At first, Saturday’s game between the Michigan football team and Northwestern was reminiscent of the fabled 2014 matchup.
Dubbed the “M00N game” because the scoreboard read Michigan (M) 0 — 0 Northwestern (N) for much of the contest, the Wolverines ultimately escaped Evanston with a 10-9 win. When Saturday’s matchup began with five consecutive punts, it looked like the teams were heading in a similar direction. A scoreless first quarter even revived old 2014 scoreboard jokes.
That is, until No. 6 Michigan (7-0 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) broke the ice during a 13-play, 79-yard touchdown drive to begin the second quarter. Offensive momentum came easy after that, as the Wolverines finished with 457 total yards en route to a 33-7 win over Northwestern (3-4, 1-3). In the process, they secured the inaugural George Jewett Trophy and maintained an unblemished record ahead of next week’s top-10 showdown in East Lansing.
But after breaking the scoreless tie at the beginning of the second quarter, Michigan’s next two drives stalled on the Wildcats’ 2-yard-line. The first ended in just a field goal, giving the Wolverines a double-digit lead late in the first half. The next, which was even worse, came at the tail end of an otherwise successful two-minute drill. Junior quarterback Cade McNamara threw a swing pass toward the sideline, but the scoring opportunity quickly devolved into a goal-line fumble when junior receiver Mike Sainristil coughed up the ball.
“We obviously left some meat on the bone,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We shot ourselves in the foot a few times when we got inside the 5-yard-line.”
Sainristil’s crucial miscue marked the Wolverines’ first red zone turnover of the season and kept Northwestern within striking distance at halftime. Despite out-gaining the Wildcats 267-113 in the first half, Michigan led just 10-7 at the break.
That narrow margin didn’t last long, though. The Wolverines scored points on three of their first four drives after halftime, outscoring Northwestern 17-0 in the third quarter despite not completing a single pass.
The turning point came when special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh noticed a tendency in the Wildcats’ directional punts. With the punter rolling the same way each time, Harbaugh drew up a pressure package centered around junior receiver Cornelius Johnson, who had never before played that role on special teams.
Still, Johnson came off the edge at the perfect angle and took a direct line to the Northwestern punter. With each blocker stalled by inside pressure, Johnson had a clear line at the block. As the punter brought his leg back, he leaped forward with extended arms.
A booming sound echoed throughout Michigan Stadium as the blocked punt shot into the air, and the Wolverines recovered in plus territory.
“Felt like we’d only get one shot at it to take advantage of what they were doing in their punt scheme,” Harbaugh said. “… (Johnson) just ran the perfect course, perfect amount of steps, great vision on the ball and ball skills to get that punt blocked. Everybody did their job, and that was a huge play in the game.”
It didn’t take Michigan long to capitalize. Three plays later, senior running back Hassan Haskins’s 13-yard touchdown run put the Wolverines up 24-7.
“Any time there’s a turnover or big-time play, that leads to momentum and that usually leads to success as well,” McNamara said.
The Wolverines’ second-half dominance continued in the fourth quarter, when junior defensive back D.J. Turner reeled in a thrice-tipped ball and returned the interception to the Wildcats’ 15-yard-line. On top of the pick, Michigan racked up four tackles for loss, a sack and seven pass breakups.
After surrendering the 75-yard touchdown at the end of the first half, the Wolverines allowed just 120 more total yards en route to a second-half shutout.
“They hit a big one on us, but going into halftime, we fixed some things,” junior defensive back Daxton Hill said. “Coach talked to us, told us to keep focused. That’s what we did. I feel like we didn’t lose our focus after that. We kept playing our game and after that, we just broke away.”
Haskins punched it in for his second score following Turner’s circus interception, putting the exclamation point on a blowout that once had the makings of an upset bid.