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Michigan coach talks about his team's performance in the 20-17 comeback victory. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News

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Evanston, Ill. — Michigan rallied behind poised quarterback Shea Patterson and an increasingly stingy defense to overcome a slow start and 17-point deficit for an important conference road win.

Josh Uche sacked Clayton Thorson on the final play as Northwestern tried to make a final comeback, preserving a 20-17 victory at Ryan Field for the 14th-ranked Wolverines (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) on Saturday.

It's the first time Michigan has overcome a 17-0 deficit for a victory since beating Notre Dame, 35-31, in 2011. It's the biggest comeback under coach Jim Harbaugh and tied for the third-largest in program history.

BOX SCORE: Michigan 20, Northwestern 17

The Wolverines took their only lead of the game with just more than four minutes left after Patterson directed an efficient 11-play, 67-yard drive that consumed nearly six minutes.

“Our character got better tonight and stronger,” Patterson said of the comeback. “We were never out of the game and we learned tonight we can really accomplish pretty much anything if we have confidence in ourselves and believe in our teammates.”

Karan Higdon capped the drive with a 5-yard rushing score. With Chris Evans still out with injury, Higdon had all but one of the carries handled by running backs. He finished the game with 30 carries for 115 yards and two touchdowns.

Patterson, who was 15-of-24 for 196 yards and had seven carries for 31 yards, had a big third-down conversion in the drive, rushing for nine yards to the Northwestern 28. Two plays later he set up the Higdon's score after connecting with Zach Gentry for a 22-yard gain.

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Higdon said the Wolverines, who had 11 penalties for 100 yards, were never going to give in after trailing 17-0.

“Keep pushing,” he said. “There’s four quarters for a reason. That first half they were up and we dug deep and came out with the win.”

Michigan’s defense held Northwestern scoreless in the second half and allowed only 92 yards. The Wildcats had 105 yards in the first quarter, 41 in the second quarter and finished with 202 yards of total offense.

Defensive end Chase Winovich led the Wolverines with nine tackles, including one sack and three tackles for loss. Michigan had six sacks, highlighted by Uche’s to end the game and Kwity Paye’s to end the Wildcats’ previous drive.

“A lot of guys really left it out there, played their hearts out, tested in the ball game and had to show what we were made of,” Harbaugh said. “And I like what we’re made of. Starting with the quarterback, I thought he stepped up big, took the game in his hands in a lot of ways in the second half. Defensively there’s a lot of people to single out. After the first quarter, our team played really tremendous defense.”

Uche said the message at halftime from defensive coordinator Don Brown was clear.

“Coming out (in the second half) we knew they really couldn’t hang with us,” Uche said. “We had a lot of self-inflicted wounds (from penalties). When we were in the locker room, we got our minds right and dominated like we’re supposed to.”

And Uche was told simply to go after Thorson.

“Coaches just told me to go out there and rush and go after the quarterback,” Uche 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.”

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Michigan defensive end talks about grinding out of a 17-point hole to pull out a 20-17 win. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News

The Wolverines had two red-zone opportunities in the third quarter but came up with six points on field goals of 23 and 24 yards by Quinn Nordin. The 24-yarder pulled the Wolverines within 17-13 at the end of the quarter.

Entering the game, the Wolverines were 14-for-17 in the red zone with 12 touchdowns. Michigan reached Northwestern’s 10- and 12-yard line before settling for the field goals.

The Wolverines trailed by 10 at halftime, but drove down the field their first possession of the second half and cut it to 17-10 on Nordin's 23-yarder. Patterson kept the drive alive on third-and-6 when when he ran 12 yards for the first down. He then hit receiver Nico Collins for a 36-yard gain to the Northwestern 10. Michigan reached the 4-yard line, but Higdon lost a yard and Patterson overthrew Grant Perry in the end zone.

Michigan hadn’t been on the road since the season opener at Notre Dame and in similar fashion, the Wolverines were stunned early and dug a big hole. The Wildcats, playing their first game without standout running back Jeremy Larkin, who announced Monday he had to retire from the game because of a medical issue, built a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter.

The Wolverines led in total yards at halftime, 154-146, but penalties at critical times — just like those that afflicted them at Notre Dame — were issues. Michigan had six penalties, including two against the offense late in the half. With just more than two minutes left in the half, Michigan had fourth-and-3 on the Northwestern 41 when Gentry was called for a false start, forcing the punt.

On Michigan’s next series, Patterson kept for a first-down run but it was called back because of a holding on left tackle Jon Runyan, putting the Wolverines in a second-and-20 situation on their own 29.

The Wolverines looked as though they were sleepwalking through the first quarter. Before their offensive series with 3:54 left in the first quarter, Michigan had two three-and-outs — six plays for no yards. Michigan’s defense had not looked sharp, but eventually turned it on in the second quarter. Northwestern had 105 yards of offense in the first quarter but was held to 41 in the second.

Meanwhile, Michigan finally got on the board its first possession in the second quarter when Higdon scored on a 4-yard run. He opened the drive with an 18-yard run, and the two plays leading to the touchdown, Patterson hit tight end Nick Eubanks for a 21-yard gain and Donovan Peoples-Jones went 25 yards to the Wildcats’ 4.

“We are being tested, time to find out what we’re made of, and our guys really responded in the kind of fashion it had to be done by players,” Harbaugh said. “Coach had tremendous adjustments.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis

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