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The Michigan vs. Northwestern... Rivalry?

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Not really, but these two teams have played some pretty memorable games in recent years

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan vs Northwestern Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in my one and a half years at Northwestern, I got to enjoy a basketball game at Welsh-Ryan Arena as a fan, not as a member of the media. That win on March 1st, 2017 against was the most memorable game in Wildcat basketball history, but you already know that. To be honest, I almost didn’t go. I didn’t get a ton of sleep Tuesday night and it ended up taking more effort than I’m proud of to not vacate the free student ticket in favor of the BTN stream, my couch, and a blanket or two.

It would be an understatement to say I don’t regret my decision.

As I was bouncing down the stairs outside Welsh-Ryan after the game, my friend who I’d gone with turned and said behind wide eyes, “Dude. Northwestern-Michigan’s, like, low-key a rivalry now.”

I cocked my head, knit my eyebrows, pursed my lips, and immediately said, “Yeah I don’t think so man. No way.”

But as the night wore on, it kind of stuck with me. What makes a rivalry? And what, therefore, would have to be true of Michigan specifically to make my blood boil as a Northwestern fan? What are those things that bring out the best (or worst depending on who you ask) sides of us as sports fans? Is it bad blood? Epic games? Having one team constantly stand in the way of a title? Location and competing over recruiting classes?

Sure. Among others, it’s all of those things to some degree or another. Admittedly, Northwestern-Michigan doesn’t have a lot of history behind it, let alone many of my above criteria. Especially since they both call the Big Ten home, a conference with rivalries the likes of Michigan-Michigan State, Wisconsin-Minnesota, and of course, Ohio State-Michigan.

But in recent years, a fledgling “rivalry” has been getting its legs. The word rivalry is still in quotes because of the enemy of any legitimate, household-name rivalry: mediocrity. Both teams simply haven’t been truly good at the same time for long enough. A discussion of the ups and downs of Michigan and Northwestern football and basketball in recent years could be a similar-sized article itself. But there’s more excitement between these two teams in recent years than one might think, so buckle up as we take a true roller-coaster of a trip down memory lane and recap what has transpired between Northwestern and Michigan on the field as well as the court.


Football (not great):

November 10, 2012: Michigan beats #24 Northwestern, 38-31 in OT

In an exciting, back-and-forth game that produced a line score akin to a slot machine, Northwestern faltered down the stretch in regulation, and failed to complete an upset that would have given them back-to-back wins in Ann Arbor for the first time since the 1930s.

Trevor Siemian replaced the injured Kain Colter and threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Tony Jones with 3:59 left in regulation to give the ‘Cats a 31-28 lead (2:42 mark of the video). On top of that, on the VERY NEXT SNAP, Northwestern’s secondary came up with an interception to seemingly ice the game.

But it wouldn’t quite be Northwestern football if, say, Northwestern’s offense could get the one first down it needed to run down the clock, win, and jump higher into the BCS rankings, now would it?

Unfortunately, the Wildcats couldn’t get that first down. Northwestern gave the ball back, and with 2 seconds left, Michigan QB Devin Gardner heaved a 53-yard pass to set up a 26-yard field goal to send the game into overtime.

The Wildcats would concede a 1-yard run by Gardner, fail to score, and drop a game to actually a pretty decent (8-5, 6-2 B1G, #24 AP) Michigan team in an otherwise successful 2012 season for the ‘Cats (10-3, 5-3 B1G, #17 AP) that saw them win their first bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

November 16, 2013: Northwestern drops a 3OT contest to Michigan, 27-19

Current Northwestern seniors remember this one. And it hurt. A lot.

Heck, the whole season did. The #16 Wildcats started off 4-0 and Evanston hosted College GameDay (!!) and the #4 Ohio State Buckeyes on homecoming to start off conference play. They proceeded to lose that game and then another cool six to drop their record to 4-7 before salvaging a win against in Illinois their last game of the season.

