Post-Game Analysis: Michigan
by Jonathan Hodges
On a very cold and very wet day in Ann Arbor,
Northwestern (8-3, 4-3) beat Michigan (3-8, 2-5) for the first time since 2000
by a final score of 21-14 on the back of a solid comeback
performance by CJ Bacher and an outstanding effort from the Wildcat defense. It
propelled Northwestern to its 8th win this season (with one regular season game
remaining), which equals the win total during NU's 2000 Big Ten co-Championship
season, and it gave the Wolverines their 8th loss of this year, the most ever in
a single season. And, of course, the 'Cats' bowl destination was likely
upgraded as a result of the win.
The action started very quickly, with CJ
Bacher throwing an INT during the opening drive of the game deep in NU territory
- but the tides quickly turned as the NU D stopped Michigan from gaining a first
down and Wootton blocked the FG attempt. After going 3 and out, NU got another
break as the Demos punt careened off of Michigan's return man, Odoms, and was
recovered by Peterman in Michigan territory. The 'Cats wasted no time, punching
it in for a TD with a Simmons 21 yard run.
Michigan seemed to get things
going with a solid running game in the first half, and scored what would turn
out to be their only offensive TD to tie the game just a couple of drives later,
and then took the lead on a blocked punt that was recovered in the end zone to
quickly jump out on top in the second quarter. NU's longest drive of the first
half was the 39 yard TD-scoring drive after the punt recovery, and the 'Cats
needed to get something going. QB Mike Kafka had seen some time behind center,
but was knocked out of the game with a concussion and did not return, leaving
the Wildcat offense in the hands of Bacher.
The one thing that can be
said about this year's Northwestern squad is that they respond - they have not
lost consecutive games and have made the necessary adjustments to outscore
opponents by a significant margin in the second halves of games, and that trend
continued against Michigan. On offense, NU took the chance to make quick
strikes, scoring TDs via CJ Bacher passes in each of NU's first two drives of
the second half. The first featured a 40 yard drive thanks to great field
position following a partially blocked punt off the hands of Mims which was
capped by a 17 yard TD grab by the steady-handed Ross Lane. The second featured
NU's longest drive of the day, 66 yards, capped by a 53 yard TD toss to
Peterman, who sprinted down the middle of the feld for a score - that play was
NU's longest scoring play on the season. Those consecutive TDs gave NU a 21-14
lead which the defense milked until the cows came home.
Speaking of D,
the Wildcats clamped down in the second half and never looked back. Michigan
went 3 and out on its first 4 drives of the half and punted on their first 5
drives, then when they got the closest to tying the game (at the NU 23 yard line
on a drive following a CJ interception), Jordan Mabin snagged an interception in
the end zone on an errant pass to steal Michigan's chance at scoring; Michigan
wouldn't get within realistic striking range again. Northwestern benefitted
from a questionalble call from the officials on that aforementioned CJ
interception, though, as the play was whistled dead at the NU 44 yard line
(stopping any chance of a replay) where the Michigan DB got very close to the
sideline - if anything touched the line it must have been his pinkie toe - which
thankfully gave the NU D a chance to take care of business.
late in the game the outcome of the game was somewhat in question, but the
Northwestern defense finished the job, forcing 4 straight incompletions on
Michigan's last gasp effort. On the day, the NU pass defense was outstanding,
giving up only 83 yards through the air on 12 of 36 passing (33%), as they broke
up 7 passes and had an interception, with the guys up front adding some
significant pressure as well. In the second half, after jumping out to the
21-14 lead, NU left it up to the defense to win the game (the offense stuck with
some conservative play calling, which made sense given the conditions on the
field), which they in fact did.
Overall it was a solid win for the
Wildcats, and an outstanding performance from the D, who allowed just one
offensive TD and held the Wolverines to 264 yards of offense and under 90 yards
passing. It was the 'Cats 2nd victory in Ann Arbor since 1959 that gave
Michigan the most losses in a season ever and propelled NU to its most wins in 8
seasons, with another game yet to play. CJ Bacher bounced back nicely from his
injury, leading the NU offense to just enough production to pull out the
victory. And the special teams, despite a major blunder, found a way to make
plays and help seal the win.
