Post-Game Analysis: Michigan
by Jonathan Hodges

For one half, the Northwestern Wildcats (2-3, 0-2) were certainly playing up to the atmosphere as they led the Michigan Wolverines (6-0, 2-0) 24-14 at halftime, but in what is becoming their typical style, the 'Cats withered in the second half, allowing Michigan to score 28 unanswered points and ended up falling to the now No. 10 (Coaches)/11 (AP) Wolverines 24-42. NU QB Dan Persa (32-for-44, 331 passing yards, 1 INT) did just about everything in his power to will the Wildcats to victory (including trying to convert a fourth down after his helmet was ripped off), but the electric Denard Robinson was just too much for NU as he accounted for 454 yards of offense and 4 total TDs on the day.

One must credit Fitz for pulling out all the stops, though: it as a great atmosphere for college football at Ryan Field on Saturday night: a sold out stadium with the NU student section decked out in purple, the 'Cats wearing black jerseys and pants, and Fitz letting Persa air it out while also getting Kain Colter in the mix at QB and receiver and putting Venric Mark on offense, defense, and special teams to counter some of Michigan's speed. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work, and the tale of the tape is mostly in the turnover department: Northwestern won the first half turnover battle 3-0 but lost the second half 0-2. Those first half turnovers gave the 'Cats the chance to get the ball back (Michigan punted just once all night), while the giveaways in the second half just gave the Wolverines more chances to score. Going into the game it was clear that NU would have to use takeaways to stop the Michigan offense, and unfortunately they were not able to do that for more than one half.

Although it by no means decided the outcome of the game, the officiating certainly factored in and it must be mentioned. During Northwestern's second half collapse, there were three blatant officiating errors that all went in Michigan's favor (although there were potentially more missed judgement calls depending on who one asks).

First, in the third quarter with NU trailing by 4 after Michigan posted TDs on their first two possessions of the second half and looking to respond, Persa threw the ball to Drake Dunsmore over the middle on 2nd and 4. Dunsmore didn't get a good handle on the ball, tipping it up in the air, with Michigan's Brandin Hawthorne diving to make what looked to be an interception (although the blame must lay with Dunsmore). The call was reviewed and on replay, the ball clearly moved as the tip hit the ground (Hawthorne was trying to grip the ball between his hands with the leading tip exposed); the ball would then bounce off the ground and into his arms. The call was reviewed and upheld although the movement was clear on multiple camera angles.

Second, midway through the fourth quarter and down by 11, Persa was leading an NU drive to try and get something going and was facing a 4th and 5 at the Michigan 37 (this was after the Northwestern defense's most impressive stop of the night: stopping Robinson for two negative yardage plays on a single set of downs and Jack DiNardo blocking a FG try). Michigan sent a blitz with safety Jordan Kovacs coming in unblocked. He would dive at Persa, who promptly ducked and shed the defender and popped back up to get a pass off. But, Kovacs decided to take Persa's helmet with him. Somehow, Big Ten referee Scott McElwee, who was standing right behind the play, did not throw a flag (and also did not immediately whistle the play dead, although he would later correctly state that the ball was indeed dead when the ballcarrier's helmet came off - but still without any kind of penalty). Fitz most understandably was irate and had a completely logical argument: how the heck can Persa's helmet get pulled off and a penalty not be called? Instead, Fitz was flagged for unsporsmanlike conduct, meaning Michigan had the ball and a 15 yard advantage from the spot that Persa's helmet was unceremoniously torn off.

Finally, on the ensuing drive, the NU D needed a last stand to have any shot at pulling this one out. They had Michigan at 3rd and 1 from the NU 29, and on the play, Michigan LT Taylor Lewan clearly moved before the snap, and UM RB Fitzgerald Toussaint gained the first down, which would allow the Wolverines to drive for the final TD of the game. For the third time in under a half, another officiating error hurt the 'Cats. While Northwestern certainly could have avoided these situations (Dunsmore catching the ball, NU avoiding an at-all-costs fourth down, and the D staying out of a third and short situation), the calls did not help one bit.

