Northwestern specializes in these Out of Nowhere performances.
Lose to Akron … and then take Michigan to the wire before falling 20-17. It’s the Northwestern way.
The Wildcats led the 14th-ranked Wolverines for more than 55 minutes Saturday at a sold-out Ryan Field. Playing without top skill player Jeremy Larkin, who had to retire from football for medical reasons, they cobbled together enough offense to take a 17-0 lead.
And then came the slowest Band-Aid removal in human history.
It was 17-0. And then 17-7 at the half, 17-10 and 17-13 after three quarters.
Northwestern failed to score on its final nine drives, falling 20-17 to the Wolverines. Clayton Thorson was sacked on the final play, a would-be Hail Mary.
“We were up 17-0,” Thorson said, “and we didn’t finish the job.”
It’s a result that probably didn’t satisfy either side. Michigan was sluggish and sloppy, committing 11 penalties for 100 yards.
That said, it did mark the first time Michigan overcame a 17-point deficit under Jim Harbaugh. And quarterback Shea Patterson played turnover-free ball (15-for-24, 196 yards) and scrambled effectively.
For Northwestern, it resembled the second half of the Purdue victory and Duke loss. The Wildcats got shut out in those sessions, too.
“The plays we made in the first half, we went 0-fer in the second half,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We had slant throws that were on the spot, and we drop it. (Other times) Clayton didn’t have the time he needed. I thought Michigan’s front dominated the second half.”
The game took its toll on Northwestern’s defense. Stud linebacker Nate Hall and starting cornerback Greg Newsome were lost to lower-body injuries. Fitzgerald said he did not know the severity of the injuries.
There was also mental anguish. Fitzgerald was steamed about how Michigan scored the game-winning touchdown: Tailback Karan Higdon was barely touched on a 5-yard burst up the middle.
“A breakdown in communication,” the coach said. “They went into an unbalanced formation. We practiced it this week. I have to look at the why. Why did we have that issue? As coaches are we asking our guys to do too much? That kind of stuff drives me crazy. For us to make that kind of mistake is really disappointing. It can’t happen.”
Said defensive end Joe Gaziano: “It was a simple split-zone play motioned to a wing, and we didn’t get the calls we needed to execute. I’ll be lying in bed tonight trying to sleep thinking about that play.”
On offense, Larkin’s subs couldn’t do much. John Moten IV, Solomon Vault and Isaiah Bowser combined to rush for 56 yards on 21 carries.
Starting right guard Tommy Doles, not listed on Northwestern’s injury report, did not play. Left tackle Blake Hance played sparingly. Northwesern paid the price as Thorson (16-for-27, 174 yards) was harassed all game. Michigan tallied six sacks.
The Wolverines (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) came in on a three-game winning streak and as a 15.5-point favorite.
Northwestern (1-3, 1-1) scored on its first three possessions, taking advantage of a blase Michigan defense that seemingly did not take its opponent seriously.
Little was expected from the Wildcats, but that’s often when they are at their best.
When did we last see a performance this unlikely?
Go back to Nov. 15, 2014. The Wildcats entered Notre Dame Stadium as 17½-point underdogs, having lost four straight. They walked off with a 43-40 overtime victory. Out of nowhere.
But that team, on that day, scored points at will. This one went nowhere after a hot start: 105 yards in the first quarter, 97 the rest of the game.
The only offensive highlights: freshman receiver JJ Jefferson ambled 36 yards on a bubble screen, leading to Northwestern’s first score. Riley Lees thrived as Northwestern’s new goal-line quarterback, taking a direct snap for a 4-yard run that set up Moten’s touchdown run.
That was about it.
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