ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan’s chances to win the Big Ten title got a jolt from a heave and a catch.
Devin Gardner threw a 53-yard pass to Roy Roundtree to set up Brendan Gibbons’ 26-yard field goal with 2 seconds left to extend the game against Northwestern.
Gardner then ran to the outside and scored easily from the 1 in overtime and his teammates on defense responded with a stop, giving the Wolverines a wild 38-31 win over the Wildcats on Saturday.
“There was a lot we didn’t do well,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “But we did enough to win the football game.”
Trevor Siemian threw a 15-yard pass to Tony Jones with 3:59 left in regulation to give the Wildcats a 31-28 lead and Gardner threw an interception on the next snap.
Northwestern, though, couldn’t pick up enough first downs to run out the clock and the Wolverines took advantage.
“We can hang our heads, but I think we are a pretty good football team,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We just needed to make one more play.”
Cornerback Daniel Jones was in a position to seal the upset for Northwestern when he was closely guarding Roundtree on the pivotal play of the game, but both players appeared to tip the ball up in the air and the senior receiver got it with 8 seconds left.
“My mind said, ‘I got to go make this play,’” Roundtree said.
And he did, allowing Michigan (7-3, 5-1 Big Ten) to narrowly avoid consecutive losses to the Wildcats (6-4, 4-2) at home for the first time since the 1934 and 1936 seasons.
The comeback victory kept Michigan’s hopes alive of winning a Big Ten title for the first time since 2004.
“It’s a good situation for us,” offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said.
But, college football’s winningest program needs another conference team to knock Nebraska out of first place in the Legends Division. The Cornhuskers would win a tiebreaker because of their victory over the Wolverines two weeks ago when Denard Robinson left the game with nerve damage in his right elbow.
Gardner, making his second straight start in place of the injured Robinson, was 16 of 29 for 286 yards with TD passes to Fitzgerald Toussaint and Devin Funchess. Gardner ran for 47 yards and two scores.
When Robinson is ready to play — next week at home against Iowa or in the regular season finale at Ohio State — Gardner insists that he shouldn’t stay under center.
“This is Denard’s team, and it’s always going to be Denard’s team,” Gardner said. “He’s done too much to change that.”
Northwestern changed quarterbacks, as it has throughout the year, and both had success.
Kain Colter, who was taken out once by a coach’s decision and another time because he was hurt, was 8 of 14 for 96 yards and a TD. Colter ran 24 times for 82 yards and fumbled, setting up Michigan’s go-ahead score by Thomas Rawls in the second quarter of a game with five lead changes and three ties.
Siemian was 6 of 7 for 87 yards with two TDs, a game-tying 19-yard strike to Cameron Dickerson with 25 seconds left in the first half and a perfectly thrown, go-ahead pass to Jones late in the game.
“You score 31 points, you expect to win,” Fitzgerald said.
Venric Mark had 104 yards rushing and a score for the Wildcats, who had a lot of success with option pitches to the outside only to stop calling that play frequently in the fourth quarter.
“They adjusted,” Fitzgerald explained. “You have to give them credit.”
Toussaint ran for a season-high 92 yards and fumbled, giving Northwestern the ball at its 3 in the second quarter. He made up for the fumble by turning a short pass into a 28-yard, go-ahead TD late in the third quarter by breaking a tackle and sprinting down a sideline.
Northwestern seemed to set itself up for a win at the Big House when it went ahead late in the game, picked off Gardner and converted a fourth-and-1 — by the nose of the football — on Colter’s dive with 3:07 left.
But the Wildcats needed one more first down to run out the clock and couldn’t earn another one against a suddenly stingy defense.
“We don’t want to have to feel like this again,” Northwestern linebacker Damien Proby said.
In overtime, on a fourth-and-2 from the Michigan 17, linebacker Kenny Demens stopped Tyris Jones for no gain on a run up the middle to allow the Wolverines to celebrate a thrilling victory.
“My wife asked me, ‘Did you know you were going to win?’” Hoke recalled. “And, I told her, ‘Yes.’ I knew because these kids were going to pull it out.”