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Notebook: Third-down woes becoming recurring issue

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Matt Slovin, Managing Editor
Published November 18, 2013

During regulation of the Michigan football team’s 27-19 triple-overtime win over Northwestern on Saturday, the Wolverines were 0-for-10 on third downs.

And somehow, despite that statistic, the coaching staff opted to go for it on a fourth-quarter fourth down deep in Wildcat territory. The play, a designed run by redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner, went for no gain, and instead of tying the game with a field goal, Northwestern took over on downs.

But in overtime, Michigan’s fortunes on third downs changed.

On the Wolverines’ first third down of overtime, Gardner hit sophomore fullback Joe Kerridge for six yards and the first down, which set up the first touchdown of the game.

The poor performance — Michigan went 3-for-17 on third downs — is just the latest in what has become a string of poor performances in that area. In the past three games, including the losses to Nebraska and Michigan State, the Wolverines are an abysmal 8 of 45, which equates to just an 18-percent success rate. Just a season ago, Michigan was tops in the Big Ten with a 39-percent third-down conversion rate. Most of the third-down situations were not manageable because of unproductive plays on first and second down.

Part of the third-down improvement late Saturday can be attributed to Gardner’s turnaround after regulation. Monday, fifth-year senior tackle Taylor Lewan said Gardner will always play better in those moments because of his competitive nature.

“This team was fired up after ending regulation the way we did,” Gardner said Saturday. “It felt like it was meant to be for us to finish this game. You can call it what you want, but we came out, we competed together and it was a wonderful ball game."

AWARDS AND HONORS: Monday, fifth-year senior kicker Brendan Gibbons was named the Big Ten’s Special Teams Player of the Week for his role in the Wolverines’ win at Northwestern.

Gibbons’s miraculous 44-yard field goal as regulation expired — his third successful attempt of the game — forced overtime. In the second overtime, he made a fourth field goal to tie a career high.

It’s the second time Gibbons has been given the award. Last season, he won it after kicking the game-winning field goal to beat Michigan State.

In Hoke’s Monday press conference, he gave credit to Gibbons for being successful despite not having a usual amount of time to go through his typical kicking motions.

“That whole (field-goal) team and the team getting off the field did a tremendous jobs,” Hoke said. “They gave us an opportunity to keep playing.”

Additionally, sophomore tight end Devin Funchess has been named one of eight finalists for the Mackey Award, given annually to the nation’s top tight end.

Funchess has transitioned into more of a wide receiver role for the Wolverines, beginning with the game against Minnesota when he had a career day. This season, he has accumulated 684 yards off 42 catches and has five touchdowns.

The winner will be announced on Dec. 11.

NOTE: Per usual, the game against Ohio State on Nov. 30 will be a noon kickoff, Michigan announced Monday. It will be broadcast on ABC.