Facing a large early deficit on the road and struggling on both sides of the ball, Michigan appeared headed for a frustrating loss.
The players, though, said they never doubted they would rally.
Karan Higdon ran for 115 yards and two touchdowns, Shea Patterson threw for 196 yards and No. 14 Michigan overcame a 17-point deficit to beat Northwestern 20-17 in Saturday night.
Higdon gave the Wolverines (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) the lead with a 5-yard run with 4:06 remaining. Higdon averaged 3.8 yards on 30 carries, and Patterson completed 15 of 24 passes to help Michigan win its fourth straight.
Michigan held Northwestern to 97 yards of total offense in the final three quarters and had six sacks for the game. Defensive end Chase Winovich had a team-high eight solo tackles and a sack.
“The way we saw things, it was always our game,” Winovich said. “We just had to do what we had to do.”
It was Michigan’s biggest comeback since 2011 against Notre Dame (also 17 points) and Jim Harbaugh’s largest comeback as a college coach.
“I talked about it at halftime. We are being tested and it’s time to find out what we’re made of,’” Harbaugh said. “Our guys really responded.”
Clayton Thorson completed 16 of 27 passes for 174 yards for Northwestern (1-3, 1-1) in the Wildcats’ third straight loss.
John Moten IV had 36 yards on 13 rushes and a touchdown in his first start for Northwestern. He took over for Jeremy Larkin after Larkin retired this week because of a spinal condition.
Michigan has won seven straight games at Ryan Field.
A 14 1/2-point underdog, Northwestern jumped out to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter on short TD runs by Thorson and Moten and a career-high 45-yard field goal by Charlie Kuhbander.
Michigan, which had minus-2 yards on its first two possessions, pulled to 17-7 on Higdon’s 4-yard run in the second quarter. The Wolverines made it 17-13 in the third on Quinn Nordin’s two field goals.
Neither team could generate much offense in the fourth until Hidgon’s second TD capped an 11-play, 67-yard drive. The key play in the drive was a 22-yard pass from Patterson to Zach Gentry for first-and-goal at the 6.
“Offensively, it just seemed like the plays we made in the first half, we went 0-fer in the second half,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I thought Michigan’s front dominated the second half, and that was the difference in the game.”
The Wolverines might have grabbed the lead earlier, but a 28-yard run by Patterson on the previous possession was called back because of a holding penalty on Higdon. After Patterson faked the handoff on a run-pass option, Higdon ran straight ahead into the line and was wrapped up by a Northwestern player.
“The whole stadium saw that the linebacker tackled our running back,” Harbaugh said. “Phantom call.”
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
The sellout crowd of 47,330 featured as many fans cheering for Michigan as the home team.
“That was great to see coming in and out of our tunnel,” Harbaugh said. “They were showing their support.”
Michigan: It certainly wasn’t pretty — particularly on the offensive side — but the defense stepped up to shut down the Wildcats following a fast start. With a pair of home games in the next two weeks, the Wolverines will have an opportunity to extend its winning streak and maintain momentum.
Northwestern: After being on a pitch count in the first three games, Thorson went the distance and eliminated the mistakes that led to the loss against Akron two weeks ago. But again, the offense bogged down after a fast start and struggled in the second half. “We’re up 17-0, and we didn’t finish the job,” Thorson said. “The past few weeks, that’s been the story. We’re up, and then in the second half, we don’t finish the job.”
Michigan figures to continue to inch its way toward the Top 10.
Michigan hosts Maryland next Saturday.
Northwestern visits Michigan State next Saturday.