ANN ARBOR — Win the Legends Division.
It's one of several goals hanging in Northwestern's Nicolet Football Center conference room, and the Wildcats had several chances to put themselves in position for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game Saturday.
First, with Northwestern (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten) clinging to a three-point lead with 18 seconds remaining in regulation, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner faded back and heaved it deep down the field for wide receiver Roy Roundtree. Sophomore cornerback Daniel Jones jumped a little bit early, inserted his hand into the fray and tipped the ball up. Roundtree, as he fell to the ground, kept his eyes on the ball and snared it as he hit the ground. Seconds later, the Wolverines (7-3, 5-1) forced overtime with a chip shot that stayed well clear of the right upright.
"All of the credit goes to him for making that play," senior linebacker Damien Proby said. "We were there. That's not anything to the coaching or anything to the player's skill level. That was just one of those things you can't control."
Then, after Michigan began the overtime period with a touchdown around the right end from Gardner, Northwestern had a chance to answer back with a touchdown. Separated by one yard from another first down, Kain Colter plummeted up the middle, on a play he had already made late in the fourth quarter for a key first down. This time, he was pushed back for a loss of a yard. Then, on fourth down, with junior running back Venric Mark sidelined by an injury, redshirt senior Tyris Jones got the carry with the game on the line. He too was stuffed up the middle.
With that final futile play, Michigan edged Northwestern, 38-31, to force a two-horse race for the Legends Division title. The Wolverines have a highly winnable game against Iowa and then will be the underdogs at the Horseshoe. The Cornhuskers have a highly winnable game against Minnesota before traveling to Kinnick Stadium for a rivalry game. Meanwhile, the Wildcats will look to secure their best season since 2008 with wins over Michigan State and Illinois. But the season could have been about so much more with a win at the Big House.
After all of the fuss about who would start under center on Saturday, Denard Robinson or Gardner, Michigan only needed one: Gardner. In the second start of his career, Gardner completed 16-of-29 for 286 yards and two touchdowns. More to the point, he was able to avoid constant pressure and run for 47 yards, including two touchdowns and several pivotal first downs. He was helped by Jeremy Gallon and Roundtree, who posted 94 and 139 receiving yards, respectively, many of them coming after the catch. At least 30 of those yards came after redshirt senior cornerback Demetrius Dugar flew right by the receiver.
"You go back and I think he was one of the most heavily recruited players in the country a couple of years ago," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He's a terrific football player. He made some great plays. We had guys in position, but because of his size and strength, he was able to fight through some things. You got to commend him. He's a very talented football player."
Junior quarterback Kain Colter aired it out a little more than he had in games past. He was rewarded with one of the easiest touchdown passes of his career, when he spotted freshman superback Dan Vitale wide open down the right sideline for a 23-yard touchdown pass to give Northwestern a 21-14 lead early in the second half.
From there on out, the two teams traded touchdowns into the final minutes, when with Colter banged up, Siemian came onto the field with the Wildcats trailing 28-24. Just as he had at the end of the first half, when he completed 4-of-5 for 51 yards, including a beautiful touchdown pass targeted right at redshirt freshman wide receiver Cameron Dickerson's back shoulder, Siemian came up clutch in the fourth quarter. He gave Northwestern the lead with a pass over the middle to sophomore wide receiver Tony Jones. It was a thing of beauty, hitting Jones right as he fell to the ground underneath the uprights.
Siemian said after the game that his series just before halftime may have given him a little bit of a lift heading into the fourth quarter.
"I'm always ready to play. So, sure, it helped my confidence, but I wasn't going to go out there with my tail between my legs if I hadn't played," Siemian said. "We've been pretty good in two minute all year. I don't think it took any of us by surprise."
That score gave the Wildcats a 31-28 lead with 3:59 remaining. When Colter barely inched past the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-inches, essentially sitting on the first-down line as he fell backwards, the Northwestern sideline exulted, believing victory was near. Instead, as has happened so many times this season to the Wildcats, defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory.
"Obviously, a tough way to end up," Fitzgerald said. "I thought our guys fought gallantly. We just ended up one play short, which is very disappointing."