The Michigan game was perfectly cheeky in overtime but it was a snoozer up until then. Case in point, the almost eight-minute highlight video above spends only 2:20 on the first three quarters. Three field goals for each team were the only scores in the entirety of regulation, and the score sat 9-9 in a game that one Wildcat fan described as “both teams trying not to lose.”

To make matters more Northwestern, the Wildcats held a 9-6 lead with the Wolverines inside their own 30-yard line facing 4th-and-4 with 1:49 to go (Michigan converted), a wide-open Ibraheim Campbell almost sealed the game with an interception (see the 4:29 mark for heartbreak), and the ‘Cats again failed to stop Michigan on the subsequent 4th-and-4 at the 50. While you’re at it check out the 4:50 mark of the above video to see Devin Gardner convert on a 3rd-and-23 with :18 left. Why stop there? Watch how many Wildcats (EIGHT) in the secondary concede a completion to set up the game-tying field goal. If you want.

Credit the Wildcats for sticking around for two overtimes, though. They stopped the bleeding and actually duked it out there and answered back for two trades. But they couldn’t do so in the third overtime, and fell to the Wolverines again.

November 8, 2014: Northwestern slips (ZING!), falls to Michigan, 10-9

Ah, the m00n game, so named because neither team scored until the second half, leading the TV scoreboard to look like it was spelling out “moon” for the majority of the football game.

Like the year before, this UM-NU game was hard to watch if you’re a fan of good offense. It also ended in the most Northwestern way possible. I concede that I’ve used the school as an adjective too often in this article alone, but this one really takes the cake.

Our writers at the time chose to “embrace the suck,” however, and chopped up the highlights Vine-style (R.I.P.) way better than I could have. So I therefore recommend heading over there to see the reasons why this iteration of Northwestern-Michigan football was its own special brand of horror.

October 10, 2015: #13 Northwestern gets embarrassed 38-0 in Ann Arbor by #18 Michigan

This game did not happen as far as I am concerned. Please move on to the basketball section.

Little joke.

On a serious note, there really wasn’t much to this game other than it exposing what Wildcat fans feared about their team going into their first real test of the season: they weren’t in fact the 13th-best team in the country. Not by a longshot. The defense was good, but Michigan’s offense was markedly better. The Wolverines also cemented themselves as the top defense in the Big Ten, not the Wildcats. This game also proved, to the joy of many a maize and blue supporter, Michigan football was BACK.


Basketball (significantly less depressing):

March 3, 2015: Tre Demps leads the Wildcats to a 82-78 victory over Michigan

If you were around last year, you got to watch Tre Demps play. If you were around two years ago, you got to watch Tre Demps single-handedly deliver a classic at Welsh-Ryan, the ending of which can be seen above.

The last time the Wolverines came to Dempsville— err, Evanston, they also left on the losing side of things. In a double-overtime thriller, Tre Demps activated his clutch gene, starting with a ridiculously long fadeaway three to tie the game at 59 with 2.4 seconds left in regulation. But the junior, a Northwestern basketball legend in his own right, was just getting started.

With 16.4 seconds left, the ‘Cats found themselves down by 71-65. Demps caught the inbound pass, dribbled almost to the right block, found his way to the baseline, pulled up and buried a three with 9.4 to go in the first overtime. Michigan botched their inbounds pass, leading to a turnover. Down three with 7.7 seconds left, Northwestern assistant coach Brian James drew up a genius inbounds play that gave the ball to JerShon Cobb and got Demps stupidly open off a backside screen. He then hit his THIRD clutch three of the night, this time from the left baseline, to tie the game at 71 with 3.2 seconds left in the first overtime.

The rest is history. The Wildcats outscored the Wolverines 11-7 in the second overtime and walked away victors to the tune of an 82-78 scoreline.

March 10, 2016: Northwestern loses a heartbreaker in OT to Michigan, 72-70

Say what you want about Northwestern-Michigan, but man do they love overtime (four of their last nine meetings including this game), which, adding to any good “rivalry,” is usually an inherently exciting part of a game.