Player of the Game: Northwestern
DE Corey Wootton (6 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass break-up, 1
FG block) In a play that set the tone early for the 'Cats, Wootton came out
and blocked Michigan's FG attempt on their first drive to keep them off the
scoreboard - after holding them out of the end zone despite excellent field
position. Throughout the game, the D got the job done, and Wootton led the way,
getting into the backfield early and often and forcing bad throws from the
Michigan QBs. It was the defense that won the game, and despite impressive
performances elsewhere, Wootton deserves the nod here as a representative of the
Northwestern Honorable Mentions:
- NU QB CJ Bacher
(17 of 29 passing for 198 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, 9 rushes for -15 yards)
Bacher made his return to the field as the starter, although he was spelled by
Kafka for some plays in the first half until Mike went out with a concussion.
The rest of the way, though, it was all CJ as he found his stride passing early
in the second half, boosting NU to 2 TDs in its first 2 drives of the third
quarter. NU's running game was going nowhere fast, and Bacher's passing skills
led the 'Cats down the field when necessary to take the lead. While he did
throw 2 interceptions in NU territory, the defense held on both occasions and
kept those picks from coming back to hurt the Wildcats.
- NU receivers
Ross Lane (7 catches for 77 yards, 1 TD) and Eric Peterman (5 catches for 79
yards, 1 TD) Lane made his first TD grab of the season as CJ went to him 3
times on the first drive of the third quarter, including for the TD grab.
Peterman found his way to an opening in the middle of the field against
Michigan's cover-2 scheme and CJ hit him while Eric sprinted his way into the
end zone for the go-ahead TD. Despite horrible field conditions that made
catching a football difficult, to say the least, these guys were sure-handed
when NU needed them to be as these seniors helped lead the Wildcats to
- NU defenders Mabin, McManis, Phillips, Wootton, Kwateng, and
Williams (7 PBUs, 1 INT) These defenders found a way to break up 7 passes
and intercept one which was a huge contributor to the 'Cats' most successful job
defending the pass in a long time. The 'Cats only netted one sack on the day
but got enough pressure up front and then got excellent coverage in the
secondary, despite slick conditions that made it difficult to stay in step with
- NU P Stefan Demos (8 punts for 37.2 yards/punt, 2 inside
the 20) Yes, a punt was blocked, but not stoping the oncoming blockers is
not the responsibility of the punter. In such poor conditions, it was amazing
how well that Demos did on the day, including hitting 2 punts inside the five
yard line (one that was just about as close to the goal line as you can get
without getting a touchback) and generally helping NU stay even, if not ahead,
in the field position battle. And, of course, one of his punts ended up being
recovered by NU, which helped the 'Cats' cause immensely.
- NU DC
Hankwitz: DC Mike Hankwitz deserves credit for engineering yet another
scoreless second half for the Northwestern defense, as NU kept Michigan away
from the end zone down the stretch. The 'Cats' D made the necessary adjustments
in terms of scheme, then the players executed the plays needed to propel the
Wildcats to victory, even with Michigan having multiple shots to tie the game in
the 4th period.
What to Work On:
- Run Game: NU's
efforts would have benefitted greatly from a solid running game down the stretch
as they attempted to bleed the clock and seal the victory. Instead, the 'Cats
could never get a solid running attack going. Of course, the Wildcats did not
have the benefit of a strong running QB with Kafka out of the game and CJ still
hampered a bit with his hamstring, but the OL didn't do a whole lot of favors as
the Michigan DL seemingly took over and didn't let the running game go much of
anywhere. On the day, the NU rushing attack gained only 59 yards on 37 attempts
(1.6 yards/carry), which admittedly does include 3 sacks for -22 yards, but
still does not impress anyone. This must improve to avoid becoming
one-dimensional; Illinois has a strong DL as well, and NU doesn't want them
pinning their ears back and going on full pass rush every play.
