It was the Battle of Underperforming Offenses at Ryan Field when Northwestern matched up against Michigan Saturday. At least until they were put to the test in overtime.
At halftime, only nine points had been scored and they were all field goals.
By the end of the game, both teams were tied with nine points apiece after Michigan’s field goal unit bizarrely rushed onto the field to kick as the clock ticked down to one second. According to the NCAA rulebook, it’s up to the referee to decide whether the defense can substitute on the last play of a half.
By the end of the first overtime, the score was tied at 16 after touchdowns from both teams. Michigan’s touchdown came as a result of an 11-yard pass from redshirt junior Devin Gardner to freshman Jake Butt, while Northwestern’s was the product of a quarterback sneak from senior Kain Colter.
By the end of double overtime, the score was deadlocked at 19.
Only at the end of a triple overtime, the first Ryan Field had ever witnessed, did Michigan finally pull ahead. And that score – the 27-19 final – was the only one that mattered.
This seemingly endless ping-ponging of field goals sums up the flow of the game well.
Maybe it was the day's weather: miserable, rainy and 56-degrees. Or maybe it was the fact that both teams were coming off Big Ten losses: Northwestern to Nebraska (27-24) two weeks ago and Michigan to Michigan State (17-13).
Regardless of the reason, neither offense could gain any kind of momentum, seeing 14 total punts and occasional traded field goals during regulation.
“I think some people would crumble when a lot of stuff is riding on it,” senior kicker Jeff Budzien said of having his foot put to the test so often. “Fortunately for me, I usually tend to hit my best ball in that case. It was fun to help the team out at that time.”
Northwestern’s defense made a few big stops to keep the game as close as it was. The Wildcats started out by preventing their opponent from scoring a touchdown on an opening drive for the first time in nearly a month. The last time the ‘Cats managed to do that was against Minnesota on Oct. 19.
The defense also forced six Michigan punts throughout the game. Senior Damien Proby led Northwestern’s defense with nine tackles, while six different players combined for four sacks on Gardner.
But perhaps the biggest stop of the game came at the end of a late fourth-quarter drive by Michigan. It was 4th-and-2, and Michigan only needed a field goal to tie the game at 9. Instead, the Wolverines decided to go for a touchdown and when Northwestern needed its defense to step up, it did, stopping Gardner short of the first down marker.
“Especially towards the end of the game, I thought our defense was playing really well,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I mean they played well all day. At this point here over the last five or six weeks the most consistent aspect of our football team has been our defense.”
It seems, though, that “playing well” isn’t enough.
Fitzgerald said he could sum up Saturday’s game "in one phrase: missed opportunities.”
Indeed, the defense, despite holding up well against Michigan’s offense, allowed the Wolverines to rush for 137 yards, 79 of which were catalogued by freshman Derrick Green who started for the injured Fitzgerald Toussaint. In its last two games, Michigan has rushed for -69 yards.
An even bigger problem defensively was multiple dropped interceptions (Fitzgerald said he thought he counted seven), some of which could have potentially been returned for touchdowns.
Proby, Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who have combined for eight interceptions this season, each had balls thrown right to their numbers and subsequently dropped them.
“We understand that we need to make those plays, but we also understand that we have to flush it and move on,” Proby said.
To punctuate the strangeness that was this game, Brandon Williams, a four-year starter, shanked a punt out of the end zone that only traveled eight yards, setting up Michigan for a field goal early in the fourth quarter.
Northwestern players agreed that it doesn't matter whether it was the rain, the struggles against Big Ten opponents or missed opportunities that threw them off: it’s time for this team to step it up.
“No one’s going to be happy with a loss,” Proby said. “No one is ever going to be happy or satisfied with the way that we performed.”