michigan quarterback this year, bested only by Denard Robinson's 291 yards passing against UMass.

Additionally, Gardner continued to pick up the slack for an ailing running game, carrying it 8 times for 49 yards (removing his one taken sack, a loss of two), good for an average of over 6 YPC. He consistently made plays when his reads weren't there, although he did take some pretty rough hits and occasionally danced a little too much (in addition to a pretty awkward looking slide attempt to finish one run). Yes, he's not Denard, and we shouldn't be expecting any 50+ yard runs from him, but he does more than enough to keep Michigan moving, without even mentioning his abilities as a passer.

After Northwestern drew first blood in the first quarter, Michigan drove down the field 78 yards in 10 plays, capped by a Cam Newton-esque diving TD run by Gardner. Michigan accomplish this even while four runs from its tailbacks--Hayes, Toussaint and Rawls--went like so: loss of 6, gain of 3, loss of 3, and gain of 1.

This trend continued through most of the game, as Michigan once again could not run block to save its life. We are well past the point of wondering if Michigan will eventually turn it on and have that game where Toussaint finally goes off; it's pretty clearly not going to happen this season. Northwestern racked up four TFLs on the day, and generally kept Michigan's backs in check even when their tacklers weren't meeting guys in the backfield. Of course, Northwestern's trio of 'backers in Chi Chi "Greatest Name Ever" Ariguzo, Brian Nwabuisi and Damien Proby are all very good at defending the run, so it's not as if Michigan's incompetence in this respect was the sole reason for their struggles.

Fitzgerald Toussaint carried the ball 18 times for 97 yards, which seems pretty good until you remember that his 50-yard scamper that ended in a fumble is included in that total. Otherwise, Fitz had nowhere to go, once again. With Gardner being as adept as he has been in the passing game, one would think that that would open things up on the ground for Fitz et al...no dice. Michigan can pass block just fine, but the simple facts are that: a) making a seemingly last minute switch of Barnum to LG and Mealer to center was a bad omen b) Michael Schofield is probably better suited for the guard position and c) the interior of this line just doesn't get much push on a regular basis.

Fortunately, Michigan has been able to circumvent this particular fatal flaw by either letting Denard generally be Denard or, as of the last two weeks, let Gardner zing it all over the field. On Saturday, Michigan passed 30 times and ran 31 times, which seems like an even split until you remember that 9 of those carries are Devin's and that a significant majority of those weren't of the designed run variety. In any case, after Michigan had spent the early portion of the Big Ten schedule being all 60:40 in their run pass split with Denard, it is sort of bizarre to see Michigan became a passing team overnight.

The wide receivers come in for praise yet again; Jeremy Gallon made an unbelievable catch as he was simultaneously thumped by the Northwestern safety on that 42-yarder that preceded the Toussaint touchdown reception. The play could have gone for more, but Gardner held onto the ball for a moment too long, allowing the safety to come over and attempt to knock Gallon into another dimension. Otherwise, Gardner was on target and put more than enough zip on most of his attempts.

Gallon pitched in seven receptions for 94 yards while Roundtree had his best game since the completely nonsensical and insane 2010 Illinois game, when he put up 246 yards on nine receptions. After some pretty bad drops throughout the season, Roundtree snatched one out of the air on 2nd &15 on Michigan's first touchdown drive, racking up a good bit of YAC afterward.

When you picture an ideal 1-2 punch at wideout, the Gallon-Roundtree combination is probably not the first one that comes to mind. However, Michigan has made it work. Perhaps the most encouraging thing is that, after struggling so much post-Rodriguez, Roundtree has had his two best games of the season, yardage-wise, in the last two weeks (which, if you're following along, is marked by the common denominator of Devin Gardner). Roy only has one TD on the year, but given the recent upward trend, we can only hope that he's getting ready to end his Michigan career with a bang as we head into the last home game of the season this week before a trip down to Columbus.

The Defense

Unfortunately, this is the first game in some time where all observations vis a vis the defense aren't completely glowing. We knew that the Wildcats would test Michigan on the ground, boasting very capable running talents in quarterback Kain Colter and the lilliputian tailback Venric Mark. However, like many, I'm sure, I generally figured that Michigan would for the most part do what it has done throughout the post-Alabama season: shut 'em down (yes, even in a relatively down week, I'm busting out the LL Cool J reference).

