Michigan football turns it up in second half in 33-7 rout of Northwestern

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For two and a half quarters, Michigan Stadium dripped with déjà vu in a game the Michigan football couldn’t seem to clinch. The Wolverines had dominated the line of scrimmage with their two-headed rushing attack and tormented Northwestern quarterback Ryan Hilinski through relentless pressure, but the visiting Wildcats refused to quit, not unlike the gritty showing from Rutgers in Ann Arbor last month.

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But then wide receiver Cornelius Johnson, known for his big-play contributions on offense, made arguably the biggest play of the year on special teams by diving, Superman-style, to block a punt. Michigan turned the excellent field position into a touchdown by hard-charging tailback Hassan Haskins to take a 17-point lead.

Michigan running back Blake Corum celebrates a touchdown against Northwestern during the first half on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan running back Blake Corum celebrates a touchdown against Northwestern during the first half on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, at Michigan Stadium.

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And then cornerback DJ Turner, third on the depth chart but given the start against Northwestern, made a remarkable interception on a ball that caromed off body parts three times before settling into his arms. Michigan turned another dose of excellent field position into another touchdown by Haskins to take a 26-point lead.

A happy union of 294 rushing yards and timely change-of-possession plays by the No. 6 Wolverines (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) extended a perfect season as Michigan moves on for a date with undefeated No. 7 Michigan State next week. By blowing open a close game against a plucky opponent, coach Jim Harbaugh’s club continued its demonstration of growth in a 33-7 win.

Mixing and matching QBs

For the third time in as many games, Harbaugh and his staff shuffled backup quarterback J.J. McCarthy onto the field for multiple appearances. And while McCarthy’s only throw before mop-up duty fell incomplete, he delighted the Big House crowd on the ground.

With 3:12 remaining in the third quarter, McCarthy kept the ball on a designed run and ripped off a 23-yard gain. He curled around the right side of the offensive line before veering left to gobble the open space beyond the hashes.

McCarthy darted up the middle for another quarterback run two snaps later. He juked to his left, broke a tackle and gained 13 yards, nearly moving the chains again on second-and-15. The former five-star recruit racked up 36 yards on two carries during a drive that ended with a 44-yard field goal by kicker Jake Moody.

The pair of runs by McCarthy represented the most exciting plays by a quarterback on an afternoon when starter Cade McNamara peppered Northwestern with short completions on the perimeter. He finished 20-for-27 passing for 129 yards with no touchdowns as the Wolverines finished with only three players with at least 30 yards receiving. Mike Sainristill had the longest gain of the day with an 18-yard grab.

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Michigan defensive ends Mike Morris, left, and Aidan Hutchinson sack Northwestern quarterback Ryan Hilinski during the first half on Saturday, Oct.23, 2021, at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan defensive ends Mike Morris, left, and Aidan Hutchinson sack Northwestern quarterback Ryan Hilinski during the first half on Saturday, Oct.23, 2021, at Michigan Stadium.

Security breach

A driving factor behind Michigan’s sublime start to the season was its ability to avoid turnovers, with none by the first-team offense through the first five weeks; that thrust the Wolverines to the upper echelon of college football in turnover margin.

Sainristil dinged that mark again (following McNamara's first career interception two weeks ago agains Nebraska) when he fumbled Saturday as Michigan pushed for a touchdown before halftime.

The play that produced Sainristil’s fumble highlighted several first-half trends for the Michigan offense coming out of a bye week in which Harbaugh said the team identified areas for improvement. Time and again Saturday, the Wolverines relied on a quick passing game with short throws designed to get the ball outside the hash marks for receivers, tight ends and running back Blake Corum to handle the ball in space. In the second quarter, when Michigan scored all 10 of its first-half points, McNamara averaged just 4.2 yards per attempt on 15 throws as the offense hinged on skill players producing yards after catch.

Sainristil’s involvement was another surprising development, even with his 48-yard catch against Nebraska and even as fellow wideout Roman Wilson played a reduced role with extra padding on his injured left wrist. Best known for his perimeter blocking and special teams contributions, the junior became one of the focal points of the passing game. He was targeted four times in the first half alone, including a pair of deep throws that fell incomplete.

Michigan faced third-and-goal from the 3 with 23 seconds remaining in the second quarter when Sainristil was called on again. He ran an orbit motion from the left side of the formation around McNamara and then looped back to the left for a short pass in the flat. Defensive back Coco Azema hacked the ball out for a recovery by linebacker Chris Bergin.

Sainristil finished with four catches for 33 yards.

Michigan running back Blake Corum is tackled by Northwestern linebacker Bryce Gallagher during the first half on Saturday, Oct.23, 2021, at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan running back Blake Corum is tackled by Northwestern linebacker Bryce Gallagher during the first half on Saturday, Oct.23, 2021, at Michigan Stadium.

Injury report

During a radio appearance Monday night, Harbaugh expressed cautious optimism about having all three injured starters available.

Whether Harbaugh was being truthful or merely posturing to plant seeds in the mind of Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff is unknown, but Wilson was the only wounded starter to play. Right guard Zak Zinter (leg) was in uniform but did not play, while left guard Trevor Keegan (shoulder) was not in uniform.

Without his starting guards, offensive line coach Sherrone Moore turned to backups Chuck Filiaga and Karsen Barnhart — both of whom have started in the past. And aside from an early sack of McNamara off a blitz up the middle, the line performed quite well as Corum and Haskins combined to average 5.5 yards per carry on 42 combined rushes in a performance reminiscent of the first three weeks of the season.

In the receiving corps, Wilson remained on the sideline until the middle of the second quarter. He caught two passes for 4 yards in what amounted to a cameo appearance as the coaches gave additional playing time to freshman Andrel Anthony.

This story will be updated.

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13. Send questions for his next U-M mailbag.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football hot after half in 33-7 rout of Northwestern