Brady Hoke's message to his team during halftime at Northwestern was simple: start playing Michigan football. The Wolverines, trailing 24-14, responded with an outstanding second half on both sides of the ball, outscoring the Wildcats 28-0 the rest of the way to win 42-24.
The defense held Northwestern to 141 yards in the second half, notched two more takeaways and played with a tenacity that was lacking in the first half.
"I thought as a football team we did a nice job of complementing each other tonight," Hoke said. "Facing some adversity on the road, being down 10, we talked about it at halftime. We had three penalties in the first half, three interceptions, so we weren't playing Michigan football. We needed to play Michigan football. We weren't getting off blocks defensively.
"Believe me, give Northwestern a lot of credit because they are a well coached, tough minded physical football team, but I just really like how our team respects each other and how they'll play for each other."
They had no choice if they wanted to get back in the game. Northwestern's Dan Persa shredded the U-M defense for 297 yards and 24 points in the first half, and it could have been worse had the Wildcats not dropped a sure touchdown with two seconds remaining in the half. Junior quarterback Denard Robinson looked jittery, throwing three interceptions that looked as though they were meant for the Wildcats defensive backs.
On offense, it was just a matter of Robinson settling down, Hoke said. Defensively, the coaches made some personnel changes.
"He's a competitor. He's a sharp guy; he's a tremendous energy [guy] and leader on our team," Hoke said of Robinson. "He and [offensive coordinator] Al [Borges] talked a little bit about what we wanted to do offensively and again, you go back to making sure your fundamentals and techniques [are sound]. The same thing with getting off blocks [on defense]. That's all we talked about; fundamentals and techniques and doing it better.
"[On defense], we went to a bigger group. We were using some nickel package sub groups, and put Jake Ryan back out as a SAM, where a bigger bodied guy could engage the receivers out there and maybe make something happen. In fact, the first option they ran in the second half, he got off the block and made the play. I think that was part of it. We went a little more simplistic [too] … they did a good job with it."
So, too, did the offense at possessing the ball and keeping the defense off the field. The Wildcats ran only seven, third quarter plays, U-M possessing the ball for 12:28.
Michigan converted on 14 of 17 third downs in the game.
"I don't know what the time of possession was, to be honest with you, but I know in the third quarter our offense had the ball a while," Hoke said. "The defense did a good job of getting the ball back a couple times, also.
"Our offense helped us when they possessed the ball, and if you look at the time of possession … we were possessing the ball better, so our defense was off the field. We play good defense when we're off the field. I think the first series, the guys went out with a purpose. I think we got a little more pressure, either four-man or a fifth guy coming. I thought we did a better job getting off blocks."
As a result, they passed their first road test to improve to 6-0 with a huge road game looming at Michigan State. Maybe not with all 'A' grades, but good enough to remain perfect with bigger tests still to come.
"If you had asked me at halftime I probably would have said not very well," Hoke responded when asked how his team handled its first trek away from home. "I think our guys did a nice job of staying focused during the trip, not letting anything distract them coming into a different stadium and those things. I think they did okay."
• Fifth-year senior wide receiver Junior Hemingway provided one of the game's big plays in hauling in a 48-yard jump ball on U-M's first scoring drive. The play set up a first and goal at the 10.
Hemingway finished with five catches for 124 yards.
"Some of it's a route progression that we ran for him, when you're looking at what they're trying to do from a defensive perspective," Hoke said. "The other part of it, Junior's a big guy. He can body DBs pretty well because he's a big guy. We call him an offensive guard sometimes, but he's a big guy, goes up with his hands well and competes for the ball."
Redshirt junior Roy Roundtree registered a 57-yarder as part of his a three-catch, 83-yard game.
"I don't know if we purposely try to get one receiver more involved than another, but there were some things that Roy was able to get loose, and Denard made some good throws," Hoke added.
• Hoke wasn't sure why Robinson was better in the second half than the first.
"I don't know that I can tell what the difference in the throws was besides they caught them in the first half and we caught them in the second half," he quipped. "Until you look at the tape and really see it and try and see, and I'm sure Al and him have had this conversation … what did you see? What did you actually see? And I'm sure Al coached him up after that."
Robinson left the game shortly in the third quarter after getting the Wolverines to the goal line, leaving sophomore Devin Gardner to finish the drive with a one-yard touchdown run to put U-M up 28-24.
"He had a little boo-boo on his non throwing hand," Hoke said of Robinson. "I was glad to see Devin be very quarterback-like."
• Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa was as good as advertised, especially in the first half. He cooled in the second but still finished 32 of 44 passing for 331 yards.
"We talk a lot about red zone defense and keeping people out of the end zone. I think Dan Persa, number one he's a tough guy. No. 2, I think he's a smart guy. No. 3 he's an unbelievable competitor," Hoke said. "You knew he was going to get some of his.
"You don't want to give up the big ones, and we gave a couple big ones up, one in the throw game and one run that was bigger than we'd like to. The scrambles and those kind of things, that's going to happen. You just hope you can hit him enough and can contain him to some degree."
Hoke was pleased with the way his defense responded to the Wildcats' up-tempo offense … for the most part.
"I don't think it [bothered us]. Our guys were pretty much ready for it," he said. "There was one play we weren't set; the communication wasn't as good as it should have been. But they really were prepared mentally to be in that situation. You try and mimic it the best you can in practice, but it's hard to do."