Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald wasn’t surprised when he looked out his hotel room window to a dark gray sky and a steady rain on Saturday morning.
“I was pretty excited actually,” Fitzgerald said. “It seems like every time I’ve been to the Big House it’s been terrible, weather-wise. I was hoping that that would have been an omen.”
With temperatures in the 30s, rain turning to snow and then back to rain and winds from the north blowing harder than 20 mph, the weather played a key role in Michigan’s 21-14 loss to Northwestern on Saturday.
The trifecta of conditions made passing difficult — at least for Michigan.
The Wolverines quarterbacks, redshirt sophomore Nick Sheridan and redshirt freshman Steven Threet, completed just 12 passes on 36 attempts. All told, Michigan gained just 83 yards passing.
But Northwestern, facing the same conditions, moved the ball consistently through the air, especially in the second half, when the Wildcats threw for 158 yards.
“The conditions were pretty tough to play in,” said Northwestern fifth-year senior quarterback C.J. Bacher, who has now beaten every Big Ten team in his career. “Michigan’s front seven did a great job in the first half stopping the run. So we knew we had to come out in the second half throwing the football. We took that mindset out of the gates at halftime and were able to do it well enough to win.”
Michigan had no such success, and the weather was no excuse.
“I saw them throwing it and catching it,” Michigan offensive coordinator Calvin Magee said of the weather’s role in his team’s futility through the air.
No pick-six: Trailing by a touchdown in the fourth quarter, sophomore cornerback Donovan Warren intercepted a tipped pass near midfield. Warren sprinted up the Northwestern sideline and reached the end zone for a game-tying touchdown.
It should have been a key play — except officials called Warren out-of-bounds at the Northwestern 44-yard line. Since the play was blown dead, the call could not be overturned, even though replays appeared to show that Warren remained in bounds.
“I don’t feel like I stepped out of bounds at all,” Warren said. “I thought I was just going to score in the end zone. They blew the whistle.”
Despite the possible blown call, Michigan still had excellent field position for a game-tying drive. The Wolverines drove up to the 21-yard line, but Threet threw an interception in the end zone, ending his team’s best chance to come back.
Not exactly “special”: Michigan’s special teams were anything but on Saturday.
In great field position for their first drive after junior free safety Stevie Brown’s interception, the Wolverines lined up for a 23-yard field goal to take an early lead.
It was blocked.
After forcing Northwestern to go three-and-out on the ensuing drive, freshman Martavious Odoms muffed the punt, which the Wildcats recovered and drove 39 yards for a touchdown to open the scoring.
Special teams didn’t improve for Michigan in the second half. Redshirt junior Zoltan Mesko had his punt partially blocked to end Michigan’s first drive of the third quarter. Northwestern took over possession at Michigan’s 40-yard line and quickly scored the game-tying touchdown.
“We went into the game thinking it would be a field-position, special-teams game with the weather,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought we executed our plan pretty well.”
But there was one bright spot on special teams for the Wolverines — a blocked punt returned for a touchdown by walk-on redshirt sophomore Ricky Reyes, which gave Michigan a 14-7 lead in the second quarter.
“Ricky’s a guy that has earned some special teams play and he has some great energy for that,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “We’ve got a lot of walk-ons that are contributing, like Ricky and Jon Conover, and I’m proud of them.”
Injury report: With junior running back Brandon Minor out with a slew of injuries, much of Michigan’s rushing load was expected to fall on freshman Sam McGuffie. That is, until McGuffie pulled himself out of the game minutes before kickoff, telling running backs coach Fred Jackson he was “too banged up to play.”
McGuffie has suffered a number of injuries this season, including a concussion last month. Rodriguez cited McGuffie’s knee as the reason he didn’t play.
Threet didn’t start the game two weeks removed from suffering a concussion at Purdue, but he entered the game late in the third quarter to try and spark Michigan’s offense.
But Threet didn’t last a full quarter. He was helped off the field by trainers after a three-yard rush late in the fourth quarter.
“From what the trainers said, I think he took a blow to the head and something with his knee, too,” Rodriguez said.