It was a familiar punch to the jaw. Just as Notre Dame racked up three quick touchdowns in the season opener, Northwestern dealt the Michigan football team blow after blow early Saturday.
The Wildcats ran 17 plays for 145 yards on their first three drives, seemingly converting everything they wanted. Quarterback Clayton Thorson completed slant after slant, resembling a prized fighter meticulously shredding and wearing down his opponent. He consistently had a clean pocket to throw from — the Wolverines defensive line’s “twist” stunts weren’t getting home.
Michigan couldn’t avoid its own jabs, either. Its defense was penalized three times for 40 yards, as yellow flags dismantled any resistance the Wolverines could muster.
Late in the first quarter, a nine-play, 52-yard touchdown drive extended Northwestern’s lead to 17. It looked like a potential knock-out punch, especially with Michigan’s offensive sputtering.
“We let small missed assignments turn into a big gains,” said sophomore defensive end Kwity Paye. “We just had to settle down.”
“Settling down” is certainly not Don Brown’s M.O. The third-year defensive coordinator is known instead for his fiery personality, “solve your problems with aggression” mantra and endless pursuit of the quarterback.
But that’s exactly what Brown did for the Michigan defense. After the first quarter, the Wolverines allowed just 119 yards of total offense and kept the Wildcats from truly delivering that KO.
“He’s an evil genius of the defense,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich. “It’s more than just his coaching style, it’s his ability to manage relationships, which requires a certain level of genius in itself to get everyone on the same page.”
Naturally, aggression was Brown’s key to finding that page. Moving away from those twist stunts for a traditional pursuit, Michigan sacked Thorson five times in the second half.
“It was like, ‘Let’s put our best pass rushers out there and straight pass rush them,’ ” Paye said.
The problem met aggression, and Brown had the answer. Calling blitzes like you’d expect from an “evil genius,” Brown made Northwestern’s offense look lost down the stretch, its quarterback picking himself off the turf consistently.
Thorson couldn’t rely on those slants anymore, either.
As they had two weeks ago against SMU, safeties Josh Metellus and Tyree Kinnel struggled early on quick passing plays in man-to-man coverage. But Brown had his solution, and of course, it was based in physicality.
“We came in knowing that was their go-to — the short game,” said junior linebacker Josh Uche. “We just had to get better hands on the receivers coming off the line.”
And as Metellus and company did just that, Michigan’s defense was officially settled in. Those penalties, quick passes and points all mostly disappeared during the second half.
“Don Brown had some tremendous calls,” said coach Jim Harbaugh. “We got free runners to the quarterback, and that was big … We started getting our hands on some of those balls in the secondary and started applying pressure, and it really helped us.”
So did the play of Uche and Paye, which was especially critical considering Rashan Gary left injured in the third quarter — he did return eventually. In breakout performances, the pair collected two sacks each during the absence of the junior defense end.
True to his adjustment, it was Brown’s call that sealed Michigan’s largest come-from-behind victory since 2011. On the game’s final play, Uche speed rushed off the right edge to dispatch Northwestern’s tackle — no twist stunt needed — and sack Thorson.
“It was good for him to show himself that he could ball,” Paye said. “Rashan got injured, and he stepped up and made some big plays for us.”
Most importantly, they were the kind of plays Michigan needed with such a thin margin for error. With his team bruised and on the ropes, Brown helped Michigan settle in the only way he knows how: with aggression.
“This would’ve been the greatest night of (their) lives,” Winovich said. “I think we spoiled that.”