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.

Even very 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 D.

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 victory.
- 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 the receivers.
- 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.
- CJ 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.

Random Observations:
- 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 out winners.
- 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, though.
- 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.
- Bowl 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.

Final Thought:

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.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

Previous jhodges commentary