It was death by a million runs for Michigan, as the Wildcats were able to zone read and option Michigan to oblivion, and let me tell you: oblivion is not a fun place. A little bit of the Air Force Effect was in play today, but having faced Nebraska just two weeks prior, the effect was not quite as pronounced as it was when Michigan took on Air Force a week after playing Alabama.

Things started out pretty well, actually. Michigan stuffed Northwestern's first three running plays (albeit with the help of a botched zone read on the second one). However, after an 18-yard Colter run on the next attempt, Northwestern was up and running the rest of the way (literally). The 'Cats ended the day having carried the ball 58 times for 248 yards, good for 4.3 YPC. That isn't so bad when you're just looking at it on a screen, but on the field of play Michigan had some issues.

For all of the talk about how "Michigan defense is back," Saturday called to mind one unwelcome aspect of "old school" Michigan football: struggles with mobile quarterbacks. Time and time again, Michigan seemingly had Colter boxed in only to see him make a cut or two before magically teleporting 10 yards downfield. Even on moderately successful running plays, Colter was able to gain 3 or 4 by virtue of keeping it in the belly of the tailback as long as possible before pulling. If Michigan wasn't attempting to defend him on Saturday, I'd probably be telling you that watching him play is very fun and [insert wish that Denard could run the zone read like that yada yada yada].

This isn't even the most egregious example, but here's one instance of Colter just Colter-ing around:

2012 Northwestern at Michigan 1st Half (via mgovideo)

Colter eludes the diving tackle attempt from Keith Heitzman and then flips the table on Jake Ryan on the edge, completely blowing up his angle and thereby stealing his milkshake in the process. There are many, many more examples of Colter making these sorts of plays, plays that we have become used to with Denard as our quarterback the last few years.

Northwestern killed Michigan on the edges as well with the option. Despite Michigan's frequent deployment of speedy freshmen linebackers Joe Bolden and James Ross III in order to match up with Northwestern's skill position speed, the 'Cats gained the edge on the pitch a majority of the time. The Wolverines made Colter pay in the process from time to time, but no one was there to fill after the edge defender being optioned took himself out.

This is the very next play after the above Colter run:

2012 Northwestern at Michigan 1st Half (via mgovideo)

I mean, it's simple but difficult. Jake Ryan is being blocked by a receiver, Christian Jones. Raymon Taylor is being pushed almost into the sideline by his blocker. Trumpy cuts up between these two blocks and hits the second level. Bolden has been engaged by a guard for a second, manages to disengage, but has been contacted enough that when he turns perpendicular to the sideline, he stumbles and his angle isn't there. Desmond Morgan just sort of tripped over a Michigan player who was on the ground, thereby taking himself out of the play. Thomas Gordon is busy getting pancaked by what I'm assuming is a fullback downfield. Basically, you should be imagining the sea of skulls from Terminator 2.

J.T. Floyd has to come all the way from the other side of the field to push Trumpy out after a 21-yard gain. That's not good, obviously. This was a recurring thing, as Michigan simply ate blocks and didn't flow to the ball accordingly all game.

Nine of Northwestern's ten plays during its opening drive were runs. On the day, the Wildcats had a 73:27 run-pass split, even with Trevor Siemian getting some snaps near the end of the first half and in the second. Speaking of Siemian, it was a little disappointing to see Michigan give up yardage to him given his relative struggles and resulting lack of usage of late. With that said, he did flash the ability he showed at times earlier in the season, namely during that perfectly placed front corner touchdown pass to Cameron Dickerson to complete the 2-minute drill at the end of the first half.

Siemian was 6/7 on the day for 87 yards and two touchdowns. Colter was pretty good himself, going 8/14 for 96 yards and a touchdown pass of his own. It was an efficient day for Northwestern's quarterbacking duo, to say the least. When Michigan brought the blitz, Colter was usually able to evade it.

