As far as first halves go, it wasn’t Michigan’s finest. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy wasn’t his sharpest, Michigan’s vaunted run game was non-existent and its defense looked like it forgot how to tackle.
Purdue, on the other hand, was humming. Quarterback Aidan McConnell was on point and Charlie Jones, his favorite target, was all but uncoverable. The Boilermakers moved the ball freely up and down the field, finishing the half with advantages in total yards (202 to 135) and time of possession (18:04 to 11:56).
Yet despite this, because Michigan’s defense did plenty of bending but little breaking, the Wolverines were able to hold the Boilermakers to field goals on two of their three trips into the red zone and took a 14-13 lead into the locker room.
After the game McCarthy said that despite the slow start, Michigan’s confidence never wavered. “Best second half team in the country,” McCarthy said of his Wolverines. And it’s hard to argue with the young signal caller. For the season, Michigan has outscored its Big Ten opponents 217-57 in the second half, including an almost unfathomable 69-6 combined edge over Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State.
But what of this night? Would the Wolverines continue their second half assault on the competition? Or would the Spoilermakers claim another upset victim and capture their first conference championship since Drew Brees donned the gold and black?
It didn’t take long to find out.
Michigan got the ball to start the second half and the first play from scrimmage was a 60-yard run by Donavan Edwards. Four plays later, linebacker-turned-running back Kalel Mullings punched it in from the one to increase Michigan’s lead to 21-13. After holding Purdue to a quick three-and-out on defense, the Wolverines struck again, this time on a two-play, 67-yard touchdown drive.
“They (Michigan) didn’t panic when the game was close in the third quarter,” Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm said after the game. “They came out and established their will and ran the ball right at us and created some big plays and extended their lead.”
That they did.
Just over four minutes into the second half, in a contest that was a one-point affair at the half, Michigan was suddenly up 28-13. McCarthy and the Wolverines would hold the Boilermakers at bay the rest of the half, tacking on a pair of touchdowns while holding Purdue to three more field goals, in what would eventually be a 43-22 victory.
Give Purdue credit. The Boilermakers kept coming. McConnell threw a pair of second-half interceptions, but played well throughout, finishing 32 of 47 for 366 yards. And Jones was spectacular, doing his best Cooper Kupp impression, finishing with 13 catches (on just 16 targets) for 162 yards. Brohm and the Boilermakers left nothing on the table, either, dialing up both a fake flea flicker and a successful fake punt.
But despite Purdue’s success between the twenties, Michigan’s defense more often than not kept the Boilermakers out of the end zone. Purdue kicker Mitchell Finneran, who came into Saturday’s championship game with only 13 field goals all season, was a perfect five-for-five Saturday. Finneran’s big night, however, wouldn’t be enough.
Asked why the Boilermakers had so much trouble finishing drives, Brohm was succinct in his response. “I think the main one (reason) is that’s a really, really good football team (Michigan). We found a way to move the ball up and down the field a little bit, but they stiffened up once we got inside the 20. I give them a lot of credit.”
Michigan did what it’s done all season - took over the game in the second half, and did so by leaning on the run. The Wolverines finished with 225 rushing yards, with 180 of those coming after halftime.
“They have a really good combination on offense. Big, physical linemen, great running backs, a lot of really good tight ends,” Brohm continued. “They’re going to wear you out.” And that’s what Michigan did.
Just as he did in the Ohio State game, sophomore running back Edwards had his fingerprints all over Michigan’s second half surge. Edwards rushed for nearly 150 second half yards en route to 180 for the game. In Michigan’s last two games, against Ohio State and in the Big Ten title game, Edwards has rushed for more than 400 yards. “You want to talk about big games?” Harbaugh said, “This guy (Edwards) comes alive in big games.”
Which is a good thing for Michigan, since its Heisman Trophy candidate running back is on the shelf.
When Blake Corum suffered what was essentially a season-ending knee injury against Illinois, many feared that Michigan’s season was finished along with Corum’s. And there was good reason for such concern. Corum was among the nation’s leaders in both rushing yards and touchdowns and was the focal point of Michigan’s offense. In Edwards, however, the Wolverines have more than simply a back-up, they have a budding star.
The victory gave Michigan its second consecutive conference championship and continued a spectacular two-year run for Harbaugh and the Wolverines. A run that’s seen them go 25-2, win two Big Ten titles and advance to the college football playoffs twice, where this year they have a semifinal date with TCU.
Michigan has work to do before its New Year’s Eve game against the Horned Frogs. Being a second half team is great, but you don’t want to dig a first half hole out of which you can’t escape. If Michigan is to advance further than it did last year, when their season ended with a semifinal loss to Georgia, it will need to clean a few things up. Something Michigan’s players acknowledged after the game.
Michigan’s players are also embracing the challenge that the playoffs present. If there’s a difference between this team and last year’s team, it’s that this is a more outwardly confident bunch. Last year, there was a novelty to everything. The Big Ten title. The playoffs. This year, to listen the players, this level of success was expected. And they have no intention of having the ride end prematurely.
“The job’s not finished,” a determined McCarthy reminded reporters after the confetti had finished falling in Indy. “We’ve still got work to do.” And that work begins New Year’s Eve in Phoenix.