Michigan dangled a mere second away from a third straight loss, but refused to absorb it. In frantic, heart-stopping fashion, the Wolverines scrambled to send their sodden, windswept struggle with Northwestern into overtime, then won it in triple OT, 27-19.
Devin Gardner's five-yard scramble into the end zone in the third extra session ended it, after Brendan Gibbons' fire drill 44-yard field goal at the end of regulation gave the Wolverines a chance. Moisture streaked the eye black for a third straight week, but this time, it involved no tears.
"This team, we're Wolverines," captain Taylor Lewan said defiantly afterwards. "There's 133 years of Michigan football we're representing. We're never going to have a breaking point or back down, I don't care if we're down 50-something to zero. We'll keep fighting no matter what."
Gardner (24-for-43, 226 yards, one TD) never stopped fighting. He led an all-run third overtime, bolting for 12 yards, and following two rushes by freshman back Derrick Green (19 carries, 79 yards), raced in on an option keeper. Gardner then ran in the two-point conversion, while the Wolverines hounded Northwestern's Trevor Siemian (16-for-25, 137 yards, one TD) into reverse in the overtime. Safety Thomas Gordon picked off Siemian's final desperation heave into the end zone, ending the marathon.
"This team was fired up after the end of regulation," Gardner said. "It felt like it was meant to be. We came out and won the football game."
Following an afternoon into evening when it didn't feel meant to be for the Wolverines, they found a way in the extra sessions.
The teams swapped touchdowns in the first overtime, Michigan logging only their second TD in 12 quarters on an incredible one-handed scoring grab by freshman tight end Jake Butt. Up 16-9 with the first touchdown of the game, the Wolverines still couldn't exhale.
Northwestern drove right back, quarterback Kain Colter (19 carries, 78 yards, one TD) sneaking in from a yard out to retie the game.
In the second OT, Wildcats placekicker Jeff Budzien nailed a 36-yard field goal, Michigan's Brendan Gibbons a 29-yarder. Michigan's boot occurred after Devin Funchess (seven catches, 61 yards) scrambled to recover his own fumble that could have ended it in Northwestern's favor, and Jeremy Gallon (10 catches, 115 yards) couldn't hang onto an end zone throw that would have won it for the Wolverines.
In the third overtime, Michigan left no doubt, thanks to Gardner's gutsy runs.
"He's a competitor," head coach Brady Hoke said of Gardner. "He held the hot hand so going with him, keeping the ball in his hands, we thought it was a good idea."
Gardner almost never saw the chance for overtime heroics.
Michigan's 51-yard drive that sent the game to overtime counts as an unfathomable déjà vu nightmare for the wildcats. Twice, they had the Wolverines in fourth-down situations, only to see Gardner dash away to move the chains on the first, then gun a nine-yarder to Funchess to keep the Wolverines alive.
U-M still looked done for when Gardner took a 13-yard sack back to Northwestern's 43 with seconds ticking away. He fired to Gallon for 16 yards, but with no timeouts, the Wolverines had to sprint onto the field with fewer than 10 seconds remaining.
Holder Drew Dileo sprinted from downfield to baseball slide into position. Jareth Glanda snapped the ball with a second remaining, Dileo held and Gibbons banged through a 44-yard field goal. Time expired, and most of the crowd appeared on the verge of doing the same.
"That tells you about the discipline of these guys playing together, how they go on the field, how the guys who weren't on that team got off the field," Hoke said. "That might the best single play I've ever seen, because it was a team play."
That team play couldn't feature a single slip-up, and didn't. It also marked the first time in the second half Michigan didn't trail. For most of the game, they appeared destined for heartbreak.
The Wolverines moved forcefully down the field on their opening possession, behind Gardner's arm and scrambling. But the drive stalled on the Northwestern 8, and Gibbons drilled a 25-yard field goal to put Michigan on top, 3-0.
Northwestern knotted it at 3-3 on Budzien's 40-yard field goal, after a Kain Colter-led option attack picked its way downfield 49 yards on 16 plays.
When the Wolverines played to that standoff against a howling wind out of the south, it looked like they were poised to blow by Northwestern in the second quarter. Instead, they blew opportunities.
They took possession on the Wildcats' 48, only to go three-and-out. They got it back on their own 46, but made just one first down. They managed a mere 27 yards of offense with the wind, giving Bette Midler absolutely nothing to sing about.
Finally, after a stalled-out quarter, the Wildcats moved the ball from their own 39 to the Michigan 4, Budzien banging through a 22-yard field goal as the halftime clock expired. Trailing 6-3 at the half, the Wolverines still had opportunities galore, but showed little sign of walking through that door.
Meanwhile, a hard, driving rain set in at the half, further dampening Michigan's prospects.
Budzien made it 9-3 with 2:35 remaining in the third quarter, cashing in a 29-yard field goal. The Wildcats drove from their own 11 to the Michigan 12 to be in position for a crusher of a touchdown, but the U-M defense stiffened, forcing the field goal.
The Wolverines drove from their own 25 to the Northwestern 30, but as the third quarter turned to the final one, Tyler Scott's 13-yard sack on Gardner killed Michigan's drive. But with the wind now behind him, Wile punted to the Northwestern 1, Jehu Chesson downing the football.
A three-and-out led to a shanked Brandon Williams punt into the gale, the ball peeling backwards to end up on Northwestern's own 10. The seven-yard punt set Michigan's offense up like a lion over a two-legged wildebeest, but U-M's offense again proved toothless, losing a yard in three plays.
Gibbons cashed in a 28-yard field goal, pulling the Wolverines within three, 9-6, with 11:45 remaining.
Michigan saw a chance to tie it up on 4th-and-two from Northwestern's 4, midway through the fourth quarter. Hoke chose to try to snap the tie, but the Wildcats dumped Gardner for a loss, a decision that weighed heavily prior to the final, frantic scramble in regulation.
"Those kids deserved to go win a football game," Hoke said of his go-for-it rationale. "We were playing really good defense, and thought that we'd try and win the game."
As it happened, they couldn't have come closer to losing one without doing so. But Michigan (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten) somehow survived, and the Boomslang-bitten Wildcats (4-6, 0-6) will spend another winter wondering how they lost to Michigan a game they nearly pocketed.