As Northwestern jumped out to an early 17-0 lead against the surprisingly-flummoxed #14 Michigan Wolverines, “Go U, NU” drowned out the rah-rah hooliganism of whatever sports-mad state school made the trip to Evanston. For once, perhaps the ‘Cats could ward off history and knock off a Big Ten titan, and give the fresh-faced first years something to cheer about. Unfortunately, the same story plagued Northwestern, as the Wildcats collapsed in the second half by giving up 20 unanswered points to fall 20-17 to the Wolverines.
Northwestern began the game firing on all cylinders, led by a nearly impeccable Clayton Thorson, who started the game 8-9 for 94 yards in the first quarter alone. The ‘Cats began their first season with freshman JJ Jefferson’s first reception, a key 36-yard pass off a screen to set up Thorson for a 1-yard quarterback sneak. Interestingly enough, running backs Solomon Vault and John Moten IV, who began the game in place of the recently retired Jeremy Larkin, failed to support Thorson on the ground, gaining a measly six yards on the ground. It appeared as if Thorson put his Akron second-half disaster behind him, as he employed quick passes and improvisation to batter a stout Michigan front 7.
Michigan, on the other hand, began the game at the most dysfunctional they’ve been all year. Patterson managed only 15 yards in the first quarter, and the Northwestern front seven bottled up running back Karan Higdon for just 9 yards on the ground. After two consecutive three and outs, Michigan finally got their first 1st down with three minutes left in the first quarter. The Wolverines drive stalled as Karan Higdon was stuffed on a 4th and 1 near midfield. Thorson drove the ball down the field, aided by a key pass interference call against Michigan, to set up Moten IV for a 3-yard score, and Moten IV’s second touchdown of the season.
Some may be surprised #Northwestern is beating Michigan 17-0. Those of us who know the Wildcats realize this is peak Northwesterning. Lose to Akron, ball out against Michigan. Rinse and repeat.— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) September 29, 2018
Michigan’s often-praised front seven wasn’t able to pressure Thorson into any turnovers, nor could they stop themselves from helping the ‘Cats out. Michigan had six first half penalties for 65 yards, sustaining Northwestern drives and allowing the ‘Cats to build a dominating 17-0 lead. Patterson finally found an offensive groove in the second quarter, and matched power runs by Higdon with play action throws behind Northwestern’s secondary to drive down the field and score on a Higdon seven yard touchdown run.
By the end of the half, Michigan’s offense had amassed more yards than Northwestern, but with only seven points to show for it. Michigan’s defense did an excellent job keying on the run game, led by Chase Winovich’s seven first half tackles, but the Wildcats burned the Wolverines on 3rd down by going 4-7. Thorson began to lose a bit of his momentum, ending his last three possessions without any points, but the Wolverines could not capitalize on their superiority in total yardage.
First half in gif form in Evanston:— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) September 29, 2018
17-7 'Cats over Michigan. pic.twitter.com/mGtft0Eutz
The second half began with the Wolverines slowly but surely chipping away at Northwestern’s lead. Karan Higdon began to display his elusivity and vision, but Shea Patterson missed open receivers twice on his first drive before the Wolverines settled for a Quinn Nordin field goal. Michigan’s front seven began to impose itself, limiting the Wildcats to only 24 total yards in the 3rd quarter. After a Northwestern punt, Michigan began pounding the rock with Higdon, which gave Patterson the time to execute long passing plays off play-action. Northwestern’s defense, though, did not break as Michigan stalled once again in the red zone.
Another Nordin field goal made the score 17-13, and a sense of urgency was palpable among the Northwestern faithful.
Coach Fitz and the rest of the coaching staff struggled to adjust to the Wolverine’s increased aggression on the ground.
“We made adjustments that just quite frankly didn't work,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s frustrating. We just got to do a better job to get our guys to make plays. It starts with us. We’ve got to do a better job coaching.”
Northwestern couldn’t get past the Michigan front seven, which added Khaleke Hudson after his first half suspension for targeting last game against Nebraska. Two consecutive Northwestern drops led to a three and out, but neither team’s defense budged for the next few possession until Patterson led an 11-play, 67 yard drive by employing a Steve Young-esque scrambling ability that culminated in Karan Higdon’s second touchdown from five yards out to give the Wolverines their first lead all game with 4 minutes left in the game. The Wolverines lost star defensive end Rashan Gary, but their pass rush relentlessly went after Thorson with little loss.
“Rashan [Gary’s] a first round draft pick, a top ten pick.” Thorson said. “When you can roll guys in like that and not miss a beat, that's special.”
Michigan had seized the game at this point, as Thorson got sacked after rolling out and failing to throw the ball out of bounds to end Northwestern’s next drive. Michigan got the ball with roughly three and a half minutes left, and Patterson ran the ball on an option read to convert on a key third down that could have allowed Northwestern one last chance to score and milked enough of the clock to leave only 30 seconds for the ‘Cats final drive. Clayton Thorson drove the ‘Cats to near midfield, where he was sacked before throwing his Hail Mary. The Wolverines escaped with a 20-17 victory.
Although Northwestern faded dramatically down the stretch, they held a monstrous Michigan attack to only 20 points, the fewest they scored since week one against Notre Dame. While Patterson and Higdon piled up yardage in the second half and made just enough critical plays to steal with win, the Northwestern defense played admirably despite losing second-leading tackler Nate Hall and corner Greg Newsome II midway through the game. At 1-1 in the Big Ten, the ‘Cats schedule only gets murkier with a trip to Michigan State and a tilt against Wisconsin within the next month. The ‘Cats showed resolve in responding to their crushing loss against Akron, but their performance today wasn’t enough against this talented Michigan side. At this point last season, Northwestern was in the midst of a 2-3 start before it rattled off nine wins in a row; to win at that level with a substantially more brutal schedule, Coach Fitz will need to see more consistent performances to even have a chance.
Final from Ryan Field:— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) September 30, 2018
Michigan 20, Northwestern 17