Fresh off of a 58-7 drubbbing at the hands of the Ohio State Buckeyes a few weeks back, many pundits had Northwestern as the heavy underdog in their home match-up with Michigan last Saturday. The Wolverines traveled to Evanston on the heels of a big victory over 10th ranked Penn State. Mike Hart’s early season effectiveness combined with the strong play of the defense over the previous two contests made belief that Michigan would roll their struggling opponent all the more prevalent. But when the two squads actually squared off, things didn’t go quite like most had anticipated.
“They came out with a lot of energy,” Brandon Graham said regarding Pat Fitzgerald’s club. “We came out going through the motions a little bit. Northwestern came out in the first half really hype over everybody out there. We were just going through it thinking it was going to be easy, but it wasn’t. They surprised us… big time.”
Particularly worrisome was Northwestern’s effectiveness on the ground. Minus star rusher Tyrell Sutton, the Wildcats managed 97 yards rushing by halftime, and reserve Omar Conteh finished the game with 15 carries for 115 of Northwestern’s 128 yards rushing.
“They caught us in a couple of plays,” Terrance Taylor said afterward. “They caught us in a nickel with three down linemen. When you’re playing with three down linemen and you’re stunting, there are going to be some holes. They found the holes.”
“A couple of our linebackers… we’ve got to get used to seeing the pullers and going with the pullers,” Shawn Crable further explained. “We’ve got to see it, and then when we see it, we’ve got to tackle. We didn’t tackle very well in the first half. We’ve just got to tackle better.”
Down 16-7 at intermission, the Michigan defenders looked back at the disappointing half of football like a bad story whose pages they’d read before. In order to prevent history from repeating itself, they knew that there were some basic changes that had to be made, and they had nothing to do with scheme.
“They had momentum,” Taylor said regarding the cats. “They had a player we thought he was down and he ran for 60-some yards (on their first offensive play of the game), and they got a field goal out of that. We didn’t really have any excitement out there. We weren’t playing with the excitement that we did the past two games. When you play defense, you’ve got to play with excitement. The first half they were three-step dropping us. They saw last year the last two games that people had success with that… Ohio State and USC. They ran draws and a couple screens here and there that Oregon and Appalachian State had. So (Northwestern) was doing everything. We knew exactly what they were going to do. They had like 40 screens in four games. It was just about us executing and being physical. We weren’t physical in the first half. We weren’t getting to the quarterback, we weren’t hitting him, and we weren’t hitting the running backs. We didn’t want to play like that. We went in at halftime, Coach Carr spoke, and we were ready to go. Everybody knew what we could do. We weren’t playing like Michigan.”
Michigan’s headman hammered home the fact that the first 30 minutes of play should serve as a wake-up call about the type of intensity the players have to consistently play with.
“I think at halftime it was very clear that we had to go play our best football,” said Carr. “There were 30 minutes left, we’re down 16-7… we’re down two scores. We talked about needing to force turnovers and penalties. We understood the gravity of the situation and the further that game went without us closing the margin, the tougher it would be to win.”
The Michigan defenders got the message loud and clear. After forcing punts on Northwestern’s first two drives of the second half, they forced four of the five Wildcat turnovers on the next four possessions. The stark difference in performance had many observers believing that schematic changes were made at halftime. According to the players, though, that was not the case at all.
“The first half, they didn’t do anything that we didn’t expect them to do,” Crable said. “They ran the same route concepts. They tweaked them a little bit, but I think mostly our intensity wasn’t there. We had a lot of false intensity in the beginning. Then at halftime we really realized we were in a fight and we had to crank it up. We’ve got to step it up from here. We came out slow a couple of times before, and we see what the ending is when you dig yourself a hole, but we’re still in this one. The plays that were made in the first half, in the second half they ran the same plays, but the people that were supposed to be there were there this time. It was the same stuff.”
“It was the exact same defense,” Taylor added. “We came out the second half and played with more excitement and we executed. The offense gets it spark from us. If we do bad, the offense is going to do bad. So we went out there, they drove down the field, and we stopped them. We started building momentum. Three-and-outs. Once you’re on the field a lot, you get tired. That’s what happened to them. We kept getting three and outs and they kept having to go out there and our offense kept driving the ball, and they got tired.”
With a number of strong opponents remaining on the schedule, there is little chance that emotion (or lack thereof) will be an issue again. However, in games where that possibility is more likely (like this weekend’s contest versus Eastern Michigan), the Wolverines feel there are measures they can be taken to guard against it.
“It’s just knowing that every team, when they play Michigan, they are going to bring everything,” said Taylor. “Every team around the country, when they play us…Michigan and that winged helmet, they are going to try to beat us. We aren’t going to take anybody lightly and we aren’t going to show any mercy to anybody.”
“I thought we had it,” Crable added regarding the habit of bringing
emotion for a full 60 minutes. “We did it at Penn State. I thought we
had it, but obviously we haven’t found that out yet. It’s something
that’s a process. I think every man has to take it as a role for themselves
to make sure that they’re mentally prepared… and don’t wait
for something to happen to be mentally prepared.”