EVANSTON — Following Jim Harbaugh, Warde Manuel squeezed into a back room within the bowels of Ryan Field with a security escort, the door nearly hitting a plastic chair, the room itself with barely enough room to fit another person.
Unlike Michigan’s head coach, Manuel didn’t have an obligation — he was here of his own volition, walking into a cramped press conference instead of taking an early seat on the bus and avoiding the hassle.
“We gonna find a way,” he said to nobody in particular, evangelizing.
The Wolverines haven’t always lived up to that. Four weeks ago, it was Notre Dame they found a way. Countless times, it has been Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa that has found a way, with a special emphasis on doing so of late. On Saturday, it was Michigan that found a way, eking out its biggest comeback since 2011 and beating Northwestern 20-17.
[After THE JUMP: Keep reading and find out]
In the locker room at halftime, the Wolverines down 10 points and lucky Pat Fitzgerald hadn’t tried to make it more, Don Brown told a defense that had looked completely out of place early, as the Wildcats drove seemingly at will, to just play its game.
“He just knew what we were capable of,” Josh Uche said. “He just told us to settle down, go out there and play our ball. Play the ball that we’ve been practicing since who knows when — since the last season was over.”
In the second half, Michigan’s pass rush was at Clayton Thorson in seeming instants. The Wolverines ended five of Northwestern’s six drives in sacks, including the last of the game. When the Wildcats got the ball with four minutes to go and timeouts to play with, Brown dialed up blitz after blitz and was duly rewarded.
After getting torched by slants during the first half, MIchigan’s secondary got physical. Northwestern failed to do much from then forward, as the slants stopped hitting and its run game never found rhythm. It finished the game averaging 3.2 yards per play, including the first half.
Michigan’s defense found a way.
“When we were down, I looked each person in the eye, because I didn’t want the message to be dispelled,” Chase Winovich, who had nine tackles, three TFLs and a sack to his name, said. “I said, ‘This is the point where we’ve gotta double down on all the hard work that we’ve done, and the preparation that we’ve gone through. And they can’t take this from us.’ Even when we were losing I said that. It was our game.”
One of those people was Shea Patterson. Well on his way to completing the worst game of his career at Michigan, failing to take advantage of good protection and seeming to just miss a few receivers even when catches were made, Patterson turned his game on a dime.
With 10 minutes to go, his best drives of the second half having been two missed red zone opportunities (one of which included a dropped interception in the end zone), Patterson seized the moment in a way the Wolverines’ quarterbacks simply haven’t been able to in the past.
“We kinda looked each other in the eyes,” Winovich said, “and he said, ‘Pass it back and forth, can you take care of what you need to take care of? We’re gonna score this ball. We’re gonna score this touchdown.’ ”
Patterson had run over to a few defensive huddles over the course of the second half, he said, telling them, “Hey, I got you. Just a few more stops and we’ll play through it.”
On third down, the Wildcats’ pass rush at his feet, Patterson took it himself. He scrambled for nine all-important yards, both taking Michigan well into field goal range and saving a drive — and within it, a game the Wolverines simply could not afford to lose.
Two plays later, Patterson found Zach Gentry down the seam, exploiting the tiniest of windows. Sitting in the press box, it seemed, for a brief second, as though Northwestern had intercepted the ball, because there was no possible other outcome for a pass like that, or at least there’s not supposed to be.
“I just saw them drop into two-high, it was a two-shell, possibly Cover-4,” Patterson said. “We had Gentry, he’s 6-foot-8, over the middle. And I think they gave up a lotta stuff over the middle and I think we adjusted in the second half. Just let your guy go make a play. Put it in the vicinity. That’s the type of guy Zach Gentry is, and he made a big play by coming up with that ball.”
Shea Patterson found a way.
Think, for a minute, about where the conversation around Michigan football would be, collectively, had the Wolverines failed to come back. Think, what the rational extrapolation from the gauntlet staring Michigan in the face after playing Maryland next week — Wisconsin, at Michigan State, Penn State — would be.
Think, for a minute, about the possibility of 7-5, because had the Wolverines lost this game, that would have been staring them in the face.
“On the road, down 17-0 at one point, we needed to lay down and take a beating or come together and fight through adversity,” Patterson said. “And I think all around, collectively, we just did a tremendous job of doing that tonight.”
Saturday, in a dingy little stadium against an overachieving opponent, the choice was to find a way or change this season’s outlook, and lower its ceiling, drastically. Michigan found a way.