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Northwestern gets nothing ­going as Michigan hands it first loss

For the Sun-Times

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Traveon Henry stood in the midst of his Northwestern teammates, fully -engulfed in enemy territory.

If the No. 13 and undefeated Wildcats were going to place a stamp of legitimacy on their claim as one of the Big Ten’s title contenders, they would have to do it in front of 110,452 fans at Michigan Stadium.

Unfazed by his surroundings, Henry danced inside the pregame huddle and proclaimed, “This is our day. This is our year. This is our moment.”

Northwestern’s day quickly turned sour. From the moment Michigan’s Jehu Chesson returned the opening kickoff 96 yards to the time the clock mercifully ran out on a 38-0 dismantling at the hands of the Wolverines on Saturday, it was apparent the Wildcats weren’t ready for their moment.

“It’s more so just one bad performance,” Henry said. “We didn’t show up like we’re capable of. We let a couple of plays get on top of us, and we didn’t respond well. I don’t believe the moment was too big for people.”

The Wolverines, ranked No. 18 and sure to climb after their fourth consecutive victory and third shutout in a row (for the first time since 1980), were far better prepared.

An NU defense that entered the day as the nation’s top scoring defense was overwhelmed at every turn. The Wildcats, who hadn’t allowed more than 19 points in a game, gave up 28 in the first half.

Michigan running back De’Veon Smith punished would-be tacklers, running through them and over them. Wolverines tight end Jake Butt was a battering ram, giving Northwestern a taste of the smash-mouth football coach Jim Harbaugh has delivered in his first season in Ann Arbor.

Michigan’s defense, which hasn’t given up a touchdown since Sept. 19, smothered the Wildcats. It shut down every corner running back Justin Jackson attempted to reach, giving up a total of 38 rushing yards. It closed down every passing lane quarterback Clayton Thorson attempted to throw into.

But the Wildcats’ offense didn’t do itself any favors. Penalties, dropped passes — including one that led to an interception return for a touchdown late in the first half — and NU’s offensive line being unable to keep Michigan’s defensive front from sacking Thorson four times added up to one headache after another.

“We played terribly,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “But I don’t want to discredit Michigan. That would be insulting. I would never want to insult an opponent that kicks your butt the way we got our butt kicked.”

Yet, for everything that went wrong, Fitzgerald’s players insist the loss was a momentary hiccup. The Wildcats will have to find a way to rebound with West Division leader Iowa coming to Ryan Field for a game that very well could determine who represents the division in the Big Ten championship game.

Follow me on Twitter @Jeff-Arnold_.