With the game fully in hand midway through the fourth quarter, the Michigan defense lined up for one last 4th-and-1.
In a microcosm of Northwestern’s offense for the day, quarterback Carl Richardson fumbled the snap. Out of the ensuing scrum, senior edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson emerged with the ball, celebrating as if he’d just won the game for the Wolverines.
The recovery, of course, had no impact on the game whatsoever. Michigan already led, 33-7 — which would ultimately be the final score — and the fumble occurring on fourth down meant the Wildcats couldn’t advance the ball anyway.
But for Hutchinson, that didn’t matter. The recovery reflected his play on every down: fierce, unrelenting and mind-bogglingly quick for his size. His unique level of talent makes him a nightmare for any opposing offense, whether or not he’s actually dragging down the quarterback on any given down.
Against Northwestern, that was no different.
“I know he’s gonna be at the — you all know — he’s gonna be at the quarterback,” junior David Ojabo, Hutchinson’s counterpart on the edge, said. “ … It’s a lot of comfort having Aidan Hutchinson, knowing that he’s gonna do what Aidan Hutchinson does.”
For anyone watching the game, that impact is most clear when he’s in the backfield — and he’s in the backfield pretty often. On a third down in the second quarter, with the Wolverines nursing a seven-point lead, Hutchinson barrelled through the line and sacked Wildcats quarterback Ryan Hilinski, all while having one arm held by a blocker.
But focus on Hutchinson every down, and his influence is equally visible even when he’s not making tackles. Much of that comes from effective scheming from Michigan’s coaching staff.
Two plays before the sack, with Hutchinson on the weak side, Northwestern motioned two tight ends to try and flip sides. Hutchinson, given the trust of the coaching staff to adjust his own positioning, shifted back to the weak side, blew up a crack block and hurried a rolling-out Hilinski into a bad pass. The next play, the Wildcats rushed to the side opposite Hutchinson, right into the teeth of the defense.
The rest of the Wolverines’ defense is tough enough to scheme against. It’s made infinitely more difficult when an athletic juggernaut like Hutchinson is waiting on one end of the line.
“Making the ball come out quick is even more valuable than sacks a lot of the time,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “So you can’t just go by sacks — though he did have a sack and a fumble recovery — he’s making the ball come out fast, and imagine what that does for the secondary.”
It’s not hard to imagine, because it’s clear on every pass play. As Hutchinson continued to find the backfield on passing downs, Northwestern was forced to adjust to a much shorter, quicker passing game. Having the ball come out mere moments after the snap made it difficult for its receivers to create any separation and allowed the Wolverines’ defensive backs to anticipate where the ball would be.
On junior cornerback D.J. Turner’s fourth quarter interception, that anticipation paid dividends. Hilinski tried to hit a receiver on a quick hitch route to the outside, where Turner — trusting that Hutchinson and the rest of Michigan’s pass rush could stop any deep balls before they were even thrown — was waiting to jump the route.
“It makes it so much easier,” Turner said. “The ball has to come out quick. I know they don’t have all day in the pocket. Just like on the pick, it was a hitch, and I just know you can’t just sit in the pocket all day with Ojabo, and Aidan, and all kinds of dudes up there. A D-line is a DB’s best friend.”
In effect, fear of Hutchinson is almost as valuable a weapon as Hutchinson himself.