Friday, October 7, 2011

Preview: Northwestern 2011

  #12 Michigan (5-0) vs. Northwestern (2-2)
Ryan Field, Evanston, Illinois
Kickoff 7 pm EST
Big Ten Network
Forecast: Mid 70s

Last week
Northwestern 35 - Illinois 38. Northwestern blew a late lead against Illinois in spectacularly Michigan 2010 fashion: after building up a pretty sizable lead, starting QB Dan Persa was knocked out of the game and the Wildcat secondary decided it would be more beneficial to their team not to cover anyone. This enabled Nathan Scheelhaase to lead the Illini to a last minute victory as he ran for the go-ahead touchdown with 13 seconds left on the clock.

Scheelhaase was 21/32 with three touchdowns and one interception. He also average 12.2 yards per attempt which is, urm, ludicrous, especially given Scheelhaase's, shall we say, less than stellar passing resume. The Northwestern rushing defense looked competent, at least. The Illinois rushing attack was held to 2.2 YPC on 38 carries, which is surprising after Army lit up the Northwestern defense for 5.1 YPC on 75 (!!!!) carries. Even with caveats about option offenses, that's an incomprehensibly bad performance.

On offense, the Wildcats had a good day until Persa went down. He was 10/14 through the air with 4 TDs to no interceptions, and averaged 8.8 YPA. They struggled to run the ball, though, averaging only 3.3 YPC on 51 rushes. That's reasonable, however, after the NW starting running back Mike Trumpy was lost (likely for the season) during the game.

Minnesota 0 - #19 Michigan 58. I do not condone war crimes and feel it's inappropriate to discuss this publicly. I will say that I think it was irresponsible for Brady Hoke to send his players on the field against those malnourished refugee children.

Offense vs. Northwestern
Over the last several weeks, Al Borges has been gradually phasing out the I-formation from the offense and utilizing various spread tactics. Michigan is using the zone read possibly at a more frequent clip than they were last year, while Borges has brought back the QB Oh Noes, introduced the speed option and counter draw, and just hinted at the triple option. All of this has made for an offense that hasn't taken a step back from its astronomical numbers last year.

Despite those wrinkles, Michigan is not going to be as successful on the ground against Northwestern as Army was, but they will fare better than Illinois. Both Fitz Toussaint and Vincent Smith have been having breakout seasons, flip flopping who is the nominal starter. With Toussaint being the better runner and Smith the better all-purpose back, Michigan will continue to rotate both through. They might have to against a large defensive front seven. Northwestern's linebackers average 235 lbs while the defensive line features two 300-pounders and two Craig Roh+s at defensive end.

The Wildcat passing defense is an absolute train wreck, however. Despite one of its four opponents only attempting seven passes (and only completing one of those), Northwestern is 88th in pass efficiency defense and 81st in passing yards allowed per game. If Denard's Minnesota performance wasn't a mirage, he should be able to carve up a Northwestern secondary that hasn't really put up a fight against anyone. It will be interesting to see whether or not Borges tries to attack the secondary by taking shots downfield again or whether he sticks with the dink-and-dunking that the team ran against Minnesota.

Defense vs. Northwestern
Northwestern's passing attack has been nonexistent to date, but that's due to Persa not playing rather than a referendum on the NW wide receivers or offensive line (the Wildcat offense is mostly made up of large, upperclassmen types). As mentioned above, Persa went 10/14 passing with 4 touchdowns before being knocked out of the game. That lingering injury might be a godsend for the Wolverines defense. Persa has a habit of showing up in big games and playing out of his mind. If he's slowed by his persisting Achilles injury, that'll reduce his effectiveness on the ground, allowing Michigan to key on whoever Northwestern has replaced Trumpy with.

If Persa is forced the put the ball in the air because of an ineffectual ground game, it'll be interesting to see what Greg Mattison does with his coverage schemes and blitzes. He has (likely intentionally) run basic schemes for the last two weeks, which is a far cry from the blitz-crazy formations Michigan used in the first few weeks. Northwestern is not an opponent that Michigan can sit back against. Forcing long down and distance will be a huge, though if Mattison blitzes too aggressively (or drops the wrong lineman into coverage on a zone blitz), Northwestern has the speed and talent to break a long one.

This is ultimately a good matchup for Michigan. With a defensive line that's starting to get its swagger and an injured NW rushing attack, Michigan should be able to get the Wildcats into lethal down and distances where Mattison can bring blitzes from all over the field. The cornerbacks, who can actually cover this year, will be asked to as this will be their first chance to defend against a quarterback that's not fumbling the ball behind him or chucking it 10 yards over a receiver's head.

Over the course of the first five weeks of the season, this game went from a toss-up like substance to a pretty confident victory. Michigan's defense is so much improved, and the NW offense is so hampered, that it will be difficult to move the ball down the field. Michigan will probably give up a play of 35+ yards in this game after a risky blitz call, but otherwise, Mattison's defense should get negative plays and force Persa to throw in some uncomfortable situations.

Offensively, the key will be whether or not Denard can connect with what are sure to be blitheringly wide-open receivers. I would guess that Northwestern keys pretty heavily on the rushing attack and holds Michigan below their season averages in yards per game and yards per carry. Michigan will, however, break out the triple option a few times in this game to good effect. And I'd bet that Borges has one or two new plays/formations that Michigan hasn't shown this year. Devin Gardner and Denard will not be on the field at the same time during the game, though.

Michigan 38 - Northwestern 24


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