Nov. 17, 2013
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
The 'Cats led by three when Michigan's offense took over on its own 22 with just 2:18 remaining and no timeouts. All through this afternoon their defense had been brilliant, limiting the Wolverines to just two field goals, and here that unit needed just one more stop to staunch its team's bleeding and end its long losing streak. That was how the end game began Saturday at Ryan Field and then came this.
The Wolverines picked up six on a completion, threw an incompletion and faced third-and-four. They were 0-for-10 on third-down conversions and now they failed again, pushing themselves to the brink. Here Devin Gardner, their electric quarterback, rolled right with `Cats Chi Chi Ariguzo and Ifeadi Odenigbo in hot pursuit. They had him corralled, that is how it looked. But they crashed into each other and Gardner escaped, picking up six and a first down.
"We just didn't make a play," Pat Fitzgerald would later say.
Moments later Gardner was again facing a third-and-four, this time at the `Cats 49, and again he rolled to his right, this time delivering a pass toward wideout Jehu Chesson. Right there was `Cat safety Ibraheim Campbell
, right there in position for an interception, but inexplicably he failed to make the catch. "Missed opportunities," Fitzgerald will later say when summing up this game, and right here was one of them.
So once more the Wolverines were on the brink and once more they converted on fourth down, this time on a curl to wide open tight end Devin Funchess. "Left the guy uncovered," Fitzgerald would later say of this play. "I've got to look at it on tape. They were going to go in a Stack I (formation), we worked on it all week, it looked like either a guy covered the wrong guy or we didn't have the right adjustment made."
That completion set the Wolverines up at the `Cat 40 and now, again, Gardner launched a pass toward Funchess. `Cat safety Jimmy Hall broke this one up, but then--from far down the field and long after the whistle--a yellow flag flew. Interference was the call on Hall and now Michigan was on the `Cat 30 with 48 seconds remaining.
This time Gardner rolled left and this time the `Cats contained him, defensive end Dean Lowry finally sacking him for a 13-yard loss. Now Gardner launched a fly pattern toward Chesson along the left sideline, which fell in complete, and with 18 seconds on the clock, he took the third-down snap and found Jeremy Gallon near the right sideline for a 16-yard gain to the `Cat 27.
Eleven seconds remained when that play ended and now came a mad dash by the Wolverine field goal unit, which rushed onto the field. The clock was running, and the `Cat block unit remained on the sideline, and the ball was snapped with a second remaining, and then Brenden Gibbons drove home the 44-yard field goal that sent this one into overtime. "I have no comment on that," Fitzgerald would initially say when asked about this play.
But then, just seconds later, he would say, "I thought I saw the guy go down at 11 seconds. I don't know how you can substitute and do that in 11 seconds. But they did. So. What was explained to me is they don't have to allow us an opportunity to substitute our block team on (if it's the final play of a half), so they just let them go. I guess that's the rule, so. Tough deal. Tough deal for the guys in our locker room."
They had lost to Minnesota by three with Kain Colter sidelined and the Gophers getting 10 of their points on a pick-six and a field goal that followed a `Cat fumble. They had lost to Iowa after their late (in regulation) potential game-winning drive was short-circuited by a penalty and a fumble. They had lost to Nebraska on the game's very-last play, a tipped Hail Mary that found a Husker receiver deep in the end zone. Now, after that surreal (and controversial) end to regulation and three overtimes, they would lose to Michigan. "Not that I can imagine," quarterback Trevor Siemian would say when asked if he could think of a tougher way to lose a game. "We were talking in the locker room. Somebody did something because we don't have very good karma right now. It's tough. It's not fun."
No part of their long losing streak has been fun for the `Cats, but again they showed a not-uncertain toughness in their affair with the Wolverines. This was especially true, so especially true, of their defense, which did far more than just hold Michigan to nine points in regulation. It also contained, with rare exceptions, the dashes of Gardner, who ended with just 19 net rushing yards on 17 carries. And it limited the Wolverines to just two third-down conversions on 18 attempts. And it even held them to a field goal after a Brandon Williams' punt from his own three-yard line got pushed down by the wind, kicked back on landing and set Michigan up with a first-and-goal at the 10.
It displayed a warrior's heart, this unit did, yet this game was another mottled by those inconsistencies that have bedeviled the `Cats during their slide. Here is one example. On their very first possession, on a second-and-10 from the Wolverine 23, Siemian hit a wide open Tony Jones in stride on a slant and Jones dropped a ball he could have carried to the end zone. (The drive ended with one of Jeff Budzien's four field goals.) Here are two more. On the Wolverines' third possession linebacker Damien Proby dropped an easy interception thrown right to him and on the fourth, Ariguzo did the same with nothing but an open field ahead of him.
"I think I saw seven," Fitzgerald would say when asked about these missed defensive opportunities, which included Campbell's drop near the end of regulation. "I could be wrong. I'll watch the tape and get the exact number. How do I explain it? I don't."
The same could be said of the miasma now surrounding the `Cats, who finally fell in the third overtime when Siemian's desperation fourth-down pass was intercepted in the end zone. That left them a 4-6 and needing wins over Michigan State and Illinois to gain bowl eligibility. "It's pretty unbelievable," Butdzien would say of his team's condition. "It's shocking. It's depressing. If you told me we were four-and-six at this point of the year, I would have laughed at you."
"We've got to stick together," Fitzgerald finally said. "They have to this point. Why stop now? You guys have covered us all year. You haven't seen a team that's stopped fighting. This team has battled its tail off. We just ended up again a play short for five out of the last six weeks. We didn't play well at Wisconsin and we got what we deserved there. But any break here or there in five of the last six games, it's a totally different feeling right now.
"But it's not and that's reality. So we have one choice. That's to come out swinging and to come out fighting."
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