Just Get Through It (Michigan 33, Northwestern 7)

Oh, Northwestern, why are you the way that you are?

Photo: Zoey Holmstrom

You never want to play Northwestern. You never feel better after a Northwestern game. The best you can ever hope for is to just play as well as possible, don't get injured, cover whatever stupid spread there is, and go home.

The absolute best outcome from a Northwestern game is that you never have to speak of it ever again. You don't want to remember a Northwestern game, because that probably meant something went horribly wrong. 

Why is that? 

Well, for one, Northwestern is usually never a bad football team, despite whatever preconceptions we all may have of them being a perennial pushover, they're usually pretty sound on both sides of the ball. They typically have one or two playmakers on offense, and their defense is just an extension of Pat Fitzgerald's mid-90's bravado. They play tough because they're coached well. But the talent gap is usually just way too much to overcome most of the time. 

Northwestern is the Nissan Pathfinder of college football. It's a bargain program that does everything just good enough as long as you don't ask too much of it. It knows what it is. Sure, there are far better, more expensive options you can choose from that will deliver much more capability, style or performance, but at the end of the day, all you're really looking for is something to run to Target with or pick up mulch from Home Depot once a year. 

Off-road, the Pathfinder can do about 50% of what a Toyota 4Runner can do. It has about 50% of the refinement of a Honda Pilot. And if style isn't really you thing, the Pathfinder will get you about 50% of an Infiniti QX60. But it's got a decent engine, it's safe to drive, it tows things, gets average fuel mileage, and offers just enough tech to suit most of your needs. Sure, it's a little ugly, and the totally numb steering and lackluster handling will remind you constantly that maybe opting for the slightly more expensive GMC Acadia would've been worth it. But you got drawn in because the Nissan dealer is right down the street, and that one girl you had a crush on in high school drove her parent's Xterra to school sometimes and damn it why did they stop making the Xterra?!


For reasons mentioned above, let's just focus on all the good bits from this game and pretend like all of the frustrating bits never happened. Let's pretend Cade McNamara connected on a couple of those downfield throws and we didn't fumble the ball two times (once on the NW 2 yardline) and Evan Hull didn't run untouched up the middle for 75 yards in the second quarter to score Northwestern's only points of the game. Take away those bits, and this was a very enjoyable Saturday afternoon in the Big House.

But those bits did happen. And while the good bits far outweighed the bad bits, it's still enough to cause all of us to shift slightly in our seats a little. 10-7 at halftime is not the score you want to see. But in this crazy season of college football, where you're only real goal when you're a 3 score favorite is to not have anyone notice you...maybe a sluggish first half followed by a much better second half is nothing to get all worked up about. After all, it's the first game after a bye week. It's a noon kickoff against Northwestern. It's the week before Michigeddon up in East Lansing.

Despite the close score at halftime, Michigan was dominating this game statistically. Take away that 75 yard run, and the yardage comparison was UM 267, NW 38. Michigan had the ball for 22 of the first 30 minutes. NW was 1 of 5 on 3rd downs and only ran 19 plays to Michigan's 53.

It was also obvious from the start that the officials weren't interested in calling holding penalties. No Michigan fan needs to be told this because we all know it by now, but Aidan Hutchinson is an unblockable monster who really should be playing on Sundays this year. He gets held on almost every play. There was a play somewhere in the first half when Josh Ross broke through the middle on a blitz and the NW running back just grabbed onto him as he ran by towards the QB. And don't even talk to me about that absurd pass interference call on DJ Turner in the 3Q. What the hell were these refs watching?!

When the second half started, Michigan got the ball, drove 74 yards on 7 plays, aided by two actual pass interference calls (actually one was a holding call that should've been a PI), to take the 17-7 lead when Blake Corum punched it in from 5 yards out. All told, Corum and Haskins finished with 119 and 110 yards respectively, and 2 touchdowns a piece. It was a dominating rushing attack for Michigan, despite no runs longer than 24 yards and not having either starting guard on the offensive line.

A couple of drives later, after a Northwestern 3-and-out, Cornelius Johnson made the special teams play of the day when he blocked Derek Adams' punt which was recovered by Caden Kolesar at the NW 24 yardline. Three plays later Hassan Haskins scored on a 13 yard run to make it 24-7. Both Corum and Haskins looked good all day.

But, as has been the case all season, the rushing game is not the issue here, Dude. Jim Harbaugh and Josh Gattis are inching closer and closer to facing a pivotal decision. What to do with Cade McNamara and J. J. McCarthy.

In early season blowouts, we saw J. J. come into the game in garbage time and make some crazy throws that made more than a few fans wonder if the bottom of the QB ticket outweighed the top. Don't get me wrong, Cade is a more than capable QB. He's smart, makes good throws, is safe, runs the offense extremely well...but there's clearly a gap between the playmaking ability of these two quarterbacks. McCarthy is a far more dynamic runner, and his arm is clearly 5-star caliber. But, he's still just a freshman, and he can be prone to making freshman mistakes. He also might not have as much of the playbook available to him as McNamara does. 

But you just get the sense that after every missed downfield throw, Cade's leash gets that much shorter. How much longer can Harbaugh keep his 5-star prospect on the sidelines? Part of me doesn't want to find out because that means something has gone wrong...and I don't want to see things go wrong. Part of me wants to see McNamara continue on his trajectory and figure out his downfield misses. I want McCarthy to still be that wildcard that you put into the game in different situations to see what he can do. I will say this, I think McCarthy would be a stronger option down in the red zone and goal line situations where Michigan has struggled at times. I wouldn't be surprised to see that going forward.

All in all, a 33-7 win in an obvious trap game where Michigan most certainly "left a lot of meat on the bone" as Harbaugh put it after the game, isn't a reason to sound the alarm. Michigan woke up at halftime, came back out stronger and pulled away to cover the spread. Let's not try to make more of this than we absolutely have to. The real test will be this week in East Lansing vs. #8 Michigan State. It's on now.

Check out our Northwestern game photos here!

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