PISCATAWAY — When the No. 5 Michigan football team found itself in an unlikely 17-14 halftime deficit, it looked to the defense to generate some life.
And in the subsequent 30 minutes the defense ignited that spark, snagging three second half turnovers to turn a dicey game into a rout.
Michigan (9-0 overall, 6-0 Big Ten) overcame a slow start, ultimately pulling away from Rutgers (4-5, 1-5) for a 52-17 win Saturday night. The Wolverines followed the blueprint they have used all season, leaning on the ground game and second half adjustments to remain undefeated.
“It’s one of those things that pulls your team tighter and tighter together,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “There was no pointing fingers at the offense, no pointing fingers at the special teams, no pointing fingers at the defense. (The message) was ‘Hey, we’re gonna get this done, we’re gonna get this done together.’ ”
The first half, though, was one to forget for the Wolverines. The trouble began on the second drive of the game, when graduate punter Brad Robbins’ punt was blocked and recovered for a touchdown to tie the game at seven.
In the second quarter, things went from bad to worse. Michigan retook the lead 14-10 but couldn’t extend its advantage when the usually reliable graduate kicker Jake Moody missed a 50-yard field goal wide right. Rutgers, emboldened by the Wolverines’ miscues, responded with an emphatic touchdown drive.
Another miss from Moody with seconds remaining in the half, again from 50 yards, meant it was officially gut check time for the Wolverines.
They walked to the locker room stunned, facing their first half time deficit of the season.
But unexpectedly tight first half contests have been a theme for the Wolverines all year. And yet again, there was no sense of panic in the locker room — and no halftime hype up speech was warranted.
“I feel like there was no message,” senior defensive end Mike Morris said. “We prepared for this moment since spring ball. Coach Harbaugh always organizes situations where we are put at a disadvantage … so moments like these are easy.”
As the second half kicked off, electricity swelled around SHI stadium. Up by three and receiving the ball to start, the Scarlet Knights believed. But Michigan, harkening back to those spring ball workouts, responded.
It began with the defense forcing a three-and-out, quickly returning the ball to its offense. Then sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy, after struggling in the first half, finally displayed his patented passing ability — connecting on a 26-yard pass down the sidelines to sophomore running back Donovan Edwards to jumpstart the drive. McCarthy then capped it with a 14-yard touchdown pass threaded to Edwards in the back corner of the end zone.
In the locker room, after Rutgers had connected on some big plays, graduate linebacker Mike Barrett preached that the Wolverines needed to respond with some of their own. And he took the onus upon himself to make it happen.
Two plays after Edwards’ touchdown, Barrett jumped a pass and gave the Wolverines the ball back on the ten-yard line. Junior running back Blake Corum scampered in for a touchdown moments later.
On the next play from scrimmage, a Rutgers pass skipped off the hands of a Scarlet Knights receiver and the ball floated right to Barrett again, and this time he ran it all the way to the house.
In the blink of an eye, Michigan was up 35-17. And Rutgers’ hopes of an upset had fizzled.
“Everybody is motivating everybody,” Barrett said. “I feel like once we come out in the second half, once we get that breath, we just come out ready to hunt.”
The Wolverines continued to flex their muscles the remainder of the game. The secondary, which was picked apart in the first half, locked down the aerial attack, helped pitch a shutout and constantly created short fields for the offense.
The offense made good on those efforts, putting up 31 second half points and running up the second half scoring margin to a dominant 100-3 mark over the last four games.
“We all know what kind of team we are,” Barrett said. “We were all just going around motivating each other, telling everybody that the second half was ours.”
It was a tale of two halves for Michigan, a trend that has followed it much of the season.
But once again, when uncertainty swirled, the Wolverines removed all doubt and proved an uncomfortable situation was something that they could handle with ease.