When the two teams actually met at Ryan Field, it wasn't pretty
On a blustery, cold day in Evanston, both offensive units that showed up to play at Ryan Field were a direct reflection of the weather. Michigan pulled out a sloppy, narrow 10-9 victory over Northwestern after the ‘Cats failed to convert a two-point conversion attempt with just three seconds left in the game.
The ugly loss sent NU to 3-6, in need of three straight wins to close the regular season in order to reach a bowl game. The Wolverines, with the ugly win, moved to 5-5, and could clinch a spot in postseason play with a win in their next game.
After the two teams traded punts early in the game, the Wolverines looked to be in prime position to score (that is a theme in this game, remember it), but were stopped on 4th down on the Northwestern 16. After five straight punts between the two teams, sophomore cornerback Matthew Harris picked off Michigan senior quarterback Devin Gardner on what, again, seemed like a promising scoring chance for Michigan at the Northwestern 11-yard line. Siemian returned the favor on the ensuing possession when his pass was tipped at the line and caught by sophomore defensive tackle Matthew Godin at NU's 35 with under a minute remaining in the half.
Again, however, the Wolverines failed to capitalize, and had to settle with a late first half 41-yard field goal attempt, which was blocked by junior cornerback Nick VanHoose. So the teams headed to the locker room deadlocked at zero.
To this point, it was an ugly game dictated by aggressive defensive fronts and poor quarterback play. Throughout the first half, Wildcat freshman runningback Justin Jackson struggled to gain separation as Michigan stacked the box, forcing Siemian to beat them through the air, which he could not do. On the other end, Gardner looked lost, often throwing well behind his receivers. And the ugliness continued as the second half got underway.
Following two traded punts midway through the third quarter (there were 13 total in this game), a Michigan drive stalled near midfield. Wolverine senior punter Will Hagerup sent a booming kick downfield towards senior punt returner Tony Jones, who couldn’t securely catch it. A Wolverine pounced on his mistake, and set their offense up with much better field position at NU’s 21. This time the Wolverines capitalized on two plays to give Michigan a 7-0 lead that felt like 49-0 with 7:23 to play in the third quarter.
“I want to say when I came up to it, I forgot to lock my elbows,” Jones said. “It was a very costly mistake. I take full responsibility for it. It was a crucial play in today’s game, and it helped to decide the outcome. It hurts.”
Michigan’s next drive seemed to be following a similar trend after a Northwestern punt, but senior safety Ibraheim Campbell picked off Gardner at his own 26 and ran it back 79 yards the UM 11. Somehow, the ‘Cats found a way to not score on three plays that gained a net of -28 yards: one negative run, a two-yard sack and another sack, which was exacerbated by an intentional grounding call, pushed them all the way out of the field goal range to the Michigan 43, where they were forced to punt.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter Northwestern mounted a drive from all the way back at its own one-yard line. The ‘Cats worked their way down to the Michigan six-yard line, but after the drive stalled on 3rd-and-goal, sophomore kicker Jack Mitchell split the uprights to cut Michigan’s lead to 7-3 with 7:26 to go.
Michigan responded with a long drive of their own that ended in a field goal, giving them a 10-3 lead. Siemian led his team down the field from his own 26 almost exclusively through the air, converting on three third downs and throwing a touchdown pass to Jones in the back corner of the end zone with just three seconds left to make the score 10-9 in favor of Michigan.
“We definitely used our tempo to our advantage [on that scoring drive],” Jones said.
Then, in a moment of pure chutzpah, coach Pat Fitzgerald elected to go for a two-point conversion rather than allowing Mitchell to attempt to all but send the game to overtime.
“I made that decision with six minutes left in the game,” he said. “It was not really chaotic. We already had our plan in place, we knew what we were going to do. We didn’t score a lot of points, so I felt like I would take a one-play opportunity. It’s three yards on one play to go win a football game.”
It was all or nothing. Siemian rolled right out of the pocket, and as he took a step back in an attempt to elude pressure, he slipped and fell on his backside. Despite the outcome, he said he did not doubt his coach’s decision.
“I thought it was the right call,” Siemian said. “Everybody was pumped up about it, like "'heck yeah, we’re going to win this thing.’”
Strong pressure from Michigan broke the play, however, and that as they say, was all she wrote.