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EVANSTON, Ill. — The darker the sky gets, the brighter Michigan seems to shine.
Like the Under the Lights game against Notre Dame, Michigan played brilliantly following a crummy first half Saturday night in a 42-24 win over Northwestern to remain unbeaten at the midway point of coach Brady Hoke’s first season.
Quarterback Denard Robinson shook off a disastrous first half to lead the Wolverines to three straight touchdowns after halftime, and Michigan’s defense made the necessary adjustments at the break to thwart Northwestern’s fast-pace, no-huddle offense.
No. 12 Michigan, which was playing on the road for the first time after five straight games at Michigan Stadium, will now shift its focus to Michigan State. The Wolverines (6-0, 2-0) have lost three straight to their instate rival, and will travel to East Lansing to play a team that will have had two weeks to prepare for them.
As its stated goal under Hoke is to win a Big Ten championship, Michigan achieving bowl eligibility Saturday night is rendered a minor footnote.
Robinson, like in the Notre Dame game, had a rough first half, throwing three interceptions that led to 10 points for Northwestern (2-3, 0-2).
Robinson emerged from the lockerroom a different player, though, connecting with Roy Roundtree on third down for their first hook-up in two weeks, and to Roundtree two plays later on a 57-yard jump ball that brought the Wolverines to the 3. Northwestern’s lead was cut to 24-21 on a Robinson 1-yard run.
“I guess I get too excited,” Robinson said of his early struggles. “I have to calm down.”
Robinson also threw three interceptions against Notre Dame, but regrouped and led the Wolverines to four fourth-quarter touchdowns.
“Resilience,” Michael Shaw said of the reason behind Robinson’s turnarounds. “That’s a great job coming from the coaches. The coaches keep him up.”
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Credit defensive coordinator Greg Mattison for figuring out how to handle Northwestern’s aggressive approach, which involved two quarterbacks — starter Dan Persa, and dual-threat backup Kain Colter. The Wolverines were able to disrupt Persa more frequently than in the first half, forcing him into throwing an interception to Brandin Hawthorne. Michigan used its advantageous field position — about midfield — to go ahead by 11 when Shaw scurried to the outside from two yards away in the initial moments of the fourth quarter.
Northwestern’s next drive ended on another take-a-way, with Wolverines linebacker Kenny Demens causing a fumble recovered by Thomas Gordon. Michigan was unable to cash in, as Brendan Gibbons’ 48-yard field goal attempt was blocked.
The game was essentially put away on the next drive when safety Jordan Kovacs, a Clay graduate, sacked Persa on fourth down. It wasn’t a traditional sack, as Kovacs knocked Persa’s helmet off while trying to make the tackle, and the officials, enforcing a safety rule, whistled the play dead.
“The option was the big run play that was hurting us [in the first half],” Hoke said. “We [began] playing the bubble and the option and anything on the perimeter.”
Robinson scored the game’s final touchdown — his second — on a five-yard keeper to the edge, an area that was exploited by the Wolverines throughout the second half.
Michigan scored on its opening drive of the game when tight end Steve Watson adjusted to a ball thrown behind him in the end zone for his first career catch. After two Northwestern TD runs made the score 14-7, Robinson threw a screen pass to Jeremy Gallon, who did the rest for a 25-yard score.
Northwestern would have led by two touchdowns at halftime had Rashad Lawrence not dropped a pass in the end zone with two seconds left. The Wildcats had to settle for a 20-yard field goal.
“We weren’t playing Michigan football, and we needed to play Michigan football,” Hoke said.
Northwestern had 141 yards in the second half after totalling 297 in the first.
“We went to a bigger group,” Hoke said. We went to nickel package, subgroups ... we went a little more simplistic to be honest with you.”
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @RyanAutullo