Overall, it was yet another disappointing second half performance, with NU folding on both sides of the football after taking a double-digit halftime lead. Like the Army game, this one proved to me once again how big the psychological aspect really is in the college game (more on that later). Now, some more gory details.

First Half Summary

Early on, things looked grim for the 'Cats as they got the ball first, went three-and-out, and watched as Denard Robinson promptly led Michigan down the field for a TD mostly thanks to a 48 yard jump ball bomb on 3rd and 7 that Junior Hemingway won over Ibraheim Campbell. With just over four minutes off the clock, NU was already behind. But, thankfully, the 'Cats would respond nicely for the rest of the half. Persa came out passing in his first Northwestern game in a black jersey as he went 3-for-4 for 45 yards (and also drew a roughing the passer call) and yielded way for Colter to come in and dart into the end zone from 15 yards out to tie the game at 7.

Michigan got the ball and looked to be driving once again after Robinson completed another pass to Hemingway on a deep out in between NU's zone coverage, but on his next attempt, another long bomb, Northwestern's Campbell was in perfect position and hauled in the interception plus a 33 yard return, giving the Wildcats a nice bit of momentum. NU would come out with a Venric Mark sweep that would gain 12 yards (note that NU used Mark early and often in the game: on all returns, on some offensive plays, and even on defense as a "linebacker" QB spy to counteract Robinson's speed). Persa would then hit three straight passes and NU would finish off the drive with some runs, including Treyvon Green's nice seven yard scamper into the end zone to put NU ahead 14-7.

The Wolverines would come out and drive once again, this time getting into the red zone at the NU 16 yard line as the second half was starting. But once again, the NU secondary would come up big as Campbell hauled in his second INT of the night (although a penalty on the return would put the ball inside the NU 10 yard line). The 'Cats would gain one first down on the ground (thanks to a Jacob Schmidt 11 yard rumble on 3rd and 1), but a sack on second down followed by a false start would put NU in a precarious situation, and they chose to keep it on the ground and then punt rather than risk their lead.

On the ensuing drive, NU forced Michigan into their only punt of the evening (thanks to a holding call), and Mark would put some more momentum into the 'Cats favor with a 20 yard return, setting NU up on the Michigan 41. After a nice seven yard out pass to Dunsmore, though, NU went to Adonis Smith on the ground and couldn't open up any holes for him on three straight plays as they failed to get a first down (the fourth down play was an option pitch from Persa to the short side of the field which seemed to be ill-advised given Persa's new aversion to run). Michigan would respond by getting into a fourth down situation of their own, and after the punt team came out Michigan HC Brady Hoke rightly called a timeout and the Wolverines got in a play and Robinson ran for the first down. They would then march right down the field and use a screen pass to cap off the drive with a game-tying TD.

But, the Wildcats would respond again with Persa going 5-for-6 passing for 80 yards that included a beautiful pass to Christian Jones that set up NU at the Michigan two yard line. Colter would come in and run an option play in which he pitched to Smith who jogged in for the TD to put NU back on top. And the momentum wouldn't stop there: after completing two passes and seemingly upping his confidence, a Robinson pass from just inside NU territory found the hands of Northwestern safety Brian Peters, who returned the ball 24 yards and gave the 'Cats one last crack at a score with just over one minute left in the half.

Persa quickly found Colter (twice) and Ebert to drive the 'Cats 45 yards and set up first and goal at the Michigan seven with a good amount of time remaining. But, on first down he was forced to scramble for four yards (even though he now examines every passing option in great detail before crossing the line of scrimmage) and NU was very slow in dialing up the ensuing play, letting precious seconds drip off the clock. Then, on both second and third downs, NU WR Rashad Lawrence would drop passes in the end zone, including one that hit his numbers on third down with just two clicks left on the clock. The officials almost made yet another blatant error as they let the clock wind down after the incompletion and were ready to hit the locker room when Fitz rightly protested, the play was reviewed, and two seconds were put back on the clock and allowed Jeff Budzien to come out and nail the 20 yard FG to put the Wildcats ahead by 10 at the half, 24-14.

