The temptation is strong.
The temptation is strong to look at how the game went on Saturday afternoon and point to luck for how Michigan snatched a win away from Northwestern, for doing it as quickly and ruthlessly as the Wolverines did.
It’d be easy to say that Devin Gardner and Kenny Demens and Roy Roundtree and company should be praised less for winning and admonished more for how they let the game nearly slip away — how they put themselves at the whim of a miracle to be able to crawl away with a victory. (Miracle or baffling mistake by the Wildcats, however you want to look at it.)
It wouldn’t be heresy to say that Michigan had no business winning this game, that this team — with all of its championship aspirations, which it can still cling to thanks to this win — didn’t deserve its seventh win based on its performance on Saturday.
But don’t tell that to them.
“We’ve got a lot that we didn’t do well, but we did do well when you win the football game,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke.
In truth, it’d be hard to say with a straight face that the Wolverines played the type of winning football that you need to play to win most weeks.
Not when their running backs averaged 1.8 yard per carry after you remove redshirt junior Fitzgerald Toussaint’s 50-yarder from the equation. (Which is the right move, since it ended in a backbreaking fumble.)
Not when a normally sound defense found itself on its heels for almost the entire game, torn up by the speed of Venric Mark and Kain Colter and the arm of Trevor Siemian, a player who may never have as good a passing day as he did here against Michigan.
Not when Gardner inexplicably threw an interception on what should have been the game-winning drive with 3:37 remaining.
Yet for all the wrong on Saturday, there was right, right when it mattered the most. And that’s all that matters in a game that judges only on ‘W’s’ and ‘L’s.”
Given one final chance — and that is the appropriate word here, since having just 18 seconds means you’re doomed to rely on the impulses of fortune, at least somewhat — Michigan picked the winning numbers.
Fifth-year senior J.T. Floyd — a symbol of his whole team, since he repeatedly comes under fire by opposing passers yet keeps coming back resolute — told Gardner before the final Michigan drive that the defense had given the offense a chance, so it was time to go take care of business.
Gardner, facing his first all-the-pressure-in-the-world situation in just his second start at quarterback, told the huddle that they had worked too hard not to go down and score, to not go down and shock 112,000 fans into euphoria for the second time in as many home games.
“We had the ball with a chance. That’s all you can ask for,” Gardner said simply.
And despite all the so-so play from the rest of the game and the minimal time they had left, and thus despite all the reason in the world not to believe, the Wolverines nonetheless did. Redshirt junior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan was “never worried one time,” in his words.
Hoke will lie to the media with impunity and not even feel guilty about it, but he wouldn’t lie to his wife — and the coach said that when she asked if he knew if his team was going to win, he replied in the affirmative.
“These kids have been great,” Hoke said. “It didn’t surprise me. It really didn’t surprise me.”
These aren’t the words of a team that particularly cares if it does things the pretty way, because a conference championship trophy is the only beautiful thing it cares about.
Michigan will focus on its mistakes simply because it knows that to repeat them is to make its job that much harder. But at the end of the day, a game full of questionable play will be remembered only by Gardner’s throw, Roundtree’s catch, redshirt junior Brendan Gibbons’s kick and the win that followed. (Overtime was a mere formality.)
And at this time of year, it doesn’t matter how you do it — you just have to win.
“I think Coach Hoke always emphasizes getting better each and every week, but I think that this was one of those games where while we didn’t play all that well, I think that we showed a lot of character this week,” said fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs, the new recipient of the Wistert brothers’ legends jersey.
“We overcame a lot of adversity, both offensively and defensively, and I’m prouder than hell of these guys. I really mean that.”
So don’t apologize for Michigan for the way it played on Saturday. Given the outcome, the Wolverines themselves certainly aren’t.