Correction: A photo caption in Monday’s edition of the Daily incorrectly stated that sophomore defensive tackle Alan Branch helped restrain junior Shawn Crable. The cutline should have said that defensive end Jeremy Van Alstyne restrained Crable.
EVANSTON – One question hounded the Michigan defense all last week: How was it going to contain Northwestern’s unstoppable spread offense?
Even coach Lloyd Carr didn’t seem to think it was possible, claiming last Monday that “nobody is going to shut Northwestern down.” But Saturday’s 33-17 win showed the Wolverines knew what they were doing all along.
Michigan just wouldn’t let the Wildcats’ offense stay on the field.
For the first time in six Big Ten games, Michigan dominated in time of possession, controlling the ball for 38 minutes. In the Wolverines’ two conference losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota, they held possession of the ball for 15 fewer minutes than their opponents. That disparity was especially great in the second half.
The Wolverines reversed that script on Saturday. Northwestern had possession of the ball for 10 minutes in the second half and just four minutes in the fourth quarter.
“Our offense did an outstanding job today controlling the ball,” cornerback Grant Mason said. “I’m sure we won the time of possession, which helps us on defense. We prepare all week to play 80 snaps. Because our offense played as well as it did (Saturday), we didn’t have to play that.”
All told, Michigan’s defense was on the field for 66 plays – its second-lowest total in conference play – thanks to its ability to make big stops down the stretch and the offense’s ability to put together sustained drives.
Without injured tailback Mike Hart for the fifth time this season, the Wolverines relied on freshman Kevin Grady and junior Jerome Jackson again this week. Grady got the start – the first of his career – and gained 69 yards on 20 carries, including a one-yard touchdown run on Michigan’s opening drive. But for the second week in a row, Jackson received the bulk of the carries down the stretch. He finished with 24 carries for 105 yards – his first 100-yard rushing day – and 67 of those yards came in the second half.
“Jerome Jackson – you can’t say enough about him,” Carr said. “He had tough yardage in there, and he’s tough – for the most part he comes out on the other end even though he’s not the biggest guy. – You can’t put a measure on what he’s giving his team.”
On Michigan’s last four offensive drives, quarterback Chad Henne attempted just four passes while the Wolverines rushed 25 times, including one stretch of eight straight runs. Even Henne got in on the rushing action; the sophomore gained eight yards on a third-and-six scramble on Michigan’s final scoring drive.
But with more than seven minutes left on the clock, the Wolverines’ 16-point lead was hardly safe. Although Northwestern had gained just 73 yards in the second half up to that point, it had proven how quickly it could score in the first quarter when it drove 80 yards in 37 seconds for its first touchdown. Michigan has struggled all season to stop offenses at the end of games.
But the Wolverines held the Wildcats to 54 yards on their final two drives, the last of which ended when Michigan safety Brandon Harrison broke up a Brett Basanez pass on fourth-and-6 to give the ball back to Michigan with just under three minutes remaining.
“We came into (halftime) and said, ‘Eliminate big plays and we’ll have a chance to shut them out in the second half,’ ” defensive tackle Gabe Watson said. “They have a good team – a great offense – but we just pulled it out.”