Second Half Summary

Northwestern fans who have been watching recently certainly felt what could have been coming in the second half, unfortunately. Michigan went right back at it on offense, except without the turnovers. And that, of course, meant trouble for the 'Cats. I won't focus too much on the details except to say that Denard Robinson is very fast (you already knew that) and the Northwestern defensive front did the secondary absolutely no favors by worrying way too much about containing Robinson and never getting after him when dropping back to pass (NU had zero sacks on the night). So, instead of chucking the ball up there, Robinson just decided to find the open guy or tuck and run: both profitable options in the second half. WIth most of the third quarter gone, NU was suddenly down 24-28, and the offense knew they had to do something after going three-and-out in their only other possession of the quarter.

After three consecutive Persa completions, that is where the aforementioned first horrible officiating call of the night came, and things began to unravel for the 'Cats. Michigan took the ball once again, drove, and scored on the first play of the fourth quarter to take an 11 point lead. Northwestern would then squander their best opportunity of a comeback: in Michigan territory, Ebert caught a short pass and was fighting for a couple more yards when Michigan stripped the ball and recovered. On replay, it looked like the ball came out milliseconds before his leg hit the ground (it was not amongst the bad calls). Along with Dunsmore's tipped ball and Lawrence's drop in the end zone at the end of the first half, Persa's receivers were certainly costing him and Northwestern this game (especially with nobody really expecting the defense to shut down Michigan).

Although the NU defense would come up with a stop and a blocked FG, the helmet-ripping non-call would follow that up, and Michigan would drive once again for a game-icing TD, to put them up 42-24. NU would drive 79 yards in 10 plays with under two minutes to play, but it was too little too late as time expired just as Colter dove one yard short of the end zone.

Player of the Game

Michigan QB Denard Robinson (17-of-16 passing for 337 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT; 25 carries for 117 yards, 2 TDs) How can one not give the game ball to Robinson after generating 454 yards of total offense and single-handedly fueling Michigan's second half comeback after a very underwhelming first half in which he turned the ball over three times. Everyone knew that the NU D stood very little chance of stopping him coming into this game, and he proved them all to be correct.

What Happened

"if NU can force Robinson into uncomfortable passing situations, it may yield good results for the Wildcats. But, in reality, Northwestern's best chance for a win is what they tried to do last week: score a bunch of points and slow down the opponent with some takeaways

That looked to be the recipe for success, particularly in the first half where NU was managing to at least contain the run and force Robinson to throw. At that time, he was resorting to his jump-ball deep passes, and the 'Cats came down with 3 INTs (which proved to be the only way of stopping Michigan on the night). Unfortunately, Robinson quickly realized he could just stand in the pocket (as NU never got much of any pressure on him) and find the open guy. WIth no turnovers in the second half, the 'Cats' chances quickly faded.

"It will be very interesting to see how OC Mick McCall calls this game; he was derided by many Northwestern fans after a run-heavy performance last week

Well, Northwestern threw the ball 70% of the time (including sacks but not counting a couple Persa scrambles), which fans should certainly not be complaining about. Persa moved the ball well through the air (72.7% completion rate and 331 yards) but in the end his receivers were his undoing: there were costly drops, a tipped ball that was intercepted, and another pass was fumbled. NU threw in a good mix of runs, particularly in the red zone (all 3 TDs were on runs): after removing the four sacks, NU averaged an impressive 6.3 yards per carry.

"NU's 2.5 sack per game average (tied for 89th nationally) won't cut it. One thing that will help in this game is that Michigan hasn't generated a whole lot of QB pressure this year, averaging just 1.25 sacks per game (93rd nationally)."

Michigan obviously heard this and sent pressure early and often, generating four sacks on the day (for -26 yards and also notching 3 QB hurries along the way as well). This pressure certainly cost NU in the end: their chances essentially died when Persa's helmet was ripped off on that fourth down "sack" as NU didn't have a chance to run the ball enough to keep the Michigan defense honest (NU ran a good amount of plays: 70, but Michigan had more: 78, and dominated time of possession at 37:57, thanks to 12:28 of possession in the 3rd quarter that included the better part of 3 TD drives).