Northwestern found favorable matchups in the red zone (or near it), with Cam Gordon getting beat by Dan Vitale for a score and Kenny Demens getting beat by Tony Jones on a touchdown that put Northwestern up with just under four minutes to go.

However, it wasn't all bad. Jibreel Black did force a fumble early in the game (recovered by Joe Bolden), eventually leading to a Michigan touchdown. Kenny Demens also had another solid day; he didn't quite continue his 10+ tackle streak, but he had nine, including 2 tackles for loss and an enormous hit in overtime on 4th down to end the game. When he wasn't asked to drop back in coverage on a receiver (2006 Chris Graham vs. Anthony Gonzalez, anyone?), Demens was doing about as well as anybody else on the D.

Kovacs was Kovacs, although, like everybody else, there were a few instances of missed tackles on the edge. Other than that, he did a very nice job in coverage on two separate occasions and delivered another crushing blind side hit on a zone blitz. He's got a new number, but he's still the same player.

Northwestern, just like everybody else, went after J.T. Floyd deep. Once again, Floyd emerged unscathed, most notably on a deep shot during that Siemian 2-minute drill:

2012 Northwestern at Michigan 1st Half (via mgovideo)

It often seems as if Michigan is playing a game of Russian roulette when teams attack Floyd deep. However, it also seems as if we've been through the chamber enough times to know that it is either completely empty or Brady Hoke secretly filled it with frozen peas or something. Either one is fine by me.

Special Teams

As expected, Venric Mark did a bit of damage on returns, although not so much on punts. He did return a kick for a score late in the game only to have it called back on a holding penalty. Speaking of penalties, Northwestern really shot itself in the foot all day, particularly with defensive offsides penalties (this doesn't really belong in this section, but I forgot to mention it earlier so here it is).

Brendan Gibbons converted on a clutch kick late, even if it was barely longer than an extra point. Never will I ever take any kick for granted after the adventures of 2007-2010.

Michigan didn't do much on returns. After loads of hype early in the season, Dennis Norfleet has been a bit quiet of late. We're still waiting for him to take one to the house. As I've said many times before, let's hope he's just saving it for the last game of the season. He did have a nice return for 37 yards late in the game, but it was immediately followed by the Gardner interception.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • This week in "Jake Ryan Drinks Your Milkshake, He Drinks It Up!" Sadly, not as much milkshake pilfering happened this week. In fact, the Michigan defense as a whole was getting its milkshake stolen more often than not. Ryan had a pretty quiet day, amassing just four tackles and zero TFLs. It wasn't a tremendous day for him, but then again it wasn't one for almost anybody else either.
  • The youth movement. With Michigan once again going up against an option-heavy team, Joe Bolden and James Ross III got quite a bit of run. Ross in particular had himself a solid day, amassing six total tackles, including a thumping hit on Colter at the line of scrimmage on the "closest first down call ever that probably wasn't a first down" play. Even with the loss of Demens after this season, Michigan will probably be more than okay next season at the linebacker position.
  • Things that are sad. I have generally avoided the "Denard vs. Devin" argument in this post and my Minnesota recap because it's not even an argument, really. By that I don't mean that I think Denard should obviously be the starter if he is healthy (even though I do believe that), my point is that each side in this is probably so entrenched in their respective positions that there isn't really a point in spilling too much e-ink over it. With that said, if you missed it, when Denard and Devin went to do their celebratory handshake thing after the first touchdown of the game, Denard went down shaking the injured arm, ostensibly in some amount of pain. I hate to say this, but I'm really starting to worry that we may have seen the last of Denard Robinson during the regular season [insert all the sad faces here]. I hope that is not the case, because it would be an unbelievable shame if he isn't able to go next week during his last chance to take the Big House field in a winged helmet. Get better soon, Denard.
  • SUNSHINEEEEE BULLETS. Your glorious MGoBlue "Notes" for the week. Here's one: Michigan is 4-0 in overtime contests played at the venerable venue that is Michigan Stadium. So, I would argue that playing to win the game in regulation may not be Michigan's best home strategy. They do have an overtime loss on the road, though, so Brady Hoke will have to think twice about not playing to win the game elsewhere.
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