EVANSTON — As the saying goes, third down’s the charm.
Maybe not exactly those words, but junior quarterback Denard Robinson and the Michigan football team certainly established it as a new mantra against Northwestern.
The offense was nearly untouchable when eyeing the first-down marker in No. 11 Michigan’s 42-24 victory over the Wildcats on Saturday, converting on 14 of 17 third-down opportunities.
“They just made plays,” said Northwestern defensive end Tyler Scott. “We didn’t execute here and there, which was huge. That’s one of our goals as a defense, to get off the field on third down, and we didn’t execute.”
The Wildcats couldn’t get the defense off the field, which kept the dangerous Robinson in the backfield and star Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa stuck on the sideline.
Michigan burned up time and won the time-of-possession battle in each quarter, finishing with 37:57 to the Wildcats’ 22:03.
“Yeah, that was a big deal,” Robinson said. “We were holding the possession of the ball and that’s what we focus on every game. We want to win that.”
And of the three missed third-down conversions for Michigan, only one led to a punt.
The Wolverines’ second scoring drive was punctuated by Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s decision to send the offense back on the field after redshirt sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was stopped at the line of scrimmage on third down.
Hoke called a timeout and gathered the specials teams unit around him. At the last minute, he motioned the offense back onto the field.
“Coach Hoke, he gives us that look and we tell him, ‘Hey we can get this,’ ” Robinson said. “And that’s what we do.”
Robinson took the snap, followed his blockers and danced for a four-yard gain and a first down.
Third down may be the charm, but the fourth-down conversions aren’t so bad, either.
ONE MAN’S BOO-BOO … : Michigan fans know the feeling all too well. It’s a sinking, empty feeling that settles in anytime Denard Robinson leaves the field injured.
Last season, Robinson left 10 of the Wolverines’ 12 games with some form of injury, creating a major void at quarterback.
Through five games this season, Robinson hadn’t been forced out of a single play with an injury. That streak ended midway though the third quarter in Evanston.
After a 12-yard run to the Northwestern one-yard line, Robinson ran off the field flexing his left hand.
“It was nothing, a little boo-boo,” Robinson said after the game.
Sophomore quarterback Devin Gardner, who has played sparingly this season — and almost exclusively in two-quarterback sets — came on in Robinson’s absence.
On third down, Gardner ran a bootleg right off a play-action call and beat the defender to the pylon to give Michigan the lead, 28-24.
Gardner finished the game by completing his only two passes for a total of 25 yards.
“Devin is a great quarterback,” said senior running back Michael Shaw. “It’s tough being behind Denard, but … when your number’s called you have to be ready to perform, and that’s why you come to Michigan.
“Everybody on our roster can play. Coach said all the time it’s not who’s at the position, the expectation is for the position, so if your number is called you gotta go in there and ball. That’s why you’re here.”
In his typical “Hokespeak,” the head coach had a succinct wrap-up of Gardner’s performance.
“Good,” Hoke said. “It was good to see Devin be very quarterback-like.”
SAFETY COMES STANDARD: Redshirt sophomore safety Thomas Gordon entered his recruitment process with every intention of being a quarterback. Redshirt junior safety Jordan Kovacs was walk-on three years ago.
Somehow, the misfit secondary has combined to be one of the more lethal safety duos in the Big Ten.
Gordon and Kovacs each have a pick and have combined for four turnovers in six games.
Early in the fourth quarter against Northwestern, Gordon stripped Wildcat wide receiver Jeremy Ebert and fell on the loose ball.
On the ensuing Northwestern possession, Kovacs made his presence felt. Persa lined the Wildcats up on fourth down from the Michigan 37-yard line, trying to reduce the 11-point deficit. Persa looked left, then right, but he didn’t look over the top.
As Persa went through his play call at the line, Kovacs crept up toward the line of scrimmage. And when Persa took the ball, Kovacs came hard on the blitz.
The guard and tackle split. When Persa looked up, Kovacs was three steps away, untouched. As Kovacs lowered his shoulder for another of his devastating hits, Persa ducked.
Kovacs blew the helmet right off the quarterback, who stayed up and tried to scramble. But the play was whistled dead. Ten-yard sack, Michigan ball.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was furious that Kovacs wasn’t called for grabbing Persa’s facemask — Fitzgerald received a 15-yard penalty for arguing the call.
“You know, I’ve got to worry about three kids’ college funds, so I’m going to leave it at that, how does that sound?” Fitzgerald said.
No more arguing from the coach, but he wasn’t pleased. But no penalty was called and Kovacs was credited with the sack, effectively ending the Wildcats chances.