Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs breaks up a pass intended for Northwestern tight end Dan Vitale.
ANN ARBOR — With one properly deflected pass in the final minutes of regulation, the Michigan football team gained new life.
With one final tackle in overtime, the Wolverines ended any threat and any hope of an upset that Northwestern harbored Saturday afternoon at Michigan Stadium.
Minutes after quarterback Devin Gardner scored on a one-yard touchdown run in overtime, Michigan linebacker Kenny Demens tackled Northwestern tailback Tyris Jones on fourth-and-2 to polish off Michigan’s 38-31 win over Northwestern.
Stopping Jones wasn’t strictly a matter of business for Demens. The final play also brought a certain sense of redemption.
“To make that play, I felt so proud of myself, but not for me,” said Demens, who had nine tackles, including two for a loss. “For my team. We didn’t play as well as we wanted to so to come up and make a play at the end, and finish strong as we did, it means a lot.”
Michigan (7-3, 5-1 Big Ten) trailed by 10 points in the third quarter and prior to Fitzgerald Toussaint’s 28-yard touchdown, allowed Northwestern to score those 10 points on a pair of 10-play drives that totaled 128 yards.
Yet without Roy Roundtree’s 53-yard, highlight-reel catch in the final seconds of regulation, followed by Brendan Gibbons’ 26-yard field goal, the Wolverines might not be considering their Rose Bowl possibilities — which still have some sort of pulse, despite Nebraska’s 32-23 win over Penn State in Lincoln, Neb.
Michigan’s win eliminated Michigan State from earning a share of the Legends Division championship, and with two games left in the regular season, Michigan and Nebraska are tied for the Legends Division lead. Nebraska holds the tiebreaker by virtue of its Oct. 20 win over the Wolverines.
But, as the Wolverines have said since that loss, they can only control what is in their realm. That rang true late in the fourth quarter Saturday when Roundtree and Northwestern cornerback Daniel Jones leaped to play a pass from Gardner. Roundtree caught and cradled the ricochet and landed at the Northwestern 9; two plays later, Gibbons’ field goal sent the game to overtime.
“He just put it up there for me,” said Roundtree, who led all receivers with five catches for 139 yards. “I told him all game, ‘Just put it up there for me and I’ll go get it for you.’ I tipped it in the air, to myself, and it came down, and there were no reviews.”
Roundtree later admitted that he wasn’t sure whether the pass was tipped in the air by a Northwestern defender, but he and Gardner credited their team’s poise under pressure.
“There’s no option not to score,” Gardner said of the final seconds of regulation. “This team worked way too hard to get to this point to not be able to score.”
Gardner’s touchdown run and Demens’ tackle ended a game in which Michigan led only twice in regulation. Thomas Rawls’ one-yard run gave the Wolverines a 14-7 lead with 6 minutes, 17 seconds left in the second quarter, before Northwestern tied the game on Cameron Dickerson’s 19-yard touchdown catch with 25 seconds left in the first half.
With 3:57 left in the third quarter, Northwestern took a 24-14 lead on Dan Vitale’s 23-yard touchdown reception and Jeff Budzien’s 37-yard field goal, but Michigan cut Northwestern's lead to 24-21 on Toussaint's touchdown two minutes later. With 8:45 left in the fourth, the Wolverines took a 28-24 lead when Gardner (16 for 29, 286 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) connected with Devin Funchess for an eight-yard touchdown.
But after Tony Jones gave Northwestern a 31-28 lead with less than four minutes left, the Wildcats couldn’t run out the clock. The Wildcats reached the Michigan 39 on their final drive of regulation, but punted after taking a delay-of-game penalty, and on Michigan’s ensuing play, Gardner threw a deep — and game-changing — pass to Roundtree.
“We got into a slugfest and ended up one play short,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose team has squandered a second-half lead in three of its last five Big Ten games. “That’s happened three times to us. The reality is, we’re a dominant football team. We’ve just got to find a way to make that one more play.”
In overtime, Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said his team’s game plan was succinct. The Wolverines wasted little time — nine combined plays — executing that strategy.
“Let’s get a stop, win this game and let’s go home,” Kovacs said.
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.