Interceptions: Many NU fans have taken 2 interceptions/game as a fact of
life from CJ at this point, but it is still an area that could use improvement.
Remember that NU is undefeated when CJ is at the helm and throws 1 or fewer INTs
in a game, and during the Michigan game their best chance at tying the contest
came off of a second half Bacher interception (albeit the intended receiver,
Rooks, didn't do a great job of getting to the pass). While CJ makes the right
decision the vast majority of the game and gives NU the chance to win games,
those INTs still hurt.
- Run Defense: In the first half when Michigan
lined up in a more traditional set with a fullback and one or two TEs, they ran
the ball effectively and looked to be rolling early on. It was their inability
to complete passes that killed their chances; if they were in a position to run
the ball the whole day NU would have been in trouble. Obviously, NU's defense
is a bit depleted after losing Arrington and Browne in recent weeks and with
Bryant coming out of the Michigan game, but the ability to stop the run will be
key against Illinois' multi-pronged attack.
- Weather: I was there in person and the weather
was the worst I have experienced for a football game, and I've been to quite a
few. The only one that came close was the NU game in Ann Arbor 2 years ago,
except that this time it was colder and rainier, with some snow mixed in to
boot. A lot of credit goes to the NU players who fought through it all and came
- Attendance: While the announced attendance was
107,000+, there was no way the stadium got close to that number. The student
section never got more than about half full, and although many brave souls came
out for the game, most were gone by halftime, and few were left standing come
the 4th quarter. Myself and other NU fans stuck it out and were rewarded,
- NUMB: The Northwestern marching band was in attendance and
got to witness their 3rd NU road win in the last 4 chances as they also braved
the elements to perform and support the team. These guys deserve some major
kudos for sticking it out.
- Penalties: Once again, NU helped itself
in the penalty department, only racking up 2 for 10 yards, while Michigan hurt
themselves multiple times with 5 for 52 yards. Not inflicting wounds upon
itself helped the 'Cats, as the weather was enough to cause plenty of errors and
NU couldn't afford to make more.
- 3rd Down Conversions: While NU's
offense wasn't exactly great converting 3rd downs (6 of 17, 35%), NU's D did an
excellent job on 3rd downs, holding Michigan to 5 of 20 (25%), most of those
being incompletions. As noted earlier, NU's fabulous pass defense on the day
boosted them to victory.
- Ball Handling: This goes hand in hand with
the weather conditions - it was difficult to keep a grip on the football, yet
that's what NU managed to do, never fumbling the ball during the game.
Meanwhile. Michigan had 3 fumbles (counting the muffed punt), although the
Wolverines did benefit from lucky bounces on 2 occasions, one that went out of
bounds, and one recovered by another Michigan player. Down the stretch in the
second half, NU benefitted from keeping control of the ball and then punting it
deep, even if the running game wasn't working very well.
Positioning: NU gave its bowl destination a boost with the win and is all
but guaranteed a warm weather destination. I will focus this week's commentary
on NU's bowl hopes, but for now a lot depends on how the 'Cats fare against
Illinois and could still land anywhere from Tampa to Phoenix.
It was a tough but historic victory for NU, who beat
Michigan in a non Big Ten title winning season for the first time since 1959;
this year's 5th year seniors have now been a part of victories over every other
Big Ten team, something that nobody playing football for Northwestern anytime
recently can say (not even those '95 or '96 Big Ten champs). Once again,
Northwestern responded to adversity - CJ Bacher returned to lead NU to victory,
the third string RB Simmons found paydirt, Lane caught his first TD pass of the
season, and the defense held Michigan to one offensive TD on the day - as the
'Cats equaled the highest win total in over a decade with another game to play.
Speaking of the next game, it should be a hard-hitting battle as Illinois (5-6)
comes to Evanston in desparation mode trying to become bowl eligible while NU
seeks to recapture the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk and get squarely in the mix for a
January 1 bowl.
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