Outside Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., last Saturday night, amid hundreds of joyous Michigan fans waiting for their team to come out of the locker room, secondary coach Ron English said all that needed to be said about the 2005 Wolverines. "We're not a typical Michigan team with a whole bunch of talent, a can-do-whatever-we-want-to-do type of outfit," English declared. "We're a scrappy bunch. We're trying to win by playing great defense and special teams and running the ball."
It may be tantamount to treason in Ann Arbor for a Michigan coach to describe the usually omnipotent Wolverines as scrappy, but offensively the 2005 edition is a shell of the juggernaut of a year ago. That team moved the ball seemingly at will, and when it didn't it could always rely on receiver Braylon Edwards to bail it out. In Saturday's 33-17 victory over upstart Northwestern--the first time since 1959 that the teams played when the Wildcats (No. 21) were ranked higher than the Wolverines (No. 25)-- Michigan (6-3 overall, 4-2 in the Big Ten) won its third straight game by using staunch defense and a grind-it-out attack. After an up-and-down first two months of the season, the Wolverines may have finally discovered an identity: In Ann Arbor old-school football is new again.
Boasting a pair of sophomore sensations, running back Mike Hart and quarterback Chad Henne, Michigan was picked fourth in the AP preseason poll. But Hart strained his left hamstring in the Wolverines' second game (a 17-10 loss to Notre Dame) and later twisted his right ankle; he's missed three games entirely and parts of two others. Meanwhile, Henne has struggled without Edwards as his primary target (his completion percentage and yards per game are both down from '04). Michigan split its first six games, losing heartbreakers to Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Minnesota. "We were reeling," says offensive coordinator Terry Malone. "Every minute we were searching for answers on how to climb back up off the mat."
Malone admits that the absence of Edwards, Hart and right tackle Jake Long, who returned to action two weeks ago after suffering a broken ankle in August, forced him to be a bit more conservative in his play-calling. Michigan is 37th nationally in rushing offense (173.4 yards per game) and 65th in passing (218.9), marking the first time since 2001 that the team has ranked higher on the ground than in the air. On Saturday the Wolverines threw 30 passes and ran the ball a season-high 58 times while maintaining possession for more than 38 minutes. Junior Jerome Jackson rushed 24 times for a career-high 105 yards, while freshman Kevin Grady added 64 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
On the other side of the ball, the Wildcats' high-powered spread unit entered the game averaging 37.1 points and 529.3 yards (fourth best in the nation), but Michigan limited Northwestern to 415 yards, with only 94 coming in the second half, when the Wildcats were held scoreless. The Wolverines' front seven hounded Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez, who was third in the country in total offense before the game. Basanez had 326 yards passing but just 62 after intermission; he also threw two interceptions, double his previous total. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr called his defense's performance its best of the year.
The Wolverines remain alive for the Big Ten's automatic BCS berth, though it is a decided long shot. "We're starting to come together as a team," said senior defensive tackle Gabe Watson. "It's kinda sad that it took us this long."
? More from Stewart Mandel five times a week at SI.com/collegefootball.