By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 10, 2012
The script was written, proofed and printed, but the Michigan football team trashed it.
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Brady Hoke waltzed into his post-game press conference after the Wolverines’ dramatic 38-31 overtime victory over No. 24 Northwestern at Michigan Stadium.
Hoke smiled and scanned the room. He wanted to ask the first question.
“Who started writing the article before the game was over?” Hoke asked.
Several hands shot up meekly. Michigan had no business beating the Wildcats, not the way this one played out. The game was all but over, but Devin Gardner needed just eight seconds to turn it around.
With 18 ticks left on the clock, Gardner and the offense were on their own 38-yard line trailing by three points and with no timeouts.
Gardner, Michigan’s junior receiver-turned-quarterback making just his second career start in place of injured senior quarterback Denard Robinson, launched a downfield strike to fifth-year senior receiver Roy Roundtree at the Wildcat nine-yard line. Roundtree was beaten, cloaked by cornerback Daniel Jones, but Roundtree’s desperation attempt at the ball tipped it away from Jones and into his own hands as he fell to the turf.
Eight seconds changed the entire complexion of the afternoon.
“There was time on the clock and the defense gave us a place to stand,” Gardner said.
The Wolverines killed the clock with seven seconds left, and redshirt junior kicker Brendan Gibbons trotted on the field for a game-tying 26-yard field goal. The snap was low, but junior receiver Drew Dileo picked it off the carpet and Gibbons boomed it through the uprights.
The Wolverines entered the contest at 3-0 in home overtime games. Hoke came in riding a 12-0 home record since arriving at Michigan. Both streaks held, as Gardner scampered in from one yard out in overtime and fifth-year senior linebacker Kenny Demens made consecutive stops on third and fourth down to stymie the Wildcats’ overtime try.
The Wolverines swarmed straight to the student section to celebrate the improbable victory, one that keeps them, if only for the time being, in line for a shot at the Big Ten title should Nebraska falter.
“When I’m looking at them on the sideline, there was never a doubt that they were going to win the football game,” Hoke said.
An air of despair swirled around the Michigan football team’s fan base a week ago when it was announced that Robinson, recovering from an ulnar-nerve injury, wouldn’t start against Minnesota. Gardner shifted back to quarterback and led the Wolverines to a 35-13 victory.
When the same announcement was made on Saturday prior to Michigan’s kickoff against Northwestern, there were few reservations. And Gardner didn’t disappoint.
He ended the day 16-for-29 passing with 286 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He added another 47 yards and two touchdowns rushing.
“I think he managed the game well,” Hoke said. “He made some good decisions.”
The narrative that held for much of the game, though, was Michigan’s inability to slow down the Northwestern offense.
Northwestern quickly proved to be a formidable foe on Saturday. After tailback Venric Mark gave the Wildcats an early lead, Northwestern quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian continued to attack with up-the-gut plunges from Mark and passes to the flats, slowly gashed the defense.
After touchdown runs by Gardner and sophomore tailback Thomas Rawls put Michigan up, 14-7, in the second quarter, Northwestern tied it up heading into halftime with a picture-perfect two-minute drive and didn’t slow down. In the first drive of the second half, Colter found receiver Dan Vitale for a quick-strike touchdown.
And just when it looked like the Wildcats would do it again, Michigan finally made its stand. It was just enough.
With Northwestern looking at a third-and-goal at the Michigan eight-yard line, senior defensive end Craig Roh exploded into the backfield to sack Colter and force a short field goal, keeping Michigan within 10 points.
“Had that not happened and they went gone in and scored seven … the outcome (of the game) probably would have been different,” Demens said.
Gardner took to the air, drawing a defensive pass interference and then hitting junior receiver Jeremy Gallon streaking down the right side for a gain of 42 yards. The next play, Toussaint took a dump pass from Gardner, slipped a tackle and tip-toed along the sideline for a 28-yard touchdown.
Michigan got the ball back at its own eight-yard line, trailing 24-21 early in the fourth quarter, and Gardner wasted no time in the shadows of his own end zone. He found Roundtree twice, Gallon once and Dileo once to put Michigan in the red zone, the finished the drive with a touchdown pass to true freshman right end Devin Funchess.
Northwestern responded quickly, as Siemian found Tony Jones up the seam for a touchdown pass to take a 31-28 lead with just under four minutes left in the game. But Gardner would give the ball right back on the next snap by throwing a long interception.
The Wildcats couldn’t quite run out the clock, and that doomed them. Michigan got the ball back with 18 seconds and the Hail Mary to Roundtree set up the game-tying kick.
In the end, Gardner shared the spotlight with Roundtree. The much-maligned receiver, who toppled Notre Dame in the final seconds last fall, played hero again. He made five catches for 139 yards.
Maybe the script was right all along. It just depends who was writing it.
As he walked with his wife, Laura, into the bowels of Michigan Stadium, she turned to him.
“Did you know you were going to win?” she asked?
“Yes,” Hoke said.
Hoke never had a doubt.
“No way,” the second-year coach said.
And why’s that?
“Because of those kids.”