Five plays that changed the game
Written by Matt Pargoff   

Michigan secured a thrilling 38-31 victory on Saturday, knocking off Northwestern in overtime. The Maize and Blue fought off a 10 point deficit in the second half, then forced overtime after taking possession with 18 seconds remaining. But there were a number of plays throughout the afternoon that helped to alter the outcome of the game. We take a look at five key moments in the contest.

Keeping the Drive Alive: One of the big stories of Northwestern’s scoring drives was the success that the Wildcats had in converting third down plays. That started very early in the game. In fact, on Northwestern’s first possession, Michigan appeared primed to force a quick three-and-out. An unsuccessful run and broken play left the Wildcats facing a third and 12.

Kain Colter dropped back and fired a deep out pass to receiver Tony Jones. The young sophomore extended one hand to pull the ball back towards himself and make the catch just before he went out of bounds. The spectacular play picked up 19 yards, keeping the Wildcats on the field and providing a major boost in confidence to the visiting team.

What started out looking like an excellent defensive series for the Wolverines developed into a nightmare. The Wildcats marched down the field with relative ease, not facing another third down on the drive. The key conversion at the start ultimately led to Northwestern taking a 7-0 lead.

Interference Spark: Northwestern outplayed Michigan through the start of the second half. The Wildcats put together back-to-back scoring drives to open the third quarter, separated by only a quick three-and-out by Michigan. Northwestern pulled ahead by 10 points and Michigan desperately needed to answer.

The Wolverines moved backward to start their possession, finding themselves in a third down and 17 situation. All of the momentum appeared to be in favor of the Wildcats. But on that third down play, Gardner targeted Roy Roundtree with a deep pass down the right sideline. Northwestern’s Demetrius Dugar was beaten on the play, but interfered to prevent the catch. He was penalized 15 yards, with an automatic first down attached.

The play gave Michigan life. It changed the atmosphere in the stadium and more importantly put a jump in the step of the Wolverines. Michigan picked up 42 yards on a reception by Gallon on the next play, then Fitzgerald Toussaint broke two tackles after a catch, taking the ball 33 yards for a touchdown.

The Great Incompletion: With Michigan trailing 24-21 early in the fourth quarter, the Wolverines took over possession at their own nine yard line. On first down, Devin Gardner attempted to run a naked bootleg off the play action, but the Northwestern defensive end read it perfectly. Rather than collapsing inside on the run fake, he stayed at home and was quickly in the face of Gardner, who was all the way back in his own endzone.

Recognizing that the play was doomed, Gardner quickly put on the breaks, but still found himself in a lot of trouble. In what might be described as an awkwardly athletic play, the junior signal caller fell over backwards and heaved the ball in the direction of Fitzgerald Toussaint, where it fell harmlessly incomplete.

“I just saw Fitz’s back, his numbers, and I was just going to drill him in the back as hard as I could,” said Gardner after the game. “I just tried to avoid the sack and hit him as hard as I could with the ball. That was really scary. And I actually told the guy that almost got me, ‘you almost got me.’”

Had he given up the safety, Northwestern would have not only extended its lead, but taken possession of the ball. The drive continued for 10 more plays, covering 91 yards, and culminating in an eight yard touchdown reception by freshman tight end Devin Funchess. Essentially, the athleticism and quick thinking of Gardner on the first play of the drive provided a nine point swing in the contest.

Fourth and What?: Trailing 31-28, Gardner made his only major mistake of the game, forcing the ball down field into coverage, where it was intercepted. With 3:37 left in the game, the Wildcats tried to run out the clock, and forced Michigan to use all three timeouts. Northwestern faced a fourth and one play at the Michigan 41 and decided to go for it.

Brennen Beyer tackled Venric Mark on the run and appeared to have made the stop needed to turn the ball over on downs. However, the play was measured, giving the Wildcats a first down. The spot was reviewed, but the controversial ball placement stood up.

Instead of Michigan having the ball near midfield with a full three minutes to get in scoring position, or even win in regulation, Northwestern was able to bleed more time off the clock. The Wolverines finally took possession with only 18 seconds remaining. While Michigan was able to overcome the continuation of the drive, it was certainly a play that altered the complexion of the finish.

Improbable Catch: As noted, there were just 18 seconds left when Michigan took over the ball at the 38 yard line. While some may have had flashbacks to the Notre Dame game last year or even the Michigan State contest this season, what happened next was a unique play that is certain to be remembered for a long time in its own right.

Waiting for the route to develop, and then heaving it long, Gardner targeted Roy Roundtree on the deep post pass. Both Roundtree and the defender went up with a hand, tipping the ball up into the air. Showing excellent concentration, the Michigan senior then corralled the ball, picking up 53 yards on the play.

“The thing is, we practiced that exact play in practice and it worked,” said Gardner after the game. “Obviously, he didn't tip the ball to himself, but we practice things like that every week.”

The catch put Michigan into field goal range and allowed Brendan Gibbons to send the contest into overtime.

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