ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP)—Michael Hart is one outstanding performance away from finally hearing praise from his coach.
Hart ran for 151 yards and a season-high three touchdowns and No. 9 Michigan scored TDs the first five times it touched the ball in the second half to beat Northwestern 42-20 on Saturday.
Hart, a freshman, has run for 975 yards in his last five games. He has 1,311 yards on the ground heading into the regular-season finale at Ohio State.
“I told him after the game, ‘Mike, after next week, we’ll know whether or not you’re a Big Ten back,”’ Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “I like to challenge him.
“What he’s been able to do, he’s had a lot of help. But Michael Hart has certainly done his part.”
The Wolverines (9-1, 7-0 Big Ten) led the Wildcats by only one point at halftime before turning the game into a rout with scores on the ground, through the air and on a punt return. They have won 15 straight games at home and 13 conference games in a row.
“We came out flat,” Hart said. “But in the second half, we picked it up and put some points on the board.”
If Michigan wins at Ohio State, the defending Big Ten champions will win the conference championship outright because Michigan State handed Wisconsin its first conference loss Saturday in East Lansing.
“This is for our season. We want another ring on our finger,” Michigan’s LaMarr Woodley said. “Ohio State doesn’t really have much to lose—and we have a lot to lose.”
Northwestern (5-5, 4-3) has to beat Illinois and win at Hawaii for a second straight bowl bid and fifth in 10 years. Most teams need six wins to be eligible for a bowl, but Northwestern needs seven because it plays 12 games this season.
“That’s the way it is. There’s no alternative,” said Noah Herron, who ran for 156 yards and a TD on 23 carries. “If we want to play postseason ball, we have to get two.”
Two freshmen led Michigan—again.
In addition to Hart’s performance, Chad Henne was 19-of-26 for 187 yards with two TDs.
“If it were not for Mike Hart and Chad Henne, I don’t know where this team would be,” said senior receiver Braylon Edwards, who had seven catches for 54 yards and became the first Big Ten player with three 1,000-yard receiving seasons. “They’ve played tremendous roles.”
Steve Breaston scored twice in 35 seconds—catching a 10-yard pass and returning a punt 67 yards—to give Michigan a 42-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Breaston, who had foot surgery in July, had 272 all-purpose yards on 49 yards receiving, 32 yards rushing and 191 yards on punt and kickoff returns.
“I think the bye week was great for him,” Carr said. “You saw an explosiveness that you have not seen this year. His foot is probably as close to normal as it’s been since he injured it.”
Hart’s second TD came on a 4-yard run to put Michigan ahead 14-6 on the first drive of the second half. Hart surpassed the 100-yard mark during the possession and moved past Ohio State’s Maurice Clarett (1,237 yards) into third place on the Big Ten list for single-season rushing by a freshman.
Only Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne (2,109) and Minnesota’s Darrell Thompson (1,376) ran for more yards than Hart as freshmen in the conference.
Northwestern’s Brett Basanez was 23-of-43 for 211 yards and a score. Brandon Horn caught a 9-yard pass late in the game to make it 42-20. Mark Philmore, Northwestern’s leading receiver and punt returner, missed his second straight game with a sprained right knee.
The Wildcats drove deep into Michigan territory three times in the first half, but had just two field goals and a blocked field goal attempt to show for it. Joel Howells kicked for the first time this season in place of Brian Huffman, who has missed 10 of 17 field goals.
The Wildcats trailed just 14-13 early in the third quarter after Herron ran through a hole in the middle of the line and scored on a 68-yard run. But Michigan then broke the game open.
“I’m disappointed with the outcome, but not at all discouraged with this football team,” Northwestern coach Randy Walker said. “We played hard and competed with a great Michigan team that was obviously on their game, especially in the second half.
“When it came to crunch time, they know how to crunch.”
The Wolverines set an NCAA record this season by averaging 111,025 fans per game at Michigan Stadium.