"they'll have to look at Robinson's passing numbers (54.9% completion rate and 6 INTs) and hope that he makes mistakes in the air. The one good note coming out of last week is that some of the less experienced defensive backs were the main cause of the problems (redshirt freshman S Ibraheim Campbell and first year starter CB Jeravin Matthews who switched to the position mid-career), and this week's practices will certainly provide the opportunity to correct some of those issues."

NU certainly looked to contain the run game and force Michigan to pass early, and the aforementioned passing troubles haunted the Wolverines in the first half (3 TDs). It looked like the secondary showed some improvement, too, with Campbell sporting 2 of those first half picks. Unfortunately, things unraveled in the second half as the defensive backfield was left without much help from their cohorts up front (who, once again, never got much pressure on the Michigan passing game) and they were burned throughout the third and fourth quarters.

Fitz also finally made good on his threats aimed at the secondary as he pulled Matthews in favor of Demetrius Dugar late in the game, although it appeared to be too little too late. It will be very interesting to see who he puts out there at Iowa next week as the Hawkeyes will certainly force the 'Cats to play a good amount of single coverage against their solid receiving corps.

"Northwestern 31, Michigan 42...
Unfortunately, Michigan's offense is just too good, and I expect that they will get some nice gains both on the ground and through the air, given that Robinson can go wild in the running game even when the opposition sells out to stop him in that phase."

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, this game went almost exactly as I predicted (if Colter had found the end zone on the last play of the game and if NU had the chance to kick the extra point, my prediction would have been spot on). Robinson was just too much for the 'Cats, who saw the turnover margin swing in the second half, and with it went their chances of pulling off the big upset.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

S Ibraheim Campbell (9 tackles, 2 INTs) He's certainly taken his lumps this year (particularly last week and through some of this game), but one must credit him for pulling down 2 INTs and boosting NU's chances early. He is a work in progress, but hopefully this will boost his confidence and help him grow into the future leader of the Northwestern secondary.

QB Dan Persa (32-of-44 for 331 yards, 1 INT; 5 carries for 21 yards without sacks) He was the reason that the 'Cats were in this game. Once again topping out at over 70% for his completion rate, he moved the 'Cats down the field as well as he could with NU sticking to the passing game and Michigan sending everything they had at him. The perfect example of his style of play was the fourth down in which his helmet was ripped off on a tackle attempt, but he evaded the pressure and was still looking to convert even without his protective headgear. 'Cats fans certainly hopes he gets his shot at glory before his senior season is over.

Special Teams: Brandon Williams did a nice job sticking Michigan deep (his punts averaged 46.7 yards and UM had no returns), Steve Flaherty did well on kickoffs (including getting a touchback), Jeff Buzien nailed his only FG try (and all 3 XPs), Venric Mark got things going with a 20 yard punt return (NU now ranks 6th nationally in punt returns), while the coverage teams once again did their jobs and NU even blocked a FG (Michigan's only FG try on the night). Overall, it was a solid performance that was unfortunately overshadowed by the rest of the events.

Offensive Game Plan: NU pulled out all the stops on offense, getting Venric Mark a couple of touches (2 carries for 18 yards, including one where he somehow got a gain after looking like he'd be tackled for a big loss), getting Colter involved in the passing game (3 receptions for 37 yards), and just plain airing out the ball (70% of plays were passes). Unfortunately the execution lacked at times, and surprisingly it was the talented/experienced wide receiving corps unit that garnered most of the blame. But, now NU has shown it can be dangerous in a number of areas and will certainly have the opportunity to pick up some wins with high offensive outputs down the stretch.

Things to Work on

Keeping Second Half Leads

With Persa as the starting QB, Northwestern has held a lead in the second half of every game, but they are now just 7-5 in those games: and that number includes FOUR games with double-digit leads at some point (17 vs MSU, 21 @ PSU, 18 @ Illinois, 10 vs Michigan). While it is one thing to the law of averages balancing out Fitz's close games record, seeing NU collapse at virtually every opportunity is quite another thing.

