As SuperFan of the Maize Rage student section at the University of Michigan, I have the opportunity to travel to all of the Michigan football away games and experience what football Saturday means in different parts of the country. This feature will run after each away game this season, detailing the gameday experience for Michigan games outside of Ann Arbor. Previously: UConn, Penn State, Michigan State.
The 2013 Michigan football season has seen the end of several significant streaks. A quadruple-overtime loss to Penn State signaled the end of the five-game winning streak to start the season. The blowout loss in East Lansing ended Michigan’s 134-year streak of never having less than negative 47 yards rushing. Last weekend, Nebraska ended the 19-game home winning streak.
Needless to say, it was time for something positive.
At the beginning of the season, when Michigan and Northwestern were both 4-0, ranked in the top 20 and right in the middle of the Big Ten Championship race, I had the trip to Chicago circled as one of the most meaningful games of the season.
As it turned out, the game had almost no national importance.
We arrived in Chicago on Friday night and spent it in the heart of the city. Almost everyone around was wearing their Maize and Blue and purple was a rare sight. The large Michigan population in Chicago took over the city for the night and it was easy to forget the team was on the road.
On Saturday morning, a Michigan bar in the area offered a tailgate deal, so we ate lunch and watched Big Ten football in the city until the bus took us off to Evanston. The bar had around 300 Michigan fans taking advantage of the deal and everyone was talking to friends from school that made the trip down separately.
When I got to the stadium, I went in immediately to see the phenomenon of the day: the red, white and blue Northwestern jerseys. These jerseys were just as interesting in person as they sounded in the description, and the fans seemed enthusiastic about it as many wore sweatshirts with the stars and stripes on their shoulders.
The game was more or less a recreation of the Michigan State debacle, but without the fourth quarter touchdowns. My friends were constantly debating with the Wildcat fans in front of us which team deserved to be hated more; each saying that their own school was more frustrating.
In reality it was hard not to feel sorry for the Northwestern fan base. After so many years of mediocrity, the team was so wired for the top 15 matchup against Ohio State that the loss seemed to have sucked their air out of them. Since that night, when the eyes of the college football world were focused on little Ryan Field, the Wildcats have done nothing but break their fans’ hearts.
Our game continued the trend.
Though the first three and a half quarters were more or less a social event for the crowd, things got serious when it looked like Northwestern was actually going to avenge Michigan’s miraculous victory in the Big House last season. Fans perked up when the anemic Michigan offense failed to put the ball in the end zone drive after drive.
As the final possession for the Wolverines began, I reviewed the season with a Northwestern fan in front of me, deciding that this 9-6 slop-fest perfectly represented the two teams thus far in 2013.
My frustration sprouted from the historic lack of consistency from Michigan’s offense. In all my years of watching football, I never thought Michigan would set multiple Big Ten records for offense one week (against Indiana) only to record the team’s worst-ever rushing performance the next week and follow that up with another negative contest on the ground at home. Scoring six points against a team averaging 26.1 points allowed per game was tough for me to swallow.
My purple-clad friend had me beat, however, with his tales of distress. He recounted the 29-point loss to Wisconsin, three-point loss to Minnesota, overtime loss to Iowa and last-second hail Mary loss to Nebraska. The Northwestern faithful have been through a devastating Big Ten season.
It got a whole lot worse about three minutes later.
When Devin Gardner was sacked at the 43 yard line with the clock ticking under 40 seconds, the home crowd took over for the first time all game, thinking they finally had a conference win under wraps. Then, when Jeremy Gallon was tackled in bounds after a third down catch, it seemed certain the clock would run out.
Somehow, Brendan Gibbons and Drew Dileo executed a 44-yard field goal as time expired to send the game into overtime. Despite the two-game losing streak and all the struggles Michigan has had this season, celebrating that field goal was a real thrill. The looks on the faces of Northwestern fans was one of devastation as another win was snatched from right under their noses.
Overtime was far more exciting than regulation. Michigan scored two touchdowns, a field goal and even a two-point conversion. What really was a horrific 9-9 game showed up in the box scores as a respectable 27-19 win.
Northwestern fell to 0-6 in the Big Ten, and Michigan stopped the bleeding. For now.
The night was much more fun following a Michigan victory. After struggling through post-Michigan losses in Penn State and Michigan State, spending a happy night in Chicago was a therapeutic.
I left behind a fan base reeling as bad as it ever has in its history. Although Northwestern has had difficult seasons in the past, few of them have followed 4-0 starts and contained so many heartbreaking finishes. It put Michigan’s struggles in perspective. Two years removed from a BCS victory, a 7-3 record isn’t what the fans had in mind for 2013, but hopelessness surrounding the team after the Nebraska loss is blown out of proportion.
Michigan can continue to turn things around by upsetting Iowa next weekend. It would continue the trend of breaking streaks, since the Wolverines haven’t won in Iowa City since 2005. Two straight upsets would give Ann Arbor hope going into The Game that could salvage a difficult conference season.
If I learned anything in Chicago, it’s to appreciate every precious win.