It was the nail-biter no one saw coming. No one on the Michigan sideline, at least. A week after racing to a 39-0 lead, in a wire-to-wire, 56-10 romp over Nebraska, Michigan struggled early against Northwestern, and quickly found itself on the wrong side of a three-score deficit. In a game that was eerily reminiscent of Michigan’s season opening loss to Notre Dame, the Wolverines could neither stop Northwestern nor get anything going themselves. And by the time Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats increased their lead to 17-0, two minutes into the second quarter, it was fair to ask if it was time to get nervous if you were wearing maize and blue.
But if the Wolverines themselves were nervous, they didn’t show it. Michigan responded, stemming the tide with a seven play, 79-yard touchdown drive that cut the lead to 17-7, a score that would hold until the half. The Wolverines regrouped at halftime, “Got our heads right,” Josh Uche would say, and came out of the break a different team, particularly on defense.
To say Michigan’s defense stiffened would be putting it mildly. After surrendering 146 total yards and three long scoring drives in the first half, Michigan held the Wildcats scoreless over the second half, never allowing them to cross midfield. Led by Chase Winovich, who continues to play at an All-American level, the Michigan defense allowed only 55 second-half yards and forced the Wildcats to punt on five consecutive possessions, putting the game in the hands of the Michigan offense.
Michigan started to get things going offensively in the second half, but points were hard to come by, and the Wolverines mounted their comeback a field goal at a time. Michigan ultimately found the end zone, and took its first lead of the game with just over four minutes to play.
Karan Higdon again ran hard for the Wolverines, finishing with 115 yards and two touchdowns, but if there was a reason Michigan prevailed, it was quarterback Shea Patterson. After the game, Michigan players spoke of Patterson’s leadership, poise and his ability to remain calm under pressure. And if you watched the game, you saw the same thing. Shaking off an uneven start, which included a handful of uncharacteristic misfires during a half in which he was often under pressure, Patterson was cool during crunch time. In the tensest moments, Patterson was at his best, dropping passes into impossibly small openings, particularly a pair of third down conversions to Zach Gentry. And on perhaps the biggest play of the game, Patterson scrambled for nine yards, weaving through defenders to keep what turned out to be the game winning drive alive.
Once Michigan assumed the lead, its defense did what it has often had difficulty doing: It slammed the door on the Wildcats, fittingly ending the game with a Uche sack.
It wasn’t the game many expected, but give Northwester credit. The Wildcats had two weeks to prepare for the Wolverines, and it showed, particularly early on. Despite their disappointing start to the season, the Wildcats have a good quarterback in senior Clayton Thorson, and led by Joe Gaziano and Paddy Fisher, feature a strong front seven on defense, one that made things difficult for Patterson most of the day.
Kudos to Michigan for not panicking and coming back from 17 down for a difficult road win. But while second-half adjustments are nice, the Wolverines need to do something about their slow starts, because mounting similar comebacks against Wisconsin or on the road in East Lansing won’t be as easy. And with the Wolverines facing the Badgers and Spartans in consecutive weeks in October, Harbaugh and company need to figure things out sooner rather than later.