After seeing the psychological impact proven to me in this year's loss to Army (NU just doesn't play well when they know they are favored), I am beginning to see another qualitative hypothesis emerging as true: NU employs great strategy against better opponents, but in the second half the more talented teams adjust and use said talent to come out on top. In all four of the aforementioned games where NU held big leads, the 'Cats were on the short end of the talent, and the opposition used that in their favor to close out the games. It's not that NU failed to adjust its strategy; it's that the opponents just played the second half to their strength/talent (other things like limiting turnovers helps, too: in those games NU won the first half turnover margin +6 and lost the second half by a cumulative -3).

Receiving the Football

Normally, the wide receiving corps is one of the best parts of the entire team. Unfortunately, this time they were a big reason behind NU's downfall: Dunsmore's tip, Ebert's fumble, Lawrence's drop. While one must not put all of the blame on their collective shoulders, their failures certainly turned the tide and prevented the 'Cats from scoring when the defense was already on the ropes. Thankfully, this senior-laden squad has the ability to turn things around and should respond well to adversity, especially with Persa still delivering the football. Another bright spot is some of the younger guys looking good: Christian Jones is a nice target and Kain Colter even got in on the act and looked like a reliable (and speedy) receiving option.


The entire defense deserves to be called out in this one (forcing just one punt and yielding 541 yards), but a lot of the blame should fall upon the guys up front. Despite getting healthy for the first time this season with Brian Arnfelt back up front, the D-Line never got much of any pressure on Robinson when he pulled back to throw. Yes, they did an admirable job containing him and the rest of the run game (that averaged just 3.6 yards per carry), but the lack of pressure gave him all day to throw, and that allowed him to stop throwing the jump ball and actually find open receivers. And although the secondary tallied 3 INTs, they stood almost no chance against a speedy Michigan WR corps later in the game. This defense is slowly becoming one of the worst units under Fitz, and that is despite having seniors at key positions (DiNardo and Vince Browne on the DL, Bryce McNaul at LB, along with Jordan Mabin and Brian Peters in the secondary). They must find a way to plug the holes if Northwestern wants to reach a bowl for the fourth consecutive year (something NU fans though was certain heading into this season).

Random Observations

Third Down Conversions

Third downs are emphasized and for good reason: Michigan converted 14 of their 17 chances (thereby needing to punt just once on the night), while the 'Cats converted just 4 of 11 times, meaning their usually-methodical offense was in big trouble (NU's only 10+ play drive was the last drive of the game in what was essentially garbage time). After being near the top nationally in third down conversions on offense, the 'Cats are now a measly 71st (40.6%) while coming in even worse on defense (117th, 54.8%). NU must somehow turn things around on both sides if they want to have a successful year.


Northwestern has won the turnover battle in its past three games but has lost all of them (it tied in its first two games). On the year, NU's +1.2 turnover per game margin is ranked 12th in the nation, but right now it seems as though that has helped cover up a defense that is seemingly unable to stop anyone.

Fitz Stuck at Third

Pat Fitzgerald remains tied for third on the Northwestern all-time wins list (at 36; his overall record is now 36-32), still one short of tying Randy Walker at 37. Thankfully for Fitz, his favorite opponent to beat is up next for the 'Cats: Fitz is 4-1 against Iowa and is yet to lose at Iowa City (3-0).

Final Thought

It was yet another tough loss to swallow, given a double-digit second half lead and an offensive strategy that seemed to be working, but the fact is that Michigan is a very talented team (on offense, at least) and the 'Cats turned the ball over when it mattered most. It does seem like the team is learning as the season progresses: the coaching staff is making adjustments in scheme and personnel and the team has stuck with it in spite of the disappointment.

The rest of the games on the schedule are certainly win-able with just two ranked opponents left on the slate (at Nebraska, who has looked more than human the past two games, and versus Michigan State, who have their own issues). The other five games are essentially up for grabs, and that includes this next game at Iowa, whose defense has been exposed this year after losing some of their key cogs.

Just like with the past two games, the Wildcats will certainly make the remainder of the season entertaining, no matter what their final record is.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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