ANN ARBOR, Mich. —There are days on the football field where nothing goes right from start to finish. And those days usually start with mental breakdowns, not physical ones. For No. 13 Northwestern, that was surely the case in a 38-0 shellacking at the hands of the No. 18 Michigan Wolverines.
And while the Wildcats have made mistakes during this still-impressive start to the season, no team had pounced on them like Michigan. Perhaps that's because no team had the individual talent across the board that Michigan has.
Coverage from Ann Arbor
Coverage from Ann Arbor
It started, well, with the first play. Jehu Chesson caught Matt Micucci's short kick, angled right and found... green grass. Lots of it. He went 96 yards untouched. The Big House was rocking. In a game that many people felt would be determined by a special teams or defensive score, Michigan went a long way to winning that battle just 13 seconds into the game.
It wasn't as if Chesson made a great return. He had a lane that could have fit ten Jehu Chessons. It was clearly a breakdown in coverage. For a team that had been so solid on special teams, Northwestern suffered a letdown at the absolutel worst moment, especially considering the visitors had won the toss and deferred to the second half so their defense could set the tone early. That defense never got the chance.
After three uninspired downs from the Northwestern offense, the Wildcats punted it away and Michigan marched right down the field again. A blown coverage led to one of the easiest pitch-and-catches Jake Rudock and Jake Butt will ever enjoy, and before the game was five minutes old, it was 14-0.
It would be pointless to talk in depth about the multitude of mistakes Northwestern made. The next drive, the Wildcats went conservative on 4th-and-1 after putting together a solid drive and elected to kick a long field goal, which Jack Mitchell would go on to miss. Could the playcalling have been more aggressive? Certainly. Should the Wildcats have gone for it on fourth down? Perhaps. Hindsight is 20/20.
But it was these little mistakes and breakdowns, both on the field and on the sideline, that killed Northwestern. The defense gave up a 34-yard run to fullback Joe Kerridge, which Fitzgerald attributed to a misstep by Northwestern's cornerbacks. Rudock would turn that mistake into six more points. It was the story of the game. A Northwestern mistake turned into Michigan points.
But while Northwestern made mistakes and Michigan capitalized, it would be unfair to say the blowout loss was caused solely by Northwestern's poor play.
"We just got our butt kicked," Pat Fitzgerald said. "They played very, very well."
Michigan simply proved to be dominant in the areas that would determine this football game: In the trenches, and in the secondary.
Michigan's offensive line paved the way for 201 yards on 46 carries — just 4.4 yards per carry, but a bulldozing, grating effort eerily similar to most of Northwestern's running totals this year. De'Veon Smith had 59 yards on just eight carries, and he always fell forward and often carried defenders with him while bursting to the second level. Additionally, Rudock was afforded tons of time to throw in the pocket in the first half. At times it was as if the defensive line was invisible.
"We've got to win our one-on-one battles," Deonte Gibson said. "And you've got to tip your hat off to those guys. They had a good game."
On the outside though, however, was where the talent differential was most noticeable, especially on what all but clinched the game in the second quarter. Down 21-0, Clayton Thorson threw "what looked like a pretty good ball," according to Fitzgerald, to Mike McHugh down the left sideline. The ball could have been caught and at least should have been incomplete. Instead, Jourdan Lewis snatched it away from McHugh and took it back to the house. And just as Northwestern won its game against Minnesota last week before halftime, this one was over before the interval.
"We knew we were gonna have to win one-on-ones with their man-to-man technique outside," Fitzgerald said. "It looked like we lost, if not all of them, pretty darn close."
"One man breakdowns hurt us," Dan Vitale echoed. "Offense is an eleven-man operation."
Up front, Michigan bullied Northwestern's offensive line. As Fitzgerald noted, Wildcat linemen were often pushed into Thorson's lap, limiting his opportunities to take shots downfield, something that's key in any comeback attempt.
Reaction from Ann Arbor
Reaction from Ann Arbor
"That front is fast and physical and big and powerful," Fitzgerald said. "It looked like they dominated the six-inch war up front today."
Overall, perhaps what today's game proved most is that Michigan—looking more and more like a national contender every week—and Northwestern—a Big Ten West challenger at this point—are on two completely different levels. And while that's far from the worst thing that Northwestern fans could be hearing halfway through the season, it's a discrepancy at both the individual and team level that was made crystal clear Saturday.