As he entered the post-game press conference, Mike Hart lost his balance as his cleats slid across the uncarpeted floor. The freshman running back caught his balance, avoided a fall and smiled.
Seems that, even off the field, Hart can’t be brought down.
On a day when Michigan’s offense was slow to get rolling, Hart again carried the load, piling up 151 yards and three touchdowns as the Wolverines manhandled Northwestern 42-20.
Michigan struggled to a 7-6 halftime cushion, but it scored touchdowns on its first five second-half possessions to pull away from the Wildcats.
“It takes 11 people to make it happen and I believe that, early on, it wasn’t all 11 guys on the field at the same time,” said Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who finished with seven catches for 54 yards. “We had a couple of guys that weren’t stepping up. But in the second half, we came out with a purpose. From the start of the second half to the end of the second half, we had all 11 guys on the same beat at the same time.”
The day got even better for the Wolverines just hours after the win was wrapped up, as Michigan State destroyed Wisconsin 49-14. That left No. 7 Michigan (7-0 Big Ten, 9-1 overall) as the lone team undefeated in conference play, guaranteeing the Wolverines no worse than a share of the conference title.
Michigan has not completed an undefeated Big Ten campaign since 1997’s national cha mpionship year. A victory in Columbus against arch-rival Ohio State next week would give the Wolverines an 8-0 conference record, the outright Big Ten title and likely send Michigan to Pasadena for the second straight year.
But the Buckeyes are no doubt itching to ruin those possibilities for the Wolverines. That means Saturday’s slow start is a cause for concern on Michigan’s end — if for no other reason than that it has become a disturbing trend for the Wolverines. Over the last four games, Michigan has scored a mere 37 first-half points compared to 96 points in the second half and overtime.
Michigan’s offensive line has been at the heart of the early-game problems, allowing eight first-half sacks over that span, but just two after halftime. On Saturday, Northwestern held Michigan to 126 total yards of offense in the first half thanks to three sacks.
“I think the linemen weren’t happy (at halftime on Saturday),” said Michigan quarterback Chad Henne of Northwestern’s three first-half sacks. “They were twisting stunts that we should have been protecting and we didn’t pick them up very well.”
Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley — who recorded five tackles and a sack against Northwestern — made it clear that the Wolverines know their lackluster start against the Wildcats won’t cut it against upset-minded Ohio State.
“We know … how big it is,” Woodley said. “(Offensive lineman David) Baas said we can’t come out next week playing like we did in the first half this week. We have to play next week like we did in the second half today.”
Michigan limped to that 7-6 halftime lead courtesy of a 34-yard touchdown run by Hart — Michigan’s longest scoring run of the season. He then added his second score four minutes into the second half, capping off a drive that was highlighted by a 20-yard reverse run by sophomore wide receiver Steve Breaston.
It was one of several big plays that Breaston turned in on the day. In what was without question his best performance of the season, Breaston totaled 272 all-purpose yards and scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
“You saw an explosiveness you have not seen this year from Steve,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “You could see and feel that something was about to happen.”
Breaston’s first score — a 10-yard pass from quarterback Chad Henne — put Michigan ahead 35-13 with 9:49 left in the fourth quarter. Then he put the game out of reach with 9:14 to go, breaking a punt return 67 yards down the right sideline to give the Wolverines a 42-13 advantage.
“He’s a pretty good player,” said Northwestern coach Randy Walker of Breaston. “For whatever reason, we just didn’t tackle very well today. I think we played a little over-excited, and you start leaving your feet and diving, and not many good players are tackled by people who leave their feet.”
Northwestern (4-4, 5-3) kept its upset hopes alive as long as it did thanks to the efforts of running back Noah Herron. The senior had a 28-yard run to set up a Northwestern field goal in the first quarter. He then answered Hart’s second score by blowing through the Michigan line and rumbling 68 yards for his Big Ten-leading 12th rushing touchdown, cutting the Wolverines’ lead to 14-13 with 10:59 left in the third quarter. All told, Herron finished with 156 yards on 23 carries.
Still, Herron’s numbers were not enough to overcome Michigan’s offensive explosion after halftime. The 35 points Michigan put on the scoreboard in the second half marked the most points the Wolverines had posted in a half this season.
The offensive line’s turnaround was at the center of the performance, as Michigan’s front helped Henne put together a stellar second half. He completed 9-of-10 passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns in the final 30 minutes, and finished 19-of-26 for 187 yards on the day.
His most impressive moments came after Herron’s long run had brought Northwestern within 14-13. Michigan immediately came back, with Henne going 5-of-5 for 47 yards on a nine-play drive that was capped off with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Henne to junior wide receiver Jason Avant to extend the lead to 21-13. Hart’s third touchdown — a 15-yard carry — made it 28-13 just 2:35 later and set the table for Breaston to seal the victory in the Wolverines’ final home game of the season.
“I didn’t want to send the seniors out with a loss,” Hart said. “We knew we had to come out and play a great game.”