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Three Things We Learned in Northwestern's 38-31 Loss to Michigan

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

The lasting impression of Northwestern’s 38-31 loss at Michigan will be the fourth-quarter meltdown, triggered by Roy Roundtree’s 53-yard touchdown grab to set up the game-tying field goal, completed by the Wildcats' failed fourth-down conversion attempt in overtime. The next part was predictable. Once you let a lead slip away in that fashion, and turnover any and all sense momentum to the opponent, the chances of pulling off an overtime victory are slim. For Wildcats fans, this will go down as the most disappointing result of the season (barring an outcome of similar or greater devastation in the final two weeks). Getting over this loss will require immense emotional fortitude. The following analysis incorporates that emotional trauma, but also includes more in-depth game analysis relevant to the Wildcats on-field performance. If you cannot stomach reading about this loss, then perhaps you’re best off closing the page after the first of three “things we learned.” There is no doubt this result will linger into next week. This loss marks new levels of discouragement. The best move going forward, however, involves something Pat Fitzgerald often says after close losses: “flush it.” That said, try and see through the emotional grief, and put this result on the backburner. Two important games remain. In short, cheer up!

A Devastating Loss

The worst part about Northwestern’s 38-31 loss to Michigan is not the devastating sequence of events that led to the Wolverines’ game-tying touchdown, nor is it the damaging implications in the Legends Division Race. No, those are the obvious takeaways, the matter-of-fact conclusions that will sting in the short term. The worst part is that Northwestern’s reputation for blowing fourth quarter leads, and its inability to win big games, will be conjured up without restraint in the coming weeks. The dramatic fashion in which the Wildcats blew their late fourth-quarter lead – on a 53-yard desperation heave from quarterback Devin Gardner pass that was batted into the arms of receiver Roy Roundtree to set up the tying field goal – typifies Northwestern’s poor late-game management. The common refrains, the ones that have plagued Northwestern throughout the Pat Fitzgerald era, will be invoked in droves. And that, more than anything else, is a harsh reality to swallow. After this latest fourth-quarter debacle, after another lead choked away in crunch time, there is no logical defense to fend off those common Northwestern laments. I’ve spent much of this season attempting to downplay the use of the term “Cardiac Cats.” Today, I can make no such argument.

With a statement win hanging in the balance, Northwestern could not keep Michigan out of the end zone in the most crucial moment. This loss will serve as the reminder for what the Wildcats could have, but never did, accomplish this season. The blown leads to Nebraska and Penn State are mere sideshows to the late-game proceedings in Ann Arbor Saturday. This game stands alone in its sheer disappointment.

Your Weekly Quarterback Update

If you can recover from the devastation of Northwestern’s emotional roller coaster ride (the disappointment factor is through the roof, so I will not begrudge your reluctance to take anything away from this game beyond the utter depths of gloom and sorrow you likely experienced) and come to terms with defeat, there are positives to be drawn from the Wildcats performance. For one, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian orchestrated perhaps the most efficient dual-quarterback gameplan all season. The option offense struggled early on as Michigan met Venric Mark in the backfield and disrupted Northwestern’s run game. Eventually, Colter and Mark found holes, and exploited them for big gains. Colter finished 8-for-14 with 96 yards and a touchdown and added 104 rushing yards on 24 carries. It wasn’t quite the electric display he put on against Iowa, when Colter reeled off 246 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns, but those types of transcendent performances are few and far between. We’ve come to expect a great deal from the Wildcats’ dual threat quarterback, and he delivered another strong performance against the best defense Northwestern has faced to date.

When Siemian entered, the change in schematic philosophy did not disrupt the flow on offense, as had been the case so many times this season. Siemian stood in the pocket against the Wolverines’ pass rush, threaded passes to open receivers and commanded the offense deftly. The zip and accuracy with which Siemian found open targets felt like a turning point for the junior signal-caller, who had struggled in recent weeks with overthrows and poor timing. This is what Pat Fitzgerald and coordinator Mick McCall envisioned in a two-quarterback system – two skilled players, working in tandem to instill the offense with an element of unpredictability. The combined quarterbacking of Colter and Siemian produced excellent pace, balance and tempo. Whether or not this duality can continue to flow so efficiently is an open question. What’s clear is that the quarterback switching achieved its intended purpose. It advanced Northwestern’s offense with great variety and execution.

Secondary Woes

The debate over Northwestern’s most important defensive player is over. It’s Nick VanHoose, and it’s not even close. Sidelined with a shoulder injury, VanHoose – the Wildcats No. 1 corner – watched two overmatched defensive backs, Daniel Jones and Demetrius Dugar, struggle against Michigan’s just-ok receiving corps. The mistakes in the defensive backfield can be broken down into the following categories: 1) soft coverage 2) poor ball recognition. The first variety mostly concerns Dugar. He regularly gave Michigan’s receivers more than 10 yards of cushion at the line of scrimmage. This is a sound strategy for preventing the deep pass, but it does not work in short yardage situations. Wolverines wideouts were able to make plays and turn upfield for big gains after the catch. Dugar never adjusted, and Gardner kept finding open pass-catchers on short slants and dig routes, which were promptly turned into larger gains thanks to Dugar’s passive coverage.

Category number two applies to both players. Both corners had a difficult time finding and adjusting to Garnder’s deep passes. The Michigan quarterback heaved passes downfield to great effect, with receivers Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon (among others) outsmarting defenders by establishing position and either a) drawing contact or b) hauling in catches. The damage was not so severe in the first half; Gardner went into the locker room having completed just 6-of-13 passes for 76 yards. Michigan’s aerial onslaught came to life in the second half, as Gardner threw for 210 yards against Northwestern’s hapless pass defense. Roundtree and Gallon found holes in coverage, and Gardner exploited those gaps with perfectly lofted passes. The worst example, needless to say, came on Michigan’s last-minute Hail Mary, in which Jones, who was covering receiver Roundtree, would have been better off committing a pass interference penalty or swatting the ball towards the ground. Instead, Roundtree happened upon the most fortunate of circumstances, a present dropped into his hands, a lifeline extended Michigan's way that Jones could have prevented. I do not mean to blame Jones for this loss. His mistake was simply the most glaring of a handful of critical errors. Northwestern’s pass defense struggled most of the day, particularly in the second half. VanHoose may or may not have produced a different outcome, but his presence would have shored up a pass defense in desperate need of reassurance at the cornerback position.