‘Great talent, great scheme’: Northwestern coach praises Michigan and its underrated QB


ANN ARBOR -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald smiled as soon as he heard the question.

His team had just lost at Michigan, 33-7. Northwestern lost at home to Michigan State 38-21 in the season opener on Sep. 3.

With the Wolverines and Spartans set to play next Saturday, Fitzgerald was asked for his thoughts on the matchup.

“I wish them both well,” Fitzgerald said. “I look forward to playing Minnesota. Thanks for the question though. Probably a good one for Coach (Jim) Harbaugh and Coach (Mel) Tucker.”

Fitzgerald then pivoted to discussing the Illinois high school football playoffs.

It’s no surprise he didn’t make a score prediction, but Fitzgerald certainly has first-hand experience of how good both teams can be.

On Saturday, he saw Michigan dominate the second half in all phases of the game.

It was the Wildcats who appeared to have the momentum at halftime and threatened to pull off a big upset. They ripped off a 75-yard touchdown run and recovered a Michigan fumble on their own two-yard line in the closing minutes of the half and entered the locker room trailing by just three, 10-7.

“We had ‘em right where we wanted them,” fifth-year linebacker Chris Bergin said.

Michigan scored on its opening drive of the second half and never looked back. “They came out (for the second half) guns blazin’; we didn’t,” Bergin said. “Give credit where credit’s due.”

Michigan outgained Northwestern in total yards 457 to 233 to improve to 7-0 overall and 4-0 in the Big Ten.

“They were exactly what we thought they’d be,” said Fitzgerald, who praised Michigan in advance of the matchup based on what he’d seen on film. “Real physical up front on both sides of the ball, two backs that are as good as anywhere in the country.”

Fitzgerald also commended Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara, who finished 20-for-27 for 129 yards. McNamara had just one completion of at least 15 yards -- a 16-yard pass to tight end Erick All -- and no touchdowns, but he didn’t commit any turnovers. McNamara has thrown just one interception in his career.

“I don’t think their ‘Q’ gets enough credit,” Fitzgerald said. “I think he’s really poised. I think he does a really good job taking what the defense gives him.”

Michigan entered the game ranked sixth nationally in rushing yards per game with 246.5. The Wolverines eclipsed that mark on Saturday with 294 yards on 54 carries. Both Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum cracked 110 rushing yards and each had two touchdowns.

“They’re the best rushing offense in the country for a reason,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ve got a great offensive line, really good tight ends, and a two-headed monster at running back that is as good or better than anybody in the country. Great talent, great scheme, and they executed pretty darn well today.”

Fitzgerald, Northwestern’s head coach since 2006, noted that Michigan capitalized on Northwestern’s mistakes in the second half. Michigan blocked a punt to set up a short field, which led to touchdown that made it 24-7 with 4:50 left in the third quarter. The Wildcats’ tackling was poor, as was their communication in pass protection, according to Fitzgerald.

The coach was sure to note that Michigan deserved credit for these things too. The running backs are hard to bring down -- Haskins had one run late in the first quarter where he appeared to be stopped but broke free from a pile of bodies to gain 19 yards -- and Michigan’s defense has made life difficult for offenses much of the season.

“I think their receivers can take the top off,” Fitzgerald said, though that element of Michigan’s offense wasn’t on full display on Saturday. “Their tight ends are long and can run. Their back end (of their defense) can fly around. I love the way their back end plays; they play in unison. And they’ve got really talented guys in the kick game. They were as advertised.”

Michigan’s win sets up a showdown between undefeated, top-10 teams in East Lansing on Oct. 30. Fitzgerald declined to offer much of a comment on the game, but he knows as well as anybody it should be good.