In a span of one minute Saturday afternoon, the Michigan football team was both relentless and merciful.
Nearly three hours after Jehu Chesson returned the game’s opening kickoff for a 96-yard touchdown, the Wildcats still hadn’t scored, and the Wolverines appeared to have little intention of easing off the gas.
With 47 seconds left, Northwestern had the ball trailing 38-0 and facing an almost meaningless 3rd-and-17. But the Michigan starters were still in, and the student section was still making noise.
If the Michigan defense wasn’t calling it a day, neither were the fans. They screamed through an incompletion on 3rd-and-long, then kept it up when Northwestern went for it on fourth down. The Wildcats turned it over, and only then did the Wolverines show mercy.
After leaving most of the defensive starters in for the game’s final series, fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock kneeled down, ending a resounding 38-0 win over No. 13 Northwestern. The sequence was emblematic of the entire game, with Michigan letting up only when it decided it was done. Everything happened on the Wolverines’ terms Saturday.
They bludgeoned one of the nation’s top defenses for 201 rushing yards and 380 total, and they held their third straight opponent scoreless. For the second time, they did so against a ranked opponent.
It was, as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game, “near flawless.”
The game had been billed as a clash of the Big Ten’s top two defenses, one that might be decided by the first team to score. That was half-right.
The 18th-ranked Wolverines were the first — and also the only — team to score. They lived up to their end of the billing, holding the Wildcats to just 168 yards and only once allowing even a chance for Northwestern to score — a 42-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter, which the Wildcats missed. But they also scored 38 points on the vaunted Northwestern defense. There was almost nothing they could have done better.
Well, there was one thing. Senior linebacker James Ross III was ejected for targeting in the third quarter, meaning he will miss the first half of next week’s game against Michigan State — a game that just became one of national importance. And if you want to get picky, fifth-year senior punter Blake O’Neill had his first touchback of the season — his first two, actually.
But other than that, it was a businesslike, merciless trouncing.
Michigan posted eight more tackles for loss, exactly on par with its average through six games. The Wolverines won the turnover battle with an interception which junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis ripped from a receiver and returned 37 yards for a touchdown. And they still weren’t entirely satisfied.
“When we’re out there, we don’t want to give them anything,” said redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers. “If a shutout is the byproduct of that, then so be it. But when we’re out there, we’re just concentrating on three-and-outs. Constant three-and-outs.”
It was close to constant three-and-outs on Saturday. Northwestern had 13 first downs, six more than Maryland had a week earlier. But it says something that first downs are the way to compare Michigan’s recent opponents. Since no one can score on them, there just isn’t much else to go by.
Six weeks into the season, only one team has scored more than a touchdown on the Wolverines, and that team is No. 5 Utah.
On Saturday, Michigan added to its defensive prowess and turned in stellar performances in all three phases of the game. The Wolverines got three rushing touchdowns: one from Rudock, one from redshirt junior running back Drake Johnson and another from junior running back Derrick Green. Chesson scored Michigan’s first kick-return touchdown since 2009 and Kenny Allen hit a career-long, 47-yard field goal.
It was fitting that all of this happened on afternoon with clear skies, warm weather and a general feeling of delight around campus. Fans did the wave halfway through the third quarter, and as the clock ticked down its final seconds, the students remained engaged, chanting, “We want State.”
When time expired, the Wolverines sprinted to the student section, led by redshirt freshman receiver Maurice Ways, senior cornerback Jeremy Clark and senior linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone. They jumped into the stands as the Michigan Marching Band blared “The Victors.”
It was a genuinely euphoric moment. It was nearly flawless.