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November 10, 2012Michigan's hopes for a Big Ten championship teetered 18 seconds and 62 yards away from disaster. But the mini-miracle to follow never made Brady Hoke blink.
Hoke insisted, his team down by three points at its own 38 with 18 ticks left in regulation, that his crew was going to win. He might not have enjoyed much company, among the 112,510 in Michigan Stadium.
What unfolded in the moments to come padded the panoply of unfathomable finishes in The Big House, the Wolverines pulling out a 38-31 overtime win.
"No," Hoke maintained, when asked he felt the story was already written as the seconds ticked away. "No. 'Cause of those kids. No way."
Junior quarterback Devin Gardner (16-for-29, 286 yards, two touchdowns), heaved the ball down the middle for fifth-year senior wideout Roy Roundtree (five catches, 139 yards), and hoped.
Roundtree crumpled to the turf beneath leaping Wildcats cornerback Daniel Jones, who soared high to tip the ball along with Roundtree.
But Roundtree - on his knees and concentrating like a bomb squad technician defusing the big one - watched the football tumble into his hands, the 53-yard bomb setting the Wolverines up on the Northwestern nine.
"All game I told him to put the ball up there and I'm going to go get it for you," Roundtree beamed. "I tipped it to myself, came down with it, and no review, so I'm good."
Redshirt junior placekicker Brendan Gibbons slammed through the game-tying 26-yard field goal with two seconds left, sending a disbelieving Michigan Stadium crowd into frenzy.
The best was yet to come.
Gardner maneuvered the Wolverines into position with a 17-yard toss to Roundtree in overtime. Then on third-and-goal from the Wildcats' 1, Gardner faked a handoff and scampered untouched around right end for the game-winning touchdown.
Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter (96 yards passing, 82 rushing) tormented the Wolverines all day. But when he saw a chance to answer in overtime, Michigan's reeling defense saw an opportunity for redemption.
"It was pretty simple," fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs said of the defensive message. "'Let's get a stop. Let's get a stop, let's win this game, and let's go home.'"
They did so, fifth-year senior middle linebacker Kenny Demens blasting Colter on third-and short at the Michigan 17. On the final play, Demens planted running back Tyris Jones like spring corn, and the Wolverines harvested a hopes-saver.
"The defense didn't play as well as we wanted to, but to come up and make a play and finish strong, how we did, it means a lot," Demens said.
The Wolverines faced an uphill climb the entire second half, getting riddled with 27 Northwestern first downs and a Wildcats crew that controlled the ball for all but 8:48 of the game's final 30 minutes.
Colter (8-for-14, 96 yards) and backup Trevor Siemian (6-for-7, 87 yards, two TDs) tore U-M up through the air, while quick back Venric Mark (23 carries, 104 yards, one touchdown) and Colter threatened to run the Wolverines (7-3, 5-1) right out of the Big Ten race.
The Wildcats lost Colter to an ankle injury in the penultimate drive of regulation, but still took the ball 66 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, Siemian gunning a 15-yard TD to Tony Jones with 3:59 left.
That looked like the killer, after a long Michigan scramble back.
The Wildcats had broken on top with a 75-yard touchdown drive to open the second half. Colter found tight end Dan Vitale running wide open down the eastern sideline, the 23-yard touchdown pass putting the Wildcats in control, 21-14, four minutes in.
Moments later, Northwestern placekicker Jeff Budzien slammed through a 34-yard field goal, jamming the Wolverines into a 10-point hole, 24-14, with 3:57 remaining in the third quarter.
The Wolverines responded, just when it looked like Northwestern might run away. Facing third-and-17 at its own 15, U-M suddenly caught fire.
A pass interference penalty on a bomb to Roundtree opened the door, and Michigan's passing attack sailed through. Gardner gunned a 42-yard bomb to redshirt junior wideout Jeremy Gallon (seven catches, 94 yards) on a double-move down the western sideline, and one play later, dumped a short toss to redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (18 carries, 92 yards).
The tailback grabbed it, juked to his right, somehow kept his feet in bounds and sailed 28 yards down the western sideline for a touchdown. In three snaps, Michigan went from dead in the water to running a jet boat wide open, pulling to 24-21 with 1:43 left in the third.
The Wolverines scrambled all the way back on its next try. Gardner led a 91-yard touchdown drive, going 5-for-6 through the air.
On third-and-goal from the Northwestern 8, Gardner stepped up in the pocket to avoid a strong rush, then floated one over the middle. Freshman tight end Devin Funchess soared in traffic to bring it down, putting the Wolverines back on top, 28-24, with 8:45 remaining, setting up the wild scramble to the finish.
Northwestern broke on top early, moving 78 yards for a three-yard Mark touchdown the first time it touched the ball.
The Wolverines answered immediately with a 78-yard scoring drive of their own. Gardner hit Roundtree on a 32-yard catch-and-run to put the Wolverines inside the Wildcats' 30, then penalties set U-M up on the 8.
From there, Gardner executed a reverse-pivot rollout to his right, pump faked as the defense closed in, and used all of his 6-4 length to dive and stretch the football to the pylon. The Superman act covered the final four yards, knotting the game at 7-7 with 2:27 left in the opening quarter.
A turnover swap eventually led to Michigan taking the lead. Toussaint broke away on a 50-yard run, sprinting inside the 10. But a Northwestern defender punched the ball away from behind, the Wildcats diving on it at their own 3.
That golden opportunity reappeared only a few plays later. The Wolverines put Colter under heavy pressure, and junior defensive lineman Jibreel Black raked the football away, freshman linebacker Joe Bolden covering at the Northwestern 37.
U-M took 10 plays to punch it into the end zone, sophomore running back Thomas Rawls banging it in from a yard out, putting the Wolverines on top, 14-7, with 6:17 left in the half.
Siemian gunned 19-yard touchdown pass to Cameron Dickerson for the game-tying score with just 25 seconds left in the half.
Not long after, Michigan's chances ranked with those of a kitten in a den of coyotes. But a cool cat in the pocket, and some scratching and clawing seniors, made the difference.
Asked about his late heroics, Gardner brought it back to one thought: "It means a win," he said, "and a chance to win the Big Ten championship.