EVANSTON — Shea Patterson and the Michigan football team’s offense stepped onto the field with 10:05 left in the game.
The 14th-ranked Wolverines (4-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) had struggled all night on that side of the ball, especially in the first half, when they fell into a 17-0 deficit on the road against Northwestern (1-3, 1-1). And after halftime, when Patterson and company did string together some positive plays, they struggled to punch it in the endzone, settling for two field goals from inside the 10-yard line.
With that, Michigan’s offense faced a 17-13 deficit and an opportunity to reverse its fortunes.
On the first play of the drive, Patterson found fifth-year senior fullback Jared Wangler for nine yards. Patterson hit redshirt junior tight end Zach Gentry for 13 yards on a corner route on the next set of downs, then he scrambled for a key third-down conversion after that.
Patterson then put the Wolverines in striking position when, on second-and-10 from the Wildcats’ 28, he threaded a pass through three defenders to Gentry, who fell to the ground at the six-yard line. Senior running back Karan Higdon completed the comeback two plays later, plowing into the endzone for a five-yard score with 4:06 on the clock, as Patterson wildly pumped his fist behind him.
Michigan’s defense took it from there, snuffing out any Northwestern late-game heroics and finishing off a nail-biting win, 20-17.
“A lot of guys really left it out there, you know, played their hearts out,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Tested in the ball game and had to show what we were made of. And (I) like what we’re made of.”
Despite the happy ending for the Wolverines, the rest of the game was surely not how they drew it up.
After building momentum with three, dominating wins in the last three weeks, Michigan came in heavy favorites against the Wildcats, who were fresh off losses to Duke and Akron.
With that, when the Wolverines won the opening coin toss, they opted to receive in an effort to seize momentum from the jump.
But their first drive went three and out, and Northwestern responded with a 56-yard drive for a touchdown. 7-0.
On the next possession, Michigan went three and out again, and the Wildcats drove back down the field to kick a field goal. 10-0.
The Wolverines’ third drive started to build momentum, but a key drop on a would-be big play by junior tight end Sean McKeon ended that threat, and Northwestern’s offense went straight into the endzone again. It was 17-0 with 12:56 left in the second quarter.
Michigan’s offense had 21 yards at that point. The Wildcats had 145.
The Wolverines scored on a 4-yard run from Higdon on the next possession for a much-needed response, but they still went to halftime down 17-7.
“Just keep pushing. Keep pushing,” Higdon said. “You know, there’s four quarters for a reason, and that first half they were up, and we remembered a lot of the adversity we faced over the summer. You know, summer workouts and stuff like that, and we dug deep, and we came out with a win.”
Added Harbaugh, on his halftime message: “I mean, what you’re made of. Can you dig down and, you know, continue to execute and execute better than what you did? So, yeah, it’s self-explanatory. Do you have the metal? Got the gravel in your gut to win a game on the road under tough circumstances? I’m proud of our guys.”
Michigan’s defense, especially, seemed to take that message to heart.
Northwestern gained a total of 51 yards in the entire second half. It went 1-for-6 on third downs. The Wolverines sacked Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson five times in the final 30 minutes. Four of them were on third down, and the other one was the last play of the game, when junior linebacker Josh Uche brought down Thorson on a would-be Hail Mary attempt.
And most importantly, Northwestern didn’t score another point.
“Coming out (of halftime), we knew they couldn’t really hang with us,” Uche said. “We (were) just having a lot of self-inflicted wounds. Went into the locker room, got our minds right, came back and dominated like we’re supposed to.”
For a while, though, it looked like the offense didn’t have enough.
But when Michigan needed them most, the unit, and especially Patterson, came through.
In front of a road crowd that was half-filled with Wolverines fans, Patterson ended things with a fist pump after his signature drive to this point in a Michigan uniform — in a game that wasn’t supposed to need one.
“I can’t even describe it,” Patterson said. “It’s such an exhilarating feeling, and you know, that’s why you play the game. You play the game for these moments, and like I said, man, I’m just proud to be a part of this team and help out any way I can.”