A game-opening 96-yard kickoff return touchdown by Michigan wide receiver Jehu Chesson set the tone for an ugly afternoon in Ann Arbor for the Northwestern Wildcats, who lost 38-0 in their first defeat of the 2015 season.
After shutting out Minnesota 27-0 a week ago in Evanston, the Wildcats laid a huge egg against No. 18 Michigan (5-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten), certainly dropping Northwestern (5-1, 1-1) significantly in the polls and evening up its conference record. The Wolverines notched their fifth win of the season and third-straight shutout. Jim Harbaugh's team hasn't allowed a point since September 19th.
Coverage from Ann Arbor
Coverage from Ann Arbor
On the first Northwestern drive of the game, right after Chesson's return, the Wildcats had a chance to convert a big third down to move the chains but Clayton Thorson couldn't complete a slant to Christian Jones, forcing the Wildcats to punt. On the next possession, Michigan drove down the field with ease, going up 14-0 on a one-yard touchdown run from Drake Johnson.
The pattern repeated itself again in the opening frame, as a Northwestern drive stalled on the Michigan 25-yard line, leading Pat Fitzgerald to elect to take a field goal to get his team on the board. Instead, Jack Mitchell missed the 42-yard attempt wide and to the left, setting up yet another Michigan scoring drive, which culminated in a two-yard touchdown run by quarterback Jake Rudock after a big gain from fullback Joe Kerridge.
Already down 21-0 in the first quarter, the Wildcats looked like a defeated team willing to accept its first loss of what has been an otherwise very successful season. Michigan kept piling on more points in the second and third quarters as the usually stout Northwestern defense played much worse than it is capable of while the offense made matters worse.
Still, even with the severely lackluster showing in a huge Big Ten matchup between two ranked teams, Northwestern has been a really good team all season and just had one really, really bad day. That doesn't mean there's nothing to be concerned about with this team -- because there is -- but 60 minutes of poor play should not negate the prior 300 minutes of relatively strong play.
Here are some other thoughts and key takeaways from the game:
1. The defensive and special teams units were really bad
The first thing to note about this game is that Michigan, which is at least a top-15 team, is a very good squad. The Wolverines' defense is what makes this team elite, but the offense -- led by Iowa transfer Rudock under center -- is more than adept, and has a bunch of explosive play-makers, like Chesson and running back De'Veon Smith.
The biggest play of the game, arguably, was the first one, on which Chesson set the tone for the rest of the day by immediately putting the Wildcats in a 7-0 hole that seemed inescapable. Combined with Rudock's capable play at quarterback -- and the Wolverines not committing any turnovers -- and with De'Veon Smith's strong running, Michigan got more than enough production from its offense to win this game easily.
Northwestern's defense didn't do much to stop Rudock and Smith, as the defensive line wasn't able to get pressure on the Michigan pocket all game, which gave Rudock all day to throw. With this time, he was able to scan his progressions well and find open -- read, wide open -- pass-catchers and, when necessary, run the ball himself. Usual play-makers Dean Lowry and Anthony Walker couldn't put their stamp on the game, which was controlled by the home team for all 60 minutes.
Special teams was also an issue, and not just with regards to the kick return touchdown. There was Jack Mitchell's missed field goal as well as Hunter Niswander's poor punting game. The redshirt sophomore was called on to punt the ball eight times today and only accumulated an average of 35 yards per boot. That really hurt Northwestern in the field position battle.
2. Clayton Thorson looked like a freshman quarterback
Michigan's defensive line was able to get a ton of pressure on Thorson today, which accounted for a lot of hurries and sacks and took the redshirt freshman completely out of his game. He only completed 13 of his 27 pass attempts for 106 yards. Also, he threw a bad pass into tight coverage in the second quarter to Mike McHugh that resulted in a Jourdan Lewis interception and 36-yard touchdown return.
Justin Jackson only getting 12 carries for 25 yards didn't help the cause, but it was clear Thorson was off his game all day. There's a reason Michigan has one of the best defenses in the country, and that defense played exceptionally but the Northwestern quarterback certainly played into its strengths and away from its weaknesses. Thorson did make some nice downfield tosses, but didn't do so with enough consistency to be effective.
At around the 10:30 mark of the fourth quarter, with Michigan ahead 31-0 and the game out of reach, Pat Fitzgerald took Thorson out and put Zack Oliver in, who didn't fare much better. It's not a benching, presumably, just to prevent injury to the Wildcats' starting signal-caller. Matt Alviti also saw some time in the fourth quarter.
3. The offensive and defensive lines failed Northwestern
Reaction from Ann Arbor
Reaction from Ann Arbor
When the Wildcats have looked like a dominant team this year, it's been when both the offensive and defensive lines have been winning the battle of their respective lines of scrimmage. Today, neither won their battle. On offense, Northwestern allowed Michigan defenders into the backfield on almost every play, forcing Thorson to rush his reads and make bad decisions.
On defense, there was such little penetration for Northwestern that Jake Rudock was able to take his time to find receivers and when he was done with that, take a few more seconds for show. It was very uncharacteristic of the Wildcats and probably is a mix of an aberration and the result of playing a very good opponent on the road in a hostile environment.