The Northwestern football team buses waited outside the visitor’s locker room at Michigan Stadium as the Wildcats filed out to head back to Evanston. They were the latest opponent to come to Ann Arbor believing they had a chance to win, only to leave without a whimper.
Again, Michigan’s defense was the engine powering the win, and again the unit flustered its opponent all afternoon. Northwestern became the fourth team in five weeks to change quarterbacks during the game against the Wolverines.
“I think they dominated our front,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. “That’s what it looked like to me. Do you want any more superlatives?”
Here are some: For the fourth time in five weeks, Michigan’s opponent completed less than 50 percent of its passes. For the fifth straight time, the Wolverines sacked the opposing quarterback multiple times — this time a season-high four. And for the third time in five weeks, Michigan intercepted a pass, this time running it back 37 yards for a touchdown.
On that throw, as on several others, the Wildcats didn’t know what hit them.
“I thought we had it,” Fitzgerald said. “It looked like (wide receiver Mike McHugh) had it, and it went right through his hands, and (Lewis) just got a little Christmas gift. He was obviously athletic enough to finish the catch, and it’s a tough situation when you throw a 50-50 ball like that.
“Heck of a play by their young man.”
That was Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson’s only turnover, but it was not the only big play by Michigan’s defense. The last pass Thorson threw was an incomplete pass under pressure from junior defensive end Taco Charlton late in the third quarter.
“It looked like our offensive line was getting pushed back into (Thorson’s) lap all day, throwing off the back pocket and throwing on the move, and you’ve got to credit Michigan,” Fitzgerald said.
The Wildcats turned to Zack Oliver for one series in the fourth quarter. Michigan harassed him, too, with redshirt junior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow sacking him on his second play.
Oliver lasted one series before Matt Alviti relieved him with two minutes left in the game. By that time, the fans remaining at Michigan Stadium erupted into a loud “DE-FENSE!” chant, imploring the unit to finish off its third straight shutout. And they did, with Charlton sacking Alviti on the third play of the series. Three plays later, Alviti fell well short on a fourth-down scramble, turning the ball over to the Wolverines for the final time.
Thorson, a redshirt freshman, had been perhaps the most consistent of the opposing quarterbacks Michigan has stifled. But by the fourth quarter, with the game out of hand, Northwestern — like the Wolverines’ other victims — was ready to try something else.
“He wasn’t pulled in the fourth quarter. Let me make sure I’m clear. We didn’t pull him,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re down multiple scores, and I wanted to make sure that as the game progressed, we could get the other guys some reps.”
Other opponents tried similar tactics: Oregon State’s Marcus McMaryion replaced Seth Collins, UNLV switched Kurt Palandech in for Blake Decker and Maryland swapped Daxx Garman for Caleb Rowe.
Many have tried to crack Michigan’s defense since the Wolverines’ season-opening loss to Utah. None have succeeded.
The Wolverines have dominated each of those games from the opening kickoff, to the point where the opponent had no answer. But as Fitzgerald recapped the game, he had a simple explanation. He has seen many of Michigan’s defensive players stifle his team before. This year, though, was different.
“Those great players are a year older,” he said. “They’re pretty good.”
As well as they are playing, the Wolverines will have a hard time forcing their next opposing quarterback out of the game. Michigan State’s Connor Cook will be the toughest signal caller Michigan has faced this season, with 10 touchdowns against only one interception heading into Saturday night’s game at Rutgers.
But the Wolverines will throw everything at him nonetheless, just as they have each of the past five weeks.
“They brought it all day,” said Northwestern superback Dan Vitale. “They fought us all day, put the pressure on the quarterback and just played hard every single play. That’s all I can say.”
Michigan’s other opponents haven’t had many more answers, either.