Every week, like every other football team in the country, Michigan practices a play they almost never use -- getting the field-goal unit onto the field for a kick with the final seconds running off the clock.
Saturday, they finally needed it, and as it turns out, it works.
Losing 9-6 to Northwestern, the Wolverines faced 3rd-and-23 from the Wildcats 43 with 18 seconds left. They didn't have a timeout, and they were out of field-goal range, so it was going to take something special to force overtime. Devin Gardner had plenty of time to throw, and hit his favorite receiver, Jeremy Gallon for a 16-yard gain to the 27-yard line.
Gallon, though, had no chance of getting out of bounds, and there were only 11 seconds left when he flipped the ball to the official and sprinted off the field with his teammates. Kicker Brandon Gibbons was running in the opposite direction, but the most important person on the field was stuck in the wrong spot.
Holderwide receiver Drew Dileo had run a route to the other side of the field, and was now 30 yards away from the spot where Gibbons was standing, showing where he wanted the ball snapped. Dileo hesitated for a half-second in the wrong spot, thinking he was going to be playing wide receiver on a Hail Mary attempt, then realized where he needed to be.
As the clock continued to run, Dileo sprinted to Gibbons, using a baseball slide to get into place. Jareth Glanda snapped the ball with one second left, Dileo got it into place and Gibbons hit a perfect shot through the rain for a 44-yard field goal that forced overtime.
"I think that's the first time I've ever had to do it in a game," Gibbons said on Michigan's postgame radio show. "I didn't have time to think about the wind or the rain or anything -- it was just a matter of getting out there and getting lined up.
"I wasn't sure Drew was going to get there, but he pulled that slide out of his baseball days. He's the best holder in the country. I don't know if anyone else gets there in time."
Michigan coach Brady Hoke knew that Michigan should have never been in that position against a team that didn't have a single Big Ten victory, but it didn't stop his enjoyment of what his team did.
"That might be the best single play I've ever seen," he said. "I'm so proud of our guys to have the discipline -- both the players getting on the field and the players getting off the field -- to make it work. We practice that twice a week, and we practiced it in fall camp a lot of times, but the kids did a great job of executing their assignments."
Michigan finally finished off a 27-19 victory in the third overtime when Gardner rushed for both a touchdown and the two-point conversion and Thomas Gordon intercepted a fourth-down pass in the end zone.
That score, though, couldn't be any more misleading. There wasn't a touchdown scored until overtime, as both offenses struggled to move the ball on a windy, rainy evening in Illinois.
After two terrible offensive performances against Michigan State and Nebraska, things got slightly better with true freshmen Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith combining for 118 yards rushing on 28 carries.
Fitzgerald Toussaint, the primary running back all season, never got off the bench due to an unspecified injury.
"We knew we had to do something to be able to run the ball so that we could use play-action passes," Hoke said. "That was good to see."
Gardner struggled badly throwing the ball, but was bailed out by Northwestern's linebackers and defensive backs not being able to hang on to the ball. The Wildcats, who came into the game leading the Big Ten in interceptions, dropped at least seven easy picks, including two that would have been returned for touchdowns.
Northwestern's defenders, though, never finished any of the plays, allowing Michigan to still be in the game. The Wildcats gave them another break in the fourth quarter, when punter Brandon Williams shanked a 7-yard kick out of his own end zone. Michigan took over on the 10, but ran three plays, lost a yard and had to kick a field goal that pulled them within 9-6.
With the gusty wind at their back, the Wolverines drove to the Wildcat 4 on the next drive, but stalled again. This time, Hoke passed up the chip-shot field goal that would have tied the game. On 4th-and-2, offensive coordinator Al Borges called a play that Michigan has struggled with all season -- Gardner faking a handoff and running a sweep to the short side of the field.
Sure enough, with the limited room to maneuver, Gardner was stopped for a 1-yard loss, giving the Wildcats the ball and a chance to run the final 5:39 off the clock.
Michigan's defense, though, came up one last time, and the Wolverines converted two fourth downs on the final drive of regulation -- they didn't cover their first third down until overtime. Gardner took a horrible sack that knocked them out of field goal range, but he was able to hit Gallon the play that gave Gibbons the chance for the hurry-up field goal.
The Wolverines aren't a very good football team -- their seven wins include nail-biting victories over three bad opponents in Akron, Connecticut and Northwestern -- but Hoke is still happy with what happened Saturday.
"These kids have worked hard at practice every day, even as we have faced adversity, and they have remained accountable every day," he said. "Today, they all stepped up and supported each other, and I'm proud to see that."
Michigan is going to have to step up their game to win next weekend at Iowa, and beating Ohio State is going to require a much better performance than the Wolverines have shown at any point since the Notre Dame game.
They need to win both of those games, and beat someone in a bowl to achieve their new goal of 10 wins, but thanks to Gibbons and Dileo, they've at least got a shot.