EVANSTON — Alone on the sideline, Brendan Gibbons kept the same routine, the same steps: Back, back, back, back. Right, right. Then a pause.
Around him, Michigan’s game with Northwestern had turned harried. But here, there was peace in the familiar steps and sounds.
Back, back, back, back. Right, right. Pause. Thump
Just 2:18 remained, and the Michigan football team trailed 9-6 to Northwestern. The Wolverines took possession on their own 22-yard line, desperately trying to mount a final drive. About even with the line of scrimmage, on the sideline, Gibbons was kicking away.
Something seemed strange: the net was positioned a few yards in front of a patch cut out of the Ryan Field grass. Each time Gibbons stepped back, he stepped into the divot, set below the dirt and filled with slick artificial turf.
Back, back, back, back. Right, right. Pause.
Each time he started the kick, he had to stride over the obstacle to avoid it. It looked awkward. Why make the kick more difficult? Why didn’t he just move the net?
On the field, Drew Dileo was slogging his way through a forgettable evening. At the start of this final drive, Dileo had zero receptions and had been targeted only once.
To this point, the game had been almost comically bad. For 59:48, it was miserable. Gardner threw four would-be interceptions, but Northwestern dropped them all. On the other side of the ball, the Wildcats once punted from their own three-yard line. The kick went just seven yards. Still, Michigan lost a yard and could only manage a field goal.
It all seemed so meek. And so meaningless.
Here were the Wolverines, already eliminated from Big Ten title contention. What was there left to play for?
The team said its goal was 10 wins. So what?
This was a battle between the Legends Division’s bottom dwellers, and it showed. Now, the game hung in the balance on this final drive of regulation. To start it off, Gardner looked to Dileo. His first reception went for six yards.
He hurried back to the line as the clock ticked away. The race was on.
Only on big plays would Gibbons stop and watch. Back, back, back, back. Right, right. Pause.
Now it was 4th and four, so Gibbons looked up.
Gardner found Devin Funchess. Michigan stayed alive. Gibbons resumed, striding over that awkward divot.
Dileo’s struggles continued. On the next play, Gardner threw another pass Dileo’s way, but it was incomplete again. Two more plays, and Michigan faced another 4th and four.
Again, Funchess made the reception. But now time had become an issue.
Gardner was sacked for a loss of 13 yards. The field goal would be 60 yards from there, out of range. Less than 30 seconds remained. Another pass went incomplete. Michigan needed yards, but it also needed to stop the clock, and it was third down and no timeouts remained.
At some point, Matt Wile, Michigan’s long-distance kicker, grabbed Gibbons and took him near the line of scrimmage and close to Michigan coach Brady Hoke. Gardner flung a pass to Jeremy Gallon. He caught it 16 yards down the field, inbounds. Twelve seconds remained, and counting.
Half the team was running off the field and the field goal unit was running on.
“Hurry, hurry up!” Gibbons heard Hoke yell, as the coach waved his hands. “Hurry up!”
And so he ran onto the field.
Dileo had run a route on the opposite sideline, so he was the farthest player from the line of scrimmage. The line was just about set, but Dileo, the holder, was still on the wrong side of the ball. Six seconds remained, then five.
Michigan practices these hurried field goals often. The team runs them four or fives times a week during fall camp, Hoke said. Each Friday during the season, it practices more. Hoke counts down, and he counts fast.
Still, Hoke said he’s never been in a game situation this tight. Now, the crowd counted down for him
Rain had fallen steadily throughout the second quarter, and the field was muddy.
Dileo sprinted, and he needed to stop, quick.
As Dileo ran, Gibbons started his routine. Back, back…
There wasn’t enough time. Gibbons shuffled to a spot that looked right. The field was slick and divoted, and now, one more obstacle: time.
For 59:48 this was a miserable, meaningless game. But now the win was achievable, and the sideline buzzed. Michigan was playing for their teammates and for themselves and it didn’t matter what it was playing for because it was playing to win. Still, the Wolverines only had a prayer.
Dileo slid like a baseball player does into second base. Gibbons is a lefty, so Dileo was already on the correct side. Now, kicker and holder were together.
Gibbons didn’t even have a chance to pause. Jareth Glanda threw back the snap.
Soon, the rain picked up, and the wind whipped up loose objects and made it so loud that you had to yell to the person next to you. Michigan would dogpile after three overtimes, victorious 27-19. Fans would crowd over the stands lining the walkway next to Michigan’s locker room like a canyon. Gallon and Gardner and Taylor Lewan lingered there in the driving rain, basking in the feeling. Lewan disappeared into the locker room, then reemerged to give a sweatband to a young child.
Hoke would say, “It might be the best single play I’ve ever seen. ‘Cause it was a team play.”
Michigan didn’t need anything extra to play for. There was a game to be won. But Gibbons still had to make the kick. The routine had gone to hell. There was another obstacle to dodge.
Dileo’s slide stopped him at the right place.
Gibbons knew it was good the moment it left his foot.
Helfand can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @zhelfand.