#24 Northwestern vs. Michigan
The Big House, Ann Arbor, MI
Kickoff 12:00 pm EST
Forecast: High-50s, 30% chance of rain
Last week, Northwestern was on a bye, but the week before that, they played a not-very-close game against Iowa. The Wildcats averaged 7.1 YPC against Iowa and would have beaten them worse had Northwestern not turned the ball over twice. The big change came with the reinstatement of Kain Colter as the starting quarterback for Northwestern. Coulter had been the proverbial change of pace QB for the Wildcats all season, coming in when the team wanted a stronger rushing attack. Nominal starter Trevor Siemian was an inadequate pocket passer: 58.9% completion percentage, 5.71 YPA, 4 TDs, and 1 INT for the season. A change was clearly in order.
Against Iowa, Colter went 6/9 through the air for 80 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT, but he also presented a consistent option rushing attack throughout the game. Colter averaged 6.4 YPC on 26 carries, while starting running back Venric Mark averaged 10.1 YPC on 16 (!!!) carries. Iowa might be bad, but this Northwestern offese is probably scary.
Offense vs. Northwestern
Wondering who is going to start at quarterback is a waste of time because Michigan's offense is effectively the same regardless of who is under center. But to clarify: if Denard is healthy, he will be the starter. A more important question is how can Michigan fix the interior of its offensive line, which spent last week getting beaten off the line and put on skates against Minnesota. This is a problem.
The good news for Michigan is that Northwestern's defensive line is not particularly dynamic. The two defensive tackles are relatively svelte: Brian Arnfelt is 6'5", 300 lbs, and Sean McEvilly is 6'5", 290 lbs. In addition, both defensive ends are 6'4" and no heavier than 265 lbs. Arnfelt and McEvilly combine for 7.5 TFLs and 4 sacks, but only 40 combined total tackles. Defensive end Tyler Scott has managed 7 sacks and 8.5 TFL this season, but he will have the unenviable task of beating Taylor Lewan off the edge.
Where Northwestern makes it hay defensively is in the linebacker corps, where all three starting linebackers are in the top-four leading tacklers on the team. Those linebackers account for 16.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, and 228 (!!!!!!!) total tackles. Thems a lot of tackles. Oh yeah, and they also have two interceptions, 11 PBUs, and four recovered fumbles. Northwestern may have the best linebacker group in the conference. To show just how important this linebacking group is to Northwestern, aside from strong safety Ibraheim Campbell who has 67 total tackles, the next highest on the team is free safety Jared Carpenter with 37 tackles.
Despite those front-line inefficiencies, Northwestern's defense still stacks up statistically. (As a side note, as is the same with Michigan's lofty rankings, the conference-wide top-50 defense rankings are basically invalid given the Big Ten's ineptitude. That said...) Northwestern is 48th in pass efficiency defense, 23rd in rushing defense, and 35th in scoring defense. They're average in sacks (52nd) and below average at getting into the backfield (82nd). Regardless of these national rankings, though, this is the same team that allowed 41 points to Syracuse, 39 to Penn State, and 29 to Nebraska. This is a good-not-great defense.
The biggest concern for Michigan on this side of the ball is that this game pits weakness against weakness. If Michigan had its offensive line from last year, they would be able to bulldoze an undersized Wildcat defensive line and get to the second level. With the performance of Michigan's interior line this season, that's unlikely, which means Borges will have to rely on either Denard or Gardner to pass against the team's strongest unit.
Defense vs. Northwestern
Against Iowa, Northwestern finally figured out that Kain Coulter was their best player, so he'll be playing quarterback for most/all of the game on Saturday. Coulter isn't much of a passer, but the kid has speed to burn. For the season, Coulter is completing 69.7% of his passes, but for only 5.8 YPA. This is a dink and dunk offense through the air, but a dangerous offense on the ground (they own the 13th ranked rushing offense in the country).
Starting junior running back Venric Mark is averaging 6.5 YPC this season on 166 carries. To complement that attack, Coulter is averaging 5.5 YPC on 114 carries. This may be one of Northwestern's more impressive offenses in recent history. The offensive line features three seniors and two sophomores and will be difficult for Michigan's defensive line to handle.
Through the air, there's not much to be scared of. Despite the fact that they have highly touted recruit Kyle Prater (once a Michigan target), none of the Wildcat wide receivers are very dangerous. Then again, they don't had a quarterback to attack defenses vertically; starting wide receiver Tony Jones averages on 29 yards per game. Regardless of their talent level, this is the kind of passing attack that Michigan's secondary can thrive against. JT Floyd has made a living jumping short routes and Raymon Taylor has proven a sure tackler who is occasionally susceptible to pass interference.
This game will be settled by Michigan's front seven. Playing Nebraska recently will help in the preparation for this Wildcat outfit. They run similar run-first option schemes, but Northwestern has a star at running back where Nebraska was lacking one. Frank Clark made his return last week against Minnesota and promptly showed that he's still undisciplined when maintaining the edge. His ability to fight his instincts will be important. Otherwise, it falls on the shoulders of the usual suspects: Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan, and Jordan Kovacs.
The point is, Northwestern's offense is one dimensional, but that dimension can be really dangerous if a defense gets caught out of position. Floyd and Taylor have been improving at getting off blocks on the edge and Ryan has shown he's one of the best linebackers in the league (and more importantly, in space).
How does Michigan win? Shut down Northwestern's rushing offense. That's easier said than done, but given their performance against Nebraska two weeks ago in the face of 2008 Michigan Offense, I'm confident that Michigan can hold down this defense for the majority of the game. The Wildcats thrive on big plays, which is something Michigan's defense has been great at shutting down. On the other side of the ball, Michigan needs to find a way to move the ball consistently. The Northwestern linebackers are the real deal, so getting consistent yardage on 1st and 2nd down will be key to sustain drives and give the offense a chance to put points on the board.
How does Northwestern win? Neutralizing Michigan's defensive line will be the first step to a Wildcat win. No non-Alabama opponent has been able to do that, but Northwestern has the offensive line that might be able to. The Wildcat offense will also have to exploit some of the youth in Michigan's front seven. Frank Clark is particularly susceptible to misdirection and Desmond Morgan may struggle with the speed of Coulter and Mark. Defensively, the Wildcats need to win the line of scrimmage and get into the backfield quickly. Teams that shut down Michigan's offense always have a way of disrupting their rhythm and forcing third and long.
Arbitrary percentage Michigan wins: 57.16%
Final prediction: Northwestern will struggle to move the ball in this game. Penn State has the only defense on the Wildcat schedule to date that's any good, and Michigan's defense is almost certainly better than the Nittany Lions'. Northwestern averages 237 rushing yards per game, but Michigan will hold them under 200 and somewhere closer to 4 YPC than 5 YPC. When Michigan has the ball, however, the Northwestern linebackers prove to be as disruptive as they have been all season. Michigan once again loses the battle at the line of scrimmage and Fitz Toussaint fails to break 50 yards rushing. Denard plays but not particularly well; feeling pressure from the media and Gardner's performance last week, Denard throws two bad interceptions in this game but also manages to break a long run. It's a low-scoring game that Michigan wins in a nail biter. Northwestern 17 - Michigan 20