Like this writer’s drive on I-94 to Ann Arbor, it’s been a real up and down road this season for the Northwestern Wildcats (3-4, 1-3 B1G). One week, the team is on the rise and the next, they face another speed bump. There was hope that last week’s homecoming triumph over Rutgers (3-4, 0-4 B1G) would finally propel the Wildcats forward for good, but the Wolverines reminded everyone that the journey is still a long and tough one for the ’Cats.
Northwestern fell 33-7 to #6 Michigan (7-0, 4-0 B1G) at Michigan Stadium in the inaugural George Jewett Trophy game. Named for the first Black player to play on both the Wolverines (1890, 1892) and the Wildcats (1893, 1894), George Jewett was an important player for both teams as he studied to earn his medical degree.
Unfortunately for Northwestern, they could have used Jewett’s talents on the field today. The offense was stagnant and the defense, which looked good at times, struggled to contain the Michigan running game in a loss that admittedly looked worse on paper than in actuality.
“Credit to Michigan… We made good adjustments. They just made better ones.” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “They’re the best rushing offense in the country for a reason. They’ve got a two-headed monster at running back.”
The two-headed monster refers to senior Hassan Haskins and sophomore Blake Corum, who both ran for over 100 yards and two touchdowns each this game.
Michigan added to the pressure in the second half by blocking a punt and turning over Northwestern's quarterback Ryan Hilinski for the first time all season on critical interceptions.
Despite the mistakes, Northwestern hung tough in the first half. Neither offense covered much ground as defense was the name of the game, and Northwestern’s defense played inspired. They turned Michigan over twice in the contest and the game remained scoreless through one quarter. Then all hell broke loose two minutes before the end of the first half.
“Our defense gave us a chance to win the game, we just gotta execute.” Hilinski said of the performance.
And in those two minutes, they did indeed execute. Twice, Michigan drove to the Northwestern two-yard line. They left with just three points. After a goal line stand that forced senior Wolverine kicker Jake Moody to build a 10-0 Michigan lead, sophomore running back Evan Hull took over: one play, 75 yards, touchdown.
On the ensuing drive, Michigan broke off a long run of their own before lightning struck twice for the ’Cats. Sophomore defensive back Coco Azema stripped Michigan receiver Mike Sainristil, and graduate linebacker Chris Bergin hopped on the recovery. Northwestern would kneel and go into halftime only trailing by three and the momentum firmly in their favor.
The third quarter was where the Wildcats slowed to a crawl. Michigan blocked a punt off of graduate punter Derek Adams, giving the Wolverines a short field and touchdown that put the game out of reach. Hilinski then threw his first interception of the year, and was eventually replaced by sophomore quarterback Carl Richardson, who did not fare much better in garbage time.
“Really disappointed in the way we performed in the second half...I thought we played pretty solid in the first half to give ourselves a chance, and then we just kind of reverted back to bad habits… We gotta eliminate the snowball.” Fitzgerald emphasized.
Despite the many things going wrong in Ann Arbor, ’Cats fans can take solace in the fact that this is a different team than the one they saw lose to Michigan State, Duke, and Nebraska. The defense played aggressive, penalties stayed low, and until very late in the game, the ’Cats were winning the turnover battle. For one half, it looked like the return of the Cardiac ’Cats. We’ll see if they can turn promise into production this Saturday against the new Big Ten West-leader, Minnesota (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten).
“[We’re] just gonna keep coaching the heck out of these guys. They’ll grow from it.” said Fitzgerald of his young team.
“I saw pride. We bowed up on defense,” Bergin added. “We showed the kind of defense we can be. Effort, you can’t teach, and we got a lot of that”
A different team indeed; that's a team that could be built for a bowl game. Here’s to a smoother road down the stretch.