Down by as many as 12 early on and nine at the half, this looked like it was going the way of the Wolverines early. But Chris Collins’s teams have something that’s been showing itself more and more as he spends more time in Evanston, and that’s mental toughness.

The ‘Cats clawed back, using a 13-5 run capped off by a Bryan McIntosh three to give Northwestern their first lead in a long time, 55-54 with 3:23 left in the ballgame.

In the closing seconds, however, it would be Alex Olah, the seven-foot senior from Romania, that would set the heroics into motion for Northwestern. With 17 seconds left and the ‘Cats down by four, the big man knocked down a baseline three to bring his team within one. Fast-forward and the Wildcats are down by two with five seconds left. Demps dribbles in and puts up a fadeaway from the left side about 10 feet out.

Too strong, off the back iron.

And out of a sea of three yellow jerseys, like the Kraken awakening for vengeance against its enemies, emerged the long arms of Alex Olah, a true Michigan-killer if there ever was one. Those arms threw the rebound of the Demps jumper in the direction of the hoop while he fell backwards to the ground. The shot went in to tie the game (1:17 mark of the video). Mr. Olah would hit the ground and continue to slide on his back, arms extended in fist pumps, all the way to half-court of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The ‘Cats then got a personal 5-0 run in OT, before a truly vicious off-balance Zak Irvin jumper from the right elbow gave the Wolverines a 72-70 lead with 3 seconds left. One last chance came for Northwestern came in the form of an inbounds pass under the Michigan basket with 0.6 seconds left. The pass found Nathan Taphorn who put up a (rightfully) hasty three that fell just short to seal the loss.

March 1, 2017: The Game

Of course we circled back to Wednesday. How could you not? Here again I’m going to give the reins up to some of InsideNU’s own, who captured the essence of such an unspeakably amazing win much better than I ever could. Take your pick. They’re all worth the read:

Henry Bushnell

Zach Pereles

Ian McCafferty

I will add one thing, and this might be my favorite nugget of the basketball portion of this “rivalry.” There’s a reason the name Brian James might sound familiar. The assistant coach that drew up the inbounds play that went Cobb-Demps-three also was the architect behind, you guessed it, the inbounds play that went Taphorn-Pardon-Big Dance.

Both legendary Northwestern basketball plays, both by James, both at the last second in victories against Michigan in absolutely exhilarating, soul-rapture-inducing, everything-you-want-out-of-a-sports-game-and-also-“rivalry” fashion.


Fun fact: Yours truly grew up a die-hard Michigan fan, and had maize and blue coursing through his veins until freshman year — fall of 2015. Most of my dad’s side of the family went there, heck I almost went there. I spent my formative years of sports fandom losing my mind over Trey Burke’s three vs. Kansas, Michigan-Notre Dame in 2011, and of course ...this. Games like the 2015 steamrolling of Northwestern at the hands of the Wolverines at the Big House, which I also attended, had me itching to jump back on my maize and blue bandwagon, but I stuck to my new team like a good sports fan.

I admit I do still root for Michigan as long as it’s not at the expense of the Wildcats, but don’t get me wrong. What I experienced at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Wednesday night was undoubtedly the most amazing moment of my sports fandom not experienced on the other side of a TV screen (second overall to this). But it goes without saying that the win on Wednesday means WAY more to the true Northwestern fans that have witnessed decades, or even mere years of frustration and heartbreak, and stuck by their Wildcats in spite of it all, than to me, who just two years ago would have been shattered at the prospect of my Michigan Beileins having their tournament prospects take a hit in that fashion, especially at the hands of Northwestern. Yikes.

So, is Northwestern-Michigan a rivalry? Is it a game you’d circle every year? No. In a few years, given the games of the last few years, I think there’s definitely a case to be made. But not in 2017.

Still, you’d be remiss to find a Northwestern fan that could honestly say that it wasn’t just a little bit sweeter that, after missing a game-winner against Michigan 356 days earlier, Nathan Taphorn’s subsequent contest against the Wolverines, of all teams, was the one that would leave him immortalized in Wildcat basketball lore.