Michigan punctuated its win at Northwestern with a sack from Josh Uche to end the game, the sixth produced by the defense after things started so sluggishly for the Wolverines.
After trailing by 17 early in the second quarter, Wolverines ended five of the Wildcats’ six second-half possessions with a sack. Kwity Paye and Uche each had two sacks.
Northwestern, which had 105 yards in the first quarter and finished with 202, was held scoreless in the second half of Michigan’s 20-17 comeback victory last Saturday at Ryan Field. Michigan is 4-1, 2-0 Big Ten, but dropped a spot to No. 15 in the Associated Press Top 25.
Michigan’s defensive surge began in the second quarter, but was stifling in the second half. The Wolverines are now No. 1 nationally in total defense, yielding an average 232.6 yards. They’re fourth against the pass (146.2), seventh defending the run (86.4) and 11th in scoring (14.8).
“Coming out we knew they really couldn’t hang with us,” Uche said. “We had a lot of self-inflicted wounds (early). When we were in the locker room, got our minds right and dominated like we’re supposed to.”
Fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich set the tone with his team-best nine tackles, including three tackles for loss. He leads the team in tackles for loss — ranking third nationally — and sacks.
“We all feed off each other,” Uche said. “Whenever see one person makes a play, another person has to step up and make a play. Rashan (Gary) went down, so it’s the next man up. There can’t be a drop off from the first string to the second string. We did what we’re supposed to do.”
And shutting down Northwestern in the second half was the message at halftime from defensive coordinator Don Brown.
“That’s always the mentality,” Uche said. “After halftime, we can’t give them any points. That’s always been the mentality. This is a clutch game, a crucial game, so we had no choice but to pitch a shutout.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Brown made “tremendous” calls to take over the game on defense.
“We got free running to the quarterback,” Harbaugh said. “He was sitting in the pocket. He’s a big guy and he was making some really accurate throws and his receivers were catching balls in tight windows. We started getting our hands on some of those balls in the secondary and we started applying pressure and it really helped us and stopped their running game too.
“They (the defense) played a hell of a ball game.”
Harbaugh praised the defensive line, particularly the tackles.
“The guys in the middle, (Bryan) Mone and Lawrence Marshall and (Michael) Dwumfour would come in. (Dwumfour) was really active all night,” Harbaugh said. “Chase had one of his better ball games where he was flying around and hustling all night. Kwity Paye also showed up and Josh Uche, two of those speed rushes looked fast and powerful. I thought the linebackers were running good, making tackles. Missed some tackles first couple drives but thought the tackling was sound.”
On the road, it’s about the defense setting a tone early. Michigan got down early at Notre Dame, 14-0, in large part because of defensive miscues, notably, penalties on third down, and the Wolverines trailed by 17 at Northwestern.
“You’re being tested,” Harbaugh said. “This is time to find out what we’re made of and guys really responded.”
Uche said the assignment from Brown was simple.
“Coaches just told me to go out there and rush and go after the quarterback,” he said. “He struggled with pressure a lot, and they just wanted us to go get him. That’s what we did. That’s what we’re taught to do.”
And then the defense ended Northwestern’s final drive with a sack.
“Whatever it takes to get a win, to be honest with you,” Uche said.
For quarterback Shea Patterson, this was one of those games where he found himself communicating with every position group on the team. He doesn’t describe himself as a rah-rah quarterback, but he went to the special teams huddle and to the defensive players to tell them as long as they do their jobs, the offense will handle its business.
“Our character got better tonight and stronger,” Patterson said. “We were never out of the game and we learned we can really accomplish pretty much anything if we have confidence in ourselves and believe in our teammates.”