EVANSTON – Michigan coach Lloyd Carr walked into the pressroom and, in a hoarse voice, put it simply.
“That was not the same Northwestern team that I watched (last) Saturday,” Carr said.
True, the Wildcats brought more intensity than the team that took a 58-7 beating at Ohio State.
But maybe more surprising than Northwestern’s play was Michigan’s first-half performance.
The Wolverines trailed by nine heading into halftime, and needed four fourth-quarter Wildcat turnovers and the return of senior quarterback Chad Henne to steal a 28-16 road win Saturday.
“We came out flat in the first half,” defensive tackle Terrance Taylor. “We really weren’t worried about the game. We went in the locker room and we all talked about it and knew we needed to pick it up and knew we weren’t playing Michigan football.”
The Michigan defense, which had given up just nine points in the last two games combined, surrendered 16 in the first half against Northwestern’s spread offense.
But in the second half, the Wolverines (2-0 Big Ten, 3-2 overall) came with the heat.
“We started playing at a faster tempo, which put a little bit more pressure on them,” safety Jamar Adams said.
And when Michigan turned up the intensity, Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher lost his rhythm – along with the ball.
Bacher fumbled twice and threw two interceptions in the span of seven minutes. The first fumble gave the offense the chance it needed. Henne, who saw his first game action since injuring his knee against Oregon, hit wide receiver Adrian Arrington with a 16-yard touchdown strike to give Michigan a 21-16 advantage.
Once the Wolverines jumped ahead for the first time since the 2:52 mark in the first quarter, the Michigan defense made sure Northwestern (0-2, 2-3) wouldn’t come back.
Cornerback Brandon Harrison hit Bacher on a blitz and the bad throw landed in defensive end Tim Jamison’s hands. The redshirt junior rumbled into Northwestern territory to further deflate the already-tired Wildcat team.
Then, with 5:20 left in the game, Bacher forced a throw over the middle. Michigan middle linebacker Obi Ezeh, starting in place of injured John Thompson, picked it off a deflection one-handed.
“Normally in a game where it’s warm, your defense doesn’t get the pressure late in the game,” Carr said. “But today we did, and we got some awfully big plays.”
The flat start wasn’t just a Michigan defense phenomenon. The offense looked sluggish, registering one touchdown, so in the second half, Carr turned to Henne.
Carr’s plan was for the senior to play the first drives of each half and then determine future based on the game situation.
At halftime, it was clear Henne, who said he’s 80 to 85 percent healthy, would have to play the rest of the way.
Freshman Ryan Mallett couldn’t find his rhythm or hit open receivers. Michigan’s one touchdown in the first half came courtesy of an 11-yard pass from Henne to wide receiver Mario Manningham on an efficient first drive.
The first of Henne’s two touchdown throws broke his tie with John Navarre (2000-03) for career passing touchdowns (72).
“It felt good to hear him back out there,” left tackle Jake Long said. “He worked hard to get back and he did well today.