The rain fell in the Evanston night; perhaps it was that evening chill that pushed the permanently short-sleeved Brady Hoke to go all in.
For the first time in the second half, Michigan had moved the ball consistently, starting at its own 30-yard line and reaching the Northwestern 4. De'Veon Smith plowed into the line for no gain on 3rd & 2; a field goal seemed imminent, with Michigan down just 9-6 and under six minutes left to play.
Michigan lined up to go for it, but Northwestern called a timeout. For many coaches, this sort of stoppage is like a dart piercing their bravery, allowing it to flail in the wind like a punctured balloon. This was not the case for Hoke.
The Wolverine offense trotted out onto the field once again, faced with a 4th & 2 and the opportunity to, in all likelihood, end the game with a touchdown score. Devin Gardner took the snap and carried it to the right side, a play Michigan has used in short yardage with some success this season.
This time, Gardner got dropped for a loss of one by linebacker ChiChi Ariguzo and corner Nick VanHoose. There has probably never been a person more unlikely to be a fan of Arrested Development than Brady Hoke, but, assuming that he is one for this hypothetical scenario, he probably felt a lot like GOB at that very moment, riding down the sideline on a segway with his head down.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, the defense stood tall all game, and Northwestern's final regulation possession was no different. After giving up a pair of first downs, Kain Colter was dropped for a loss of eight on 2nd & 9 by Cam Gordon (who had probably the best game of his career), eventually setting up a NU punt.
Michigan got the ball at its own 22 and then proceeded to march its way through obstacles representing near-death. On 4th & 4, Gardner picked up six and stepped out of bounds. On another 4th & 4, Gardner launched a rocket to a wide open Devin Funchess in the middle of the field for another first down.
Gardner hit Jeremy Gallon for 16 yards on 3rd & 23, but, with no timeouts, the clock ticked under 10 seconds.
As a fan, it's often hard to appreciate the level of meticulous preparation that goes into a week leading up to a football game. Many of the situations talked about or studied in practice never come about in games.
How is that defensive end playing the zone read? When a team fields a certain personnel group, are they tipping run? Is that linebacker agile enough in his drop to cover your tight end? These are ordinary questions that apply on a weekly basis.
Can you run out a field goal unit with the clock ticking under 10 seconds, get set at the line, snap it and bury a field goal to tie the game as time expires? Can you do that?
Michigan's game-tying field goal was disorienting when juxtaposed with the general disarray of the offense of late. It seemed inconceivable that the same time could look so rudderless on offense and then execute a field goal like that, from the quickness with which they lined up to Dileo's slide to Brendan Gibbons's kick itself, all done with complete aplomb.
In late game situations, most fans --myself included-- are reduced to yelling (or thinking) one thing: GO. GO GO GO. The clock is ticking don't you know.
Meanwhile, football coaches and players do not have that luxury. They have to forget about past mistakes, forget about the stakes, forget about everything. In that final moment, Brady Hoke and his football players could only think about the play itself, in a vacuum. Michigan needed a field goal.
The offense first had to rush off the field. The blockers had to line up just so, also without committing a penalty. Drew Dileo had to slide into position to receive the snap; he also had to catch the ball, which necessitated him forgetting about the drops he had throughout the game. He had to place the ball.
Then, after all that, Gibbons had to boot it through the uprights.
The game of football is a violent one, full of big hits, and intense macroscopic scrutiny. But, on occasions like Saturday night, the game is often reduced to a string of delicate, connected events, all depending upon its predecessor for the chance to succeed.
While this season has produced its fair share of disappointment and Big Picture questions, Saturday's trip to Evanston showed that this team has not given up the ghost. Whether Michigan can do it again at Iowa this Saturday remains to be seen, but Michigan is not down for the count just yet.
As for the game itself, the Wolverine defense once again pitched in its typical solid-to-great performance. Northwestern managed 322 total yards, 2.9 yards per carry and just nine points (in regulation). Northwestern's receivers picked up some chunks here and there, but never of the big play variety; NU's biggest play of the day was a 26-yard reception by Christian Jones.
Most encouragingly, Michigan defended the option just about as well as I've seen in a long time. This might not be saying a whole lot given Michigan's history against the option attack, but improvement is improvement.
Additionally, although Michigan picked up just two sacks on the day (one apiece by James Ross and Jibreel Black), it seemed like Michigan's ability to push the pocket and get any sort of pressure took a step forward on Saturday. Michigan will need to continue that this week against Iowa if they are going to keep Iowa QB Jake Rudock from having a big day. Rudock isn't exactly Kain Colter with his feet, but he can run a little bit; he has amassed 188 yards on 49 carries thus far (plus five touchdowns).
James Ross led the way in tackles with 13; after a somewhat quiet start to the season, Ross has really shown up well the last two weeks.
Courtney Avery and Raymon Taylor had active days defending Northwestern's ground game, with eight and seven tackles respectively.
In addition to the aforementioned Cam Gordon, Frank Clark and Thomas Gordon should be singled out for praise, especially Gordon, who was obviously looking to leave his mark after being left out of the lineup last week for nebulous reasons. Gordon pitched in seven tackles, a PBU, the game-ending interception and a tackle for loss, not to mention a huge hit on Kain Colter.
In the same vein, while Frank Clark might not have lived up to the unrealistic offseason hype, he has shown obvious improvement. The junior end tallied six tackles (one for loss) on Saturday, and his ability to beat his man seems to be getting better with each week. Greg Mattison will need to rely on Clark to bring the heat against Rudock this Saturday.
Michigan's defense boasted six different players with a tackle for loss apiece. No, Northwestern's offense sans Venric Mark is not the dynamic machine it was supposed to be (or looked like early in the season), but Saturday's performance was impressive any way you look at it.
Offensively, Michigan once again struggled after finding some success on the ground and with quick passes during its opening drive. Most concerning is Michigan's continued inability to do anything with good field position. After NU punter Brandon Williams's horrendous 7-yard punt, giving Michigan the ball at the NU 10, Michigan lost a yard in the ensuing three plays. An offense like this cannot afford to fail to take advantage of these sorts of miraculous gifts.
Devin Gardner continues to seem gun-shy, holding on to the ball for far too long as opposed to taking a chance downfield, risking an interception. His reticence is understandable, but sacks --like the one he took on Michigan's final regulation drive-- have to start becoming throwaways.
On the bright side, Michigan did gain positive rushing yards for the first time since the Indiana game, and the freshman tailbacks gave Michigan an oomph that it hasn't had in some time, even when Fitzgerald Toussaint was racking up big numbers in 2011. Derrick Green wasn't exactly justifying much usage early in the season, as he typically failed to use his size to fall forward (like a back of his stature is expected to do). That finally changed on Saturday night.
Green didn't rack up overly impressive numbers (19 carries, 79 yards), but 4.2 yards per carry and several trucked NU defenders make for a big leap forward for both Green and Michigan's ground game as a whole. After all of the hits Gardner has taken the last few weeks, it's clear that he has lost a step and doesn't quite have the burst to make plays with his feet that he did in September. As such, Green and fellow freshman De'Veon Smith will need to carry the mail again against Iowa and in the Big House against Ohio State.
Despite some uncharacteristic drops, Jeremy Gallon had a big day once again, this time hauling in 10 passes for 115 yards, enough to bring him over the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
With Michigan looking to move toward a Stanford-esque type offense, the tight end position will become crucial to Michigan's success. Jake Butt reeled in his first career touchdown pass during overtime; he'll be a big part of Michigan's passing game for the next few years. Kevin Koger had a solid career for Michigan, but it's been some time since Michigan had a truly prolific pass-catching tight end (since Bennie Joppru in 2002).
All in all, this game doesn't mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. Michigan isn't playing for a BCS bid, let alone a division title. Nonetheless, a win like that can be cathartic for a team that has taken the lumps Michigan has in recent weeks.
If Michigan can build upon this performance and snag a win in Iowa City --a place they haven't won since 2005-- things will look far less grim than they did even last week. Michigan still has problems, to be sure, and a win against a Northwestern team that had lost five in a row coming into Saturday doesn't solve them.
With that said, it is comforting to know that many of the underclassmen littering Michigan's two-deep are getting big snaps as the season comes to a close. Michigan will have a few key losses this offseason (namely Taylor Lewan and Jeremy Gallon, plus a few others), but this Wolverine team will return mostly intact in 2014.
In any case, 7-3 feels a whole lot better than 6-4. As an added bonus, Michigan fans witnessed a late game sequence that will go down as one of the craziest Michigan special teams plays of all time. Sometimes it's the little things that count.