1. The flaws remain, despite the win.
Everything had fallen into place for the Michigan football team’s offense. The execution, the bounces, the luck — it had all gone Michigan’s way to set up the best scoring opportunity of the game.
Michigan trailed by six to open the fourth quarter when senior receiver Joe Reynolds downed a punt from junior Matt Wile on the 1-yard line. Reynolds tiptoed the goal line before falling into the end zone.
The defense did its part, suffocating the Northwestern offense and allowing just two yards on the drive. Even the Wildcats pitched in with a miserable, seven-yard punt that set up the Wolverines on the 10-yard line. If Michigan could score a touchdown, it would take the lead.
But Michigan went backward. After a stretch run to freshman Derrick Green lost a yard, redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner threw a badly underthrown pass to sophomore Devin Funchess and then a badly overthrown pass to senior Jeremy Gallon. Michigan settled for a field goal.
Michigan won, ultimately, and the 27-19 score betrayed what was another anemic offensive performance. In regulation, Michigan scored just nine points. It was 0-for-13 on third down before overtime.
There were improvements. The line opened up some of the biggest holes it has in weeks. Michigan didn’t turn the ball over once.
But that was largely because Northwestern dropped four would-be interceptions. And when it counted, Michigan often came up short. There was the failure to capitalize on the short punt. And then on the next drive, Michigan went for it on a fourth-and-two instead of kicking the game-tying field goal. Gardner ran the ball on a keeper. He lost a yard.
“Well we wanna score more,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “But I think everyone in the country wants to score more. But I like how we ran the ball. That’s the first time I guess we were in positive yardage. That’s the first time in three weeks, so we’ll take that.”
2. The kids are alright.
Fitzgerald Toussaint stood on the sideline Saturday, his helmet in hand. For about two and a half seasons now, Toussaint has been the Michigan football team’s preferred choice at running back.
But now the fifth-year senior watched as two true freshmen took the snaps that usually go to him. Hobbled with an unspecified injury, Toussaint was unable to practice for much of the week, according to Hoke. He didn’t play a single snap. Hoke said he held him out of the game because he didn’t get enough work in practice.
Instead, Green and De’Veon Smith shared every carry from the tailback position. Together, they totaled 120 yards on 27 carries. It was Michigan’s first game in positive rushing yardage in the last three weeks.
Green got the start and the bulk of the carries, but Smith rushed just as well. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry on eight rushes — the highest average from a Michigan running back except for Green’s 5.3 yards per carry in the season opener. Toussaint’s highest average was 5.0 against Connecticut.
Hoke said Toussaint will still the be the starter moving forward, but the Wolverines finally saw some life from its young rushers.
3. Found: Pass rush
Michigan has been searching for a pass rush all year, and it may have finally found the right combination. Senior Jibreel Black, junior Frank Clark and freshman Taco Charlton pressured each of Northwestern’s quarterbacks for much of the game.
The Wolverines finished with two sacks, but the pass rush showed life and collapsed the pocket often. On one play, Clark beat his lineman with a spin move, but he was unable to get the sack. Still, the pressure forced a quick throw and an incompletion.
“We’re trying out new stuff,” said Black, the only defensive lineman with a sack Saturday. “We’re not going to get it right away. And I feel like we’re really starting to jell together.”
4. Drew Dileo is a good base runner.
Gardner ran off the field so quickly on the final play of regulation that he missed the last-second, 44-yard field goal from fifth-year senior Brendan Gibbons. That meant he also missed fifth-year senior Drew Dileo’s rather unusual hold.
After the game, Gardner said, “A lot of guys were in the locker room talking about, ‘Did you see Dileo?’
“I was like, ‘He’s the holder, what do you mean did I see Dileo?’ ”
What he missed was a play more often seen in baseball. Dileo was the furthest player from the line of scrimmage, so he had to run to get back for the snap. With a wet field, Dileo slid like a base runner to stop himself at the right spot.
In fact, Dileo was a talented baseball player in high school, winning three varsity letters and two Louisiana state championships. For Michigan, that paid off.
5. Bold Prediction: Derrick Green will get more carries than Fitzgerald Toussaint for the rest of the season.
Toussaint is still the presumed starter, but Green showed promise on Saturday. At this point, is he a better option that Toussaint? It’s close.
But Green is the running back of the future. My guess is Michigan will work on his development.