ANN ARBOR, Mich. – On Monday, Pat Fitzgerald looked refreshed. It made sense.
His team had just entered the BCS rankings. They even took heed of his primary message.
Fitzgerald joked that after relaxing and watching games last weekend, his players arrived at practice and admitted he was right. Games do, really, hinge on a few plays.
Now, it all seems horribly unfunny.
Northwestern’s season came crashing down on Saturday in a 38-31 overtime loss at Michigan. If you find that hyperbolic, you were clearly watching another game.
So close to the events unfolding, it is so easy to lose perspective. Gardner to Roundtree for 53 yards will be played on Sportscenter for the next few months. And when Michigan plays in the Capital One Bowl, put it on repeat.
Yes, Michigan played well. Devin Gardner happened to make the play of his life and in the process, endeared himself to the 112,000 fans screaming in my ear. The Wolverines succeeded in shutting down the option and moved the ball with relative ease. Heck, they were about to break the game wide open in the first half before Jared Carpenter, of all people, forced a crucial fumble.
Looking for a signature win, in perhaps its last chance at one this season, NU did too. Trevor Siemian made thousands of people eat their words, myself included. The dominant front seven almost compensated for the undermanned secondary. Undermanned might qualify as a kind word here.
With the good play from both teams in mind, NU fans are left with that sinking feeling that it all came down to that overused, yet shockingly suitable word. It rested on execution, on those three or four plays when everything went hellishly wrong.
There was the punt. The instructions were clear. The offense had done its job. Colter converted on fourth down, maybe by a few inches. Then, with Michigan out of timeouts, the Cats ran the clock down. There was precious little time for anything bad to happen on the NU sidelines.
The quiet, soft-spoken Siemian even admitted after the game that yeah, he was pretty darn sure that until there were 18 seconds left, he thought the team had just about won.
After all of the losses and heartbreak, isn’t it fitting that part of NU’s demise can be attributed to one of the most consistent players on the team in Brandon Williams? Just their luck.
But anyways, Williams lines up at the Wolverines’ 49-yard line with the full intention of kicking the ball into the seats. Instead, in spite of all his success this season, Williams lines a ball directly into the arms of the dynamic Jeremy Gallon.
Gallon – fully aware of the importance of extra yards – ran it back 23 yards to the 38-yard line. Intense football sabermetrics would brutalize Williams for handing the Wolverines a manageable situation. It’s tough luck. It’s the little things.
Then, to prepare you for the rest of the year, when you think about it and read about it constantly, I’ll go back to the disaster play.
With 18 seconds remaining, Gardner realistically has two chances to get the ball 30 yards – and no timeouts. The quarterback dropped back and tossed the ball to the biggest question mark on the field.
And I don’t even mean Daniel Jones. Roy Roundtree was going to be the next great Wolverines receiver until he stopped catching a lot of passes. But then he got his redemption.
Fitzgerald will, and should, try to build up the confidence of Jones by calling the 53-yard Hail Mary a 50-50 ball. In reality, it looked more like a dramatic scene from Friday Night Lights than a legitimate play from a cornerback.
Jones has an undeniably bright future with this program. He could start for years alongside Nick VanHoose, who was sorely missed today. This was tough. You feel for him, but honestly, it wasn’t even close. Jones lunged at the ball. Not a little bit early. Very early. Maybe a full second early. He tried to bat the ball down, and instead, it fell into the hands of Roundtree.
Michigan had life, and the cheerleaders standing next to me on the sidelines looked to be on the verge of tears. Everyone cared about this one. It was no fluke. It was just one of those plays.
Michigan went on offense first in extra time. Gardner rode the momentum to an exceptional third-and-goal bootleg touchdown. Then Kain and the Cats had to regroup and match the score. Not an easy task.
This Northwestern team relies on the option, which involves cooperation from all 11 guys. Your backfield tandem has to make the correct read. The offensive line needs to hold steady for several seconds. The receivers, as they are so capable of doing, work on blocking out wide.
When the option falls through, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where it went wrong. There might be a miscommunication up front, the defense might bet on it. But really, the offense – at least with Colter in the game – lives and dies with that option staple.
So on a fourth-and-two, Colter and Mike Trumpy and Tyris Jones lined up in the backfield, with one last chance to stage a Notre Dame-esque bend-don’t-break victory.
It really felt like a foregone conclusion. They tried the option. It got stuffed. They failed to execute and the home crowd began its celebration.
After 69 points and 141 plays, the exultant Wolverines marched to sing “Hail to the Victors,” which played for the hundredth or so time.
Colter looked like the miniature of the entire team. He sat on the field, dejected. For a moment, everything stood still. No one thought about the quarterback situation, the 7-3 record or next week’s game against Michigan State.
The Wildcats were forced to deal with a loss, and forced to accept the brutal reality of football. Like so many games, the outcome came down to a few plays.
It’s all pretty simple. Fitzgerald was right all along. And when Northwestern missed, Michigan won.
Follow on Twitter: @NicholasMedline