The Wildcats entered the locker room with a 10-point lead and momentum on their side. Michigan's first-year head coach Brady Hoke had his team ready for the second half, and they charged back with 28 unanswered points.
"Credit goes to our opponent, obviously," said NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "They came back in the second half and made the plays that winners make."
Northwestern posted 24 points and 297 yards of offense in the first half, while the defense did their part as well, intercepting three passes from Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. The Wildcats were rolling. Then the second half happened.
The Wolverines started the half with an eight-play, 80-yard drive, which Denard Robinson capped off with a touchdown run. Northwestern went three-and-out on their next drive, giving Michigan the football again. UM backup quarterback Devin Gardner scored from one yard out, and the Wolverines had regained the lead.
Looking to strike back, Dan Persa had the Wildcats near midfield, but he was intercepted after a pass deflected off the hands of senior superback Drake Dunsmore. Michigan would extend their lead on the first play of the fourth quarter, as Michael Shaw rushed for a touchdown.
Trailing by 11 points, the Wildcats had a chance to cut into the deficit. On fourth-and-one, Dan Persa rolled out to his right. He evaded pressure from behind, but had his helmet ripped off. Persa stayed on his feet, but the referees blew the whistle, signaling the play to be dead.
By rule, once a player's helmet is removed, the play is over. In this case, it resulted in a turnover on downs. Pat Fitzgerald was unhappy with the no-call on what appeared to be a facemask penalty. Fitzgerald was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. The ball and momentum return to the Wolverines.
Fitzgerald declined to comment on the non-call, saying, "I have three kids' college funds to worry about. I'll leave it at that."
Persa was a bit more outspoken of the non-call, supporting his case with the evidence on the field.
"How else would (the helmet) have come off," Persa asked.
The fourth quarter saw Northwestern get three possessions—two ending in a turnover and the final drive ending as time expired.
The Wildcats beat themselves in the second half. Three turnovers (one of those on downs), and four Michigan touchdowns resulted in another gut-wrenching loss for Northwestern.
"We have to play better team football together," said Fitzgerald. "We thought we had a good plan coming into the second half. Again, we as coaches didn't think there was anything schematically that we didn't adjust to properly. We feel like we stopped ourselves and that's a little disappointing."
Northwestern got a good look at why Denard Robinson is a Heisman Trophy candidate. The Wildcats appeared to have Robinson contained in the first half, holding him to just 49 yards on the ground. The junior would catch fire in the second half, completing seven of eight passes for 149 yards, and adding 80 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
"He's pretty good—probably the best that we've seen in a while. He's outstanding," said Fitzgerald of Robinson's play.
With the loss, Northwestern drops under .500 for the first time since 2007, and the team has now lost three consecutive games and six of eight games dating back to last season.
Their next opportunity to regroup comes next Saturday when the Wildcats head to Iowa City to meet with the Hawkeyes, a team who they have had great recent success against. The key to a turnaround is simple.
"We just have to stay consistent," said Persa. "I think the sense of urgency has to go up. We can't go down this quick in the Big Ten schedule. We have to keep doing what we're doing, but we have to put more time in. We're doing a lot, but we have to do more. Obviously, what we are doing isn't enough."