ANN ARBOR, Mich. — What was supposed to be a low-scoring showdown between two of the nation’s best defenses was instead a one-sided blowout Saturday afternoon at the Big House.
Northwestern’s undefeated season is over after Michigan — on an impressive shutout streak that has the Wolverines looking like arguably the Big Ten’s best team — pounded the visiting Wildcats, 38-0.
The much ballyhooed matchup of the teams that entered the contest with the Nos. 1 and 2 scoring defenses in America saw just one defense continue to perform in a dominating fashion. Michigan pitched its third straight shutout, limiting Northwestern to 168 total offensive yards, just 38 of those coming from a typically reliable rushing attack.
Meanwhile, Northwestern’s defense couldn’t stay dominant, as Michigan rushed for more than 200 yards and didn’t turn the ball over to a defense that had been making a habit of takeaways through a brilliant first five weeks.
“I think Michigan’s defense outplayed our defense today,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game, “and that made the biggest difference.”
The Wolverines seemed to have this one won from the outset. Jehu Chesson took the opening kickoff back 96 yards for a touchdown, a play that ignited the 100,000-plus in attendance and had the Cats in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 7-0 hole.
Not long after, Michigan asserted its dominance on defense as the Northwestern offense, which has struggled to score behind a freshman quarterback all season, couldn’t get a thing going. On the other side of the ball, Michigan drove over a Northwestern defense that just wasn’t playing at the same level it had played in the five games prior. The Wolverines added two more first-quarter touchdowns and effectively wrapped up the game by the end of the opening period.
But the real back-breaker came at the end of the second quarter, when Clayton Thorson was intercepted by Jourdan Lewis and the Michigan defensive back returned it 37 yards for a touchdown to put the Wolverines up, 28-0.
“I think they executed very well today. That’s not a surprise, though, they had been executing pretty cleanly. Until this game I thought defensively and kick-game-wise we had executed pretty well. That had kind of been the secret to our success, both those phases played pretty well. We had typically made the momentum play in the kicking game up until this point, and obviously to give it up was not the way you wanted to start on the road,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s tough to win on the road, and any time you give the home team momentum, it makes it even that much more difficult.”
The scoring slowed significantly after the half, with Michigan kicking a third-quarter field goal and adding a garbage-time touchdown in the final minutes. Really, the Northwestern defense played all right, especially when you consider two of Michigan’s touchdowns came with the Northwestern defense standing on the sideline. That’s still 24 points allowed, of course, but not the avalanche the final score makes it seem.
Still the Northwestern defense — which had played sensationally through five weeks, allowing an average of seven points a game — considered Saturday to be an off day.
“I’d say the biggest difference was we just weren’t executing. We weren’t where we needed to be, and we weren’t flying around to the ball like we usually do,” safety Travel Henry said. “I think it was more so on us, but Michigan did play well and they executed more than we did.
“I think it’s more so just one bad performance. We didn’t show up like we’re capable of. We let a few plays get on top of us, and we didn’t respond well.”
But, if the lack of success for the Cats on defense was on them, certainly a lack of success on offense was due to the suffocating Wolverines defense, which had played extremely well coming into Saturday’s game and continued to do so against Northwestern. The Cats entered this weekend’s game averaging 248.8 rushing yards per game, the best mark in the Big Ten. Allowing just 38 yards on 25 carries was a jaw-droppingly great performance by the Michigan defense, and the Northwestern passing attack didn’t have much more success.
“I think they brought it all day,” super back Dan Vitale said. “All the credit goes to them. They fought us all day, put the pressure on the quarterback and just played hard every single play.”
“The wave of defensive linemen, (Michigan defensive line coach Greg) Mattison’s doing a great job. That front is fast and physical and big and powerful, and it looks like they dominated the six-inch war up front today,” Fitzgerald said. “Those linebackers played great behind it. And then we knew we were going to have to win one-on-ones with their man-to-man technique on the outside, and it looked like we lost, if not all of them, pretty darn close.”
If the Cats are to be believed, Saturday came down to a bad day for them and a great day for the Wolverines. One of those things has happened pretty consistently, as Michigan — now 5-1 after Saturday’s win — has strung together five straight victories after a season-opening loss at Utah, which has proven to be a top-five team this season. Another strikes as an irregularity, as Northwestern looked terrific through five games, only to look the opposite in game No. 6.
Things don’t get easier for either side, with Northwestern hosting undefeated Iowa next week and Michigan taking on undefeated Michigan State. There will be questions about rebounding for the Cats. For the Wolverines, though, they have the respect of their peers — and perhaps soon the respect of outside observers — as a team on a serious roll.
“I thought we played terribly. But I don’t want to discredit Michigan. That would be insulting,” Fitzgerald said. “We hear that a lot. We win a game, the other team always plays terrible, so it’s kind of comedy to me. I would never want to insult an opponent that kicks your butt the way we just got our butt kicked. They played very, very well.”