EVANSTON – After Michigan’s last five games were decided by a combined 14 points, we finally got what we wanted.
Yes, the Wolverines at long last broke their streak of nail-biting, heart-attack-inducing finishes with a decisive 16-point victory over Northwestern at Ryan Field on Saturday night. There weren’t any game-winning drives in the final moments. Overtime never loomed. A single small mistake or nuanced heads-up play didn’t decide the outcome.
No, Michigan won this game handily, controlling the clock and outplaying Northwestern on offense, defense and special teams. The Wolverines piled up 253 rushing yards to the Wildcats’ 89. The defense shut out Northwestern’s high-octane offense – which was averaging 529 yards and 37 points per game – in the second half. The placekicking and punting units were both lethal.
For the first time since Sept. 17 against Eastern Michigan – if that game even counts – we saw the complete performance that so many had expected for so long.
Well, kind of.
You see, Mike Hart – relegated to the sideline with an ankle injury – didn’t account for any of those numerous ground yards. Defensive star LaMarr Woodley sat out to nurse a badly bruised arm. Chad Henne was uninspiring in throwing for 174 yards with three picks and one passing touchdown. Center Adam Kraus hurt his right knee, adding to the long list of problems on the offensive line this season.
Taking the above information into account, you might have predicted another devastating loss and a continuation of the tailspin the team found itself in over the season’s first six weeks. But instead, the Wolverines return to Ann Arbor with a three-game winning streak, a heightened confidence and a foundation for success in the coming years.
It’s hard to deny that Michigan is laying the groundwork for a bright future. This team’s poise and experience have been forged in the crucible of high-pressure, down-to-the-wire finishes. Its depth has blossomed due to seemingly unfortunate injuries and illnesses. Its fortunes have been boosted by contributions from previously obscure individuals.
But after all the Wolverines have been through this season, was it really so surprising that the tag team of Jerome Jackson and Kevin Grady combined for 169 yards and a touchdown on 44 carries in place of Hart?
That third-string tight end Mike Massey caught a touchdown pass – instead of primary receiver Jason Avant or top tight ends Tim Massaquoi or Tyler Ecker – to help the Wolverines pull away in the second quarter?
That reserve linebacker Shawn Crable set the tone to open the second half with a violent sack on Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez, dropping the Wildcats for a 15-yard loss and partially filling the void left by Woodley in the process?
Or that backup snapper Mark Bihl didn’t seem to miss a beat in replacing Kraus?
While the starters have had excellent seasons when they’ve been on the field, Michigan has found itself in situations requiring involvement from other sources. The Wolverines can rest easy knowing that all of the above-mentioned substitutes have at least one year of eligibility left.
While key absences at various positions have seriously hurt the Wolverines’ chances in several games this year, Michigan’s fill-ins have been up to the task. When the regulars return to the lineup, Lloyd Carr and his coaching staff will have significantly more confidence inserting backups in spot situations with the knowledge that they’ve seen meaningful game action before.
This team was young and unproven at the beginning of the season. It will enter next year as a battle-tested and seasoned group.
There’s still room for growth. Brandon Harrison’s first-quarter interception on Saturday – his second in as many weeks – is a perfect example. The safety’s clutch turnover was negated when he fumbled the ball away after an impressive 36-yard return.
But Michigan fans were treated to a solid road performance this week, and it came from a team at far less than full-strength.
Make no mistake: On Saturday night in Evanston, the Wolverines helped their future at least as much as their present. And in this season of ups and downs, close calls and dramatic conclusions, supporters of the Maize and Blue could finally rest easy with a clear-cut win.
It’s okay to uncross your fingers now. With a bye week coming up, your nerves are guaranteed a rest for at least a couple weeks.
– Gabe Edelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.