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Michigan shakes off the rust to beat Northwestern, prepares for MSU showdown

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Some rust after not having played for a couple weeks? Maybe. Looking ahead to the in-state rivalry game against Michigan State a week away? Could have been.

Whatever it was, it took Michigan a half to find its groove against Northwestern at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, the first game for the Wolverines since a win at Nebraska two weeks ago. Michigan defeated Northwestern, 33-7, and outscored the Wildcats 23-0 in the second half.

The conversation immediately turned to the upcoming matchup at unbeaten Michigan State. Both teams are 7-0, and Michigan is ranked No. 6 and MSU, which did not play Saturday, is No. 9.

BOX SCORE: Michigan 33, Northwestern 7

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy runs the ball during the third quarter of a game between the University of Michigan and Northwestern University, at Michigan Stadium, in Ann Arbor, October 23, 2021.

“All focus is there,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said of the Spartans. “Walk through that door, going to answer some questions about this game, but it’s on to that game right now."

But first things first, and that was the Wolverines’ performance against Northwestern. Michigan entered the game ranked seventh nationally averaging 246.5 yards a game, while the Wildcats were last in the Big Ten defending the run. The Wolverines relied on the run yet again as Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum each scored two touchdowns. Corum had 119 yards on 19 carries and Haskins 110 on 23 rushes.

The Wolverines had 294 rushing yards behind a line with backups filling in at the guard spots because of injuries to the starters. Chuck Filiaga was at right guard for Zak Zinter (leg) and Karsen Barnhart started at left guard for Trevor Keegan (shoulder).

More: Wojo: Unbeaten Wolverines plow through another foe, but now it gets tough

“We complement each other real well,” Corum said, referring to Haskins. “A great one-two punch. Defenses have to get prepared for that. We feed off each other.”

The Wolverines opened the second half with an energetic 74-yard drive highlighted by a 24-yard run by Corum on third down and then a defensive pass interference on the next play, an incompletion to Cornelius Johnson, and Corum scored from 5 yards, making it 17-7. Northwestern missed a field-goal attempt on the ensuing series.

Michigan scored four of its first five possessions in the second half.

The Wolverines had one scoring drive set up by Cornelius Johnson’s blocked punt that resulted in a 44-yard field goal from Jake Moody — he was 2-of-3 in the game, missing on a 47-yarder. Michigan got the ball back on an interception by D.J. Turner, and Haskins scored the final points of the game on a 4-yard run.

Quarterback Cade McNamara was 20-of-27 for 129 yards but did not have a touchdown. The longest pass play was 16 yards to tight end Erick All. A.J. Henning had a 14-yard reception and Johnson had a 12-yard reception. Freshman backup quarterback J.J. McCarthy provided the longest pass play of the game, an 18-yarder to Mike Sainristil to convert on third down with less than seven minutes left.

Harbaugh said with Northwestern playing its safeties back, the Wolverines tried to make throws that weren’t there.

“Deep passing game, probably forced that a little bit,” Harbaugh said. “We didn’t connect on a deep one, but I don’t think the deep ones were there.

The bulk of Northwestern’s yards came on three plays — a 75-yard touchdown run late in the first half and a 26-yard reception by Evan Hull and a 29-yard reception by Malik Washington on the first play of the game. The Wildcats had 233 total yards, and those three plays accounted for 127.

“Defensively, overall, I thought they played great,” Harbaugh said. “Take out the three big plays, the long touchdown run before the half, they got us on that slide wheel first play of game, and the screen, besides that, it was about 2 yards per play."

More: Big plays from offense, defense, special teams spur Michigan in victory

Michigan had the Turner interception, a combo sack from edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who tipped two of Ryan Hilinski’s passes, and Hutchinson another. Hutchinson also had a fumble recovery late in the game. The Wildcats were 4-of-14 on third down.

“We’re just out there executing, trusting each other,” Ojabo said of his production along with Hutchinson. “I know he’s going to be there — you all know he’s going to be at the quarterback. It’s complementary football, just executing what we’re given. It’s a lot of comfort having Aidan Hutchinson and knowing he’s going to do what Aidan Hutchinson does.”

Michigan dominated the first half statistically, outgaining Northwestern 267-113, but only carried a 10-7 lead into halftime.

The Wolverines squandered two red-zone opportunities in the half, settling for a 20-yard field goal from Moody on the Wolverines’ second drive of the second quarter, and after allowing the big-play touchdown to Hull with 2:22 left, Michigan put together a sound drive, moving 75 yards in 12 plays but Mike Sainristil fumbled after a 1-yard pass from McNamara at the Wildcats 2-yard-line. It was Michigan’s first fumble of the season. In the second half, Michigan reached the Northwestern 2-yard line and settled for a 20-yard field goal.

Michigan struggling in red-zone opportunities has been evident now the last three games. The Wolverines blew two opportunities at Nebraska two weeks ago and one at Wisconsin after getting the ball at the 5-yard line. They took field goals on all three of those opportunities, but leaving points on the field is a potential issue with three top-10 opponents ahead the final five games.

“Obviously left some things, some meat on the bone,” Harbaugh said. “Shot ourselves in the foot a few times, especially when we got inside the 5-yard line.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @achengelis