Michigan should have lost this game.
Or at least that’s what I was thinking for pretty much the whole game. There’s a spooky feeling I get before a Michigan loss. Because it’s not just one thing that goes wrong – when Michigan loses, it seems like everything goes wrong.
Call me Ichabod Crane, but when things are amiss, I go looking for the headless horseman. When mysterious injuries plague the team, Henne underperforms and fluke plays hurt Michigan drives, the pessimist in me naturally starts thinking that Michigan football is just haunted.
This year’s loss to Notre Dame is a perfect example: Mike Hart was out. Tim Massaquoi was out. Jake Long was out too, but that wasn’t the worst news for the offensive line – backup right tackle Mike Kolodziej, who was filling in for Long, was out as well with a strange, unexplainable illness. Replays went against Michigan, a tipped pass was caught for a Notre Dame touchdown and the Wolverines, of course, ended up on the short end of a 17-10 game. But most of us knew – or felt – long before the final seconds ticked off the clock that Notre Dame had an edge.
This week’s game had that same feeling.
n At the beginning of August, long before the first snap of college football was ever played, I asked Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez specifically about this game. It was a night game in Evanston, and last year the Wildcats knocked off Ohio State in an overtime game – at night in Evanston. Road games are always tough, but this one seemed particularly daunting. It was homecoming and the game was on ESPN, so the Wildcats were going to be fired up. And they really had the Wolverines right where they wanted them.
n If this game were last year, Northwestern’s spread offense would have torched Michigan for 40 points. Because of last year’s dismal performances against Michigan State, Ohio State and Texas – all teams with mobile quarterbacks – I still get that nervous feeling whenever Michigan takes on spread teams with signal callers who can run. Maybe I shouldn’t. The Wolverines have shut down all of the mobile quarterbacks they have faced this season.
n Now the big ones. When I got to the press box, I noticed that Mike Hart and LaMarr Woodley were both dressed. This was a good sign. Neither Hart nor Woodley played more than a few snaps last week against Iowa, and it was unclear whether or not they would play this week. But the feeling of relief I felt when I saw them in white jerseys was overshadowed almost immediately when neither of them took the field.
Hart’s impact on the team is obvious. Though the team has now won two-straight games essentially without its star tailback, it looked for a while as if it wouldn’t be able to. Hart missed three games early in the year and Michigan lost two of them – although the Wolverines did manage to beat Eastern Michigan without Hart.
And because Northwestern had given up just five sacks all year, I figured Michigan would need Woodley to provide some much-needed pressure on Basanez.
My stomach tied itself in knots when Northwestern marched down the field on its first drive. Basanez sat in the pocket all day, and it took the Wildcats just four plays to go 48 yards. Before Northwestern running back Tyrell Sutton fumbled on the fifth play, I was figuring that Michigan was done for.
n Speaking of the first Northwestern drive. How about punter and kickoff specialist Ross Ryan’s first kick of the game? That kick, which was really short anyway, shot out of bounds, giving Northwestern the ball on the 35-yard line. If you’re curious about what I mean by fluke plays, this is it. Ryan, who has been superb at kickoffs all year long, somehow manages to boot this one short and right. It’s not like Michigan really needed to help the Northwestern offense, which was averaging almost 600 yards per game in total offense. So when a stupid mistake gave the Wildcats an extra hand, I was sure Michigan was done.
n The No. 1 thing this season that has indicated a Michigan loss was imminent has been quarterback Chad Henne’s performance. In every game that Michigan has lost this year, Henne has completed fewer than half his passes. In all the wins, he’s completed more than half. Henne was off his game on Saturday – completing just 17 of 30 passes. Although he made it over the halfway mark, his constant flirtation with the 50-percent barrier had me wondering if it just wasn’t Michigan’s day. Henne has thrown an interception in two of Michigan’s three losses. On Saturday, he threw three. Call me a pessimist, but I was skeptical that Michigan could pull out a win without its starting quarterback or running back playing up to par.
So let’s recap. Michigan was playing on the road, at night, in a nationally televised homecoming game, against a spread offense, without its starting running back or star defensive end and with its quarterback struggling. Add to that the fact that Michigan actually lost the turnover battle and had injuries to starting center Adam Kraus and left tackle Adam Stenavich, and it’s easy to understand why this game had me spooked.
But somehow, with all of that going against them, the Wolverines did the unthinkable and won.
It makes you wonder if maybe Michigan finally has its head on straight. And maybe it’s time for me to stop believing in ghosts.
Ian Herbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.