Football: Northwestern stumbles in overtime clash with Michigan

Coach Pat Fitzgerald leads his team back into the locker rooms after the Saturdays game against Michigan. The close game ended as a disappointing loss for the Wildcats, who fell to the Wolverines in overtime 38-31.

Kaitlin Svabek/Daily Senior Staffer

Coach Pat Fitzgerald leads his team back into the locker rooms after the Saturday’s game against Michigan. The close game ended as a disappointing loss for the Wildcats, who fell to the Wolverines in overtime 38-31.

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Northwestern was leading by 3 with 18 seconds remaining in regulation. And then Devin Gardner hit Roy Roundtree.

The Michigan quarterback and wide receiver connected on a 53-yard bomb with eight seconds left to move the ball from the Michigan 38-yard line to the NU 9-yard line. Gardner spiked the ball, and Brendan Gibbons knocked a 26-yard field goal through the uprights to tie the game at 31.

In overtime, Gardner waltzed into the end zone from a yard out, and the Wildcats could not match the score in their half of the extra period to seal Michigan’s (7-3, 5-1 Big Ten) 38-31 victory over No. 24 NU (7-3, 3-3) on Saturday.

“Obviously, it was a tough way to end up,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I thought our guys fought valiantly and we just ended up one play short.”

The Cats had trouble stopping the pass for most of the day as Gardner averaged nearly 18 yards per completion. The Wolverines had five pass plays of more than 20 yards, including two consecutive deep passes in the third quarter on the way to a score. NU also committed two pass-interference penalties that gave Michigan first downs and added life.

The Wolverines went after NU senior cornerback Demetrius Dugar, who was starting in place of injured redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose. Dugar picked up both pass-interference calls and was burned several other times for big gains after he lost the receiver in coverage or missed a tackle. The penalties were not only an issue for Dugar but also for the rest of the defense, which had four of NU’s eight penalties.

“We need to get back to our type of football,” junior linebacker Damien Proby said. “We need to be fundamentally sound. We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot, especially in a Big Ten game against a high-caliber offense or defense or team in general. We stopped ourselves a lot of times.”

Michigan’s top rushers also burned the Cats, particularly Gardner. The quarterback had only nine carries for 49 yards, but he scored two touchdowns and torched NU with runs to pick up first downs after breaking containment. Gardner made his second career start with star quarterback Denard Robinson not available, but Proby said no matter who was under center, the Cats were prepared to deal with the running quarterback.

“He’s an athletic guy,” Proby said. “We knew coming into this game that no matter which (quarterback) was back there, they were going to be able to move the ball around. We knew that if we collapse their cup in the backfield, they’re going to break through it, they’re going to use their feet. We had spies on him, we had defenders there, so we need to make the plays.”

NU’s offense was once again predicated on the run and in particular the option. The Cats ran the ball 58 times for 248 yards and were led by their dynamic duo of junior tailback Venric Mark and junior quarterback Kain Colter. The pair combined for 186 yards on the ground and each had big runs that showed off their athleticism. Colter showcased his ability to use his legs as a weapon, fleeing the pocket for large gains on several occasions and keeping plays alive to find open receivers in other moments.

The Cats’ aerial attack took a step forward Saturday with 183 passing yards. Colter threw for 96 yards and a touchdown, but the real hero of the passing game was Trevor Siemian.

After looking shaky in previous appearances, the sophomore quarterback completed six of seven passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns. His two scores came at critical junctions of the game. Siemian’s first touchdown drive came at the end of the first half when he led NU on a six-play, 56-yard drive that ended with a touchdown pass to redshirt freshman Cameron Dickerson. The second came after he replaced a dinged-up Colter and threw a 15-yard strike to sophomore Tony Jones, which allowed the Cats to retake the lead late in the fourth quarter.

“I’m always ready to play,” Siemian said. “I wasn’t going to go out there with my tail between my legs if I hadn’t played earlier in the game.

The loss not only eliminates NU from contention to win the Legends Division but also stings for most players in a more simple way. They all appeared stunned in the post-game news conference, and wide receiver Tony Jones summed up the feeling in the room.

“Just disappointment,” Jones said. “Just being so close and falling short is just disappointing. But like I said, we have the (24)-hour rule, we’ll watch the film and come Monday morning, it’s on to Michigan State. We’ll be ready to go next week.”