Each week we scout Michigan's opponent. We’ll start with the basics, and then explore some relevant match-ups. For those that want to know more, we’ll sprinkle in a mixture of history, reflection, and philosophy for a comprehensive look.
Michigan (6-3) (4-1) vs. #21 Northwestern (7-2) (3-2)
(W) at Syracuse 42-41
(W) Vanderbilt 23-13
(W) Boston College 22-13
(W) South Dakota 38-7
(W) Indiana 44-29
(