EVANSTON — Saturday, Michigan football coach Brady Hoke witnessed what he called the single greatest play he’s seen over 30 years of coaching.
He sees the Wolverines execute it perfectly in practice a couple times a week, but a game situation was another thing entirely.
Michigan had less than 10 seconds to get in position for a field goal to tie its game against Northwestern before the game clock expired, but the Wolverines were ready. Like a baseball player, wide receiver and holder Drew Dileo slid into place to hold the ball. Fifth-year senior kicker Brendan Gibbons didn’t have time to wind up, but as soon as his foot touched the ball, he knew the kick was good.
His 44-yard field goal sent Michigan into overtime against Northwestern for the second consecutive year. And with an interception from Thomas Gordon in triple overtime, the Wolverines snapped their winless November with a 27-19 win over the Wildcats.
“There wasn’t any doubt about how hard they played, how hard they played together,” Hoke said. “They practice that way, they could tell you that every week.”
The game was sent to overtime at the very last moment. But Michigan could’ve won it six minutes earlier when it faced a fourth-and-2.
Instead of kicking a field goal to tie the game, the Michigan coaching staff decided to take the chance and go for it — risky considering that the Wolverines hadn’t even converted a third down at that point.
Gardner was stuffed, and by the way Michigan’s offense had been stalling all day, it seemed very probable that was its last opportunity to score.
Later, Hoke said he went for it because his players deserved an opportunity to win the game.
Gardner agreed with Hoke on the fourth-down call. And though he couldn’t seal the game on that play, he was the integral cog in Michigan’s last drive in regulation.
There, Gardner became a quarterback transformed, converting two fourth-and-4s. And by the time triple overtime rolled around, he was the one to score the touchdown and rush three yards for the insurance of a two-point conversion.
“It’s him being how tough he is and just taking hits and keep coming back and being resilient,” said fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan. “It shows the heart he has and the love he has for this team.”
Before Gardner took command of the offense, Michigan almost exclusively focused on the run game, especially in the first half. Fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was no where to be seen at all during the game. Freshmen Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith handled the carries, and Green led the way with 79 yards.
After the game, Hoke said he didn’t feel comfortable putting Toussaint in the game because of all the practices he missed due to an undisclosed injury this past week.
Michigan had its offensive struggles, but Northwestern fared no better — the second half became more of a punting and kicking showcase than anything.
Though Gardner was commended for showing heart, the game really came down to a special teams battle — as Gibbons’ field goal showed.
A Northwestern miscue easily could have given Michigan the game. A Wildcats punt from their own end zone into the wind went just seven yards, setting the Wolverines up with a first-and-goal to start off the fourth quarter.
One rush for a loss and two incomplete passes later, Michigan was forced to kick a field goal.
But after the game, none of the missed opportunities mattered to the Wolverines. In the week leading up to the game, Michigan has had to account for its toughness, or seeming lack thereof.
On Saturday evening, with the culmination of Gardner’s last minute drive, Gibbons’ kick and the overtime win, the Wolverines said they were happy to silence the critics through their actions, at least temporarily
“I think this showed the resiliency of this team,” Lewan said. “We’re Wolverines. We’re never going to have a breaking point or back down.”