Does it need to be said much more than that? Inches decide ball games, particularly close ball games. Against Nebraska inches separated Northwestern from a clinching interception and a devastating blown lead and loss. Against Michigan, those inches mattered even more.
A finger tip, a tiny opening, the nose of the football, a jump offsides. Those inches in the fourth quarter went against Northwestern in the end as Michigan came from behind (again) to win 38-31 in overtime at Michigan Stadium.
Northwestern had a 24-14 lead and gave up 14 unanswered points to fall behind. The Wildcats had the answer with a Trevor Siemian-led drive ended with a 15-yard pass to Tony Jones on a bullet to the middle of the end zone. Devin Gardner responded with a first-play interception to much-maligned cornerback Demetrius Dugar. The Wildcats began to run out the clock. Kain Colter led the drive and got Northwestern into Michigan territory.
On 4th and 1, Colter slammed into the line and was stood up. The referees gave him the first down by the nose of the ball and the Wildcats seemed ready to run the clock out. Three conservative run plays helped run the clock down to 37 seconds, but gave Michigan just enough time.
Brandon Williams had one of his worst punts on the year. Williams punted it 34 yards and Jeremy Gallon returned it 23 yards, setting up Michigan with 1st and 10 and its own 38 with 18 seconds left.
Devin Gardner had one miracle heave to get the Wolverines into field goal position. And 53 yards down the field he found Roy Roundtree in one-on-one coverage against
C.J. Bryant Daniel Jones. Bryant Jones got a hand on the ball and forced Roundtree to adjust mid stride to a ball that had suddenly changed direction. Roundtree though made the adjustment and made the play. He hauled in the pass at the nine-yard line with eight seconds left, setting up the game-tying field goal.
In overtime, the Wolverines got the ball first and Gardner found Roundtree again on a short hitch route for 17 yards after he evaded the initial tackle from Dugar. That set up Michigan for a third and goal with Gardner rolling out on a naked bootleg for the touchdown.
The Wildcats took the field and went somewhat conservative, favoring option runs with Kain Colter. Eventually fourth down and one came. Venric Mark was on the sideline after a nasty hit earlier in the overtime. Colter ran the read option, read it wrong and Tyris Jones was stopped well short of a first down.
Inches, yet again.
The Wildcats played a good game. They gained 431 total yards, got 104 yards on 23 carries from Venric Mark, got 82 yards on 24 carries and 96 yards on 8-for-14 passing from Kain Colter and even Trevor Siemian found his rhythm again, leading two touchdown drives and completing 6 of his 7 passes. There was no faulting much of anything from Northwestern. Except those inches.
The Wildcats had a near interception in overtime. They had a couple of close calls on offense throughout the game and perhaps a hesitancy to open up the playbook. The Wildcats missed some tackles in the secondary and generally played pretty loose — like always. The same predictability on offense and defense occurred. But the Wildcats survived and controlled the game it seemed throughout. They were never out of it, but never out of the woods either.
It was certainly another sobering loss. There is no getting around it. The Wildcats had a chance to win yet again. Had a double-digit second-half lead and let it slip away. There will be more measuring and reflecting to do as the Wildcats try to solve the same problem that has plagued them all year.
Perhaps it is comfortable knowing how close this season has been from being really special. Perhaps it is not comfortable, more frustrating.
Northwestern had it again. There is no excuses — no miracle play, no bad punt, no poor play calling, no poor execution — for losing. That time has long past. All that is left is the empy feeling that NU remains incredibly close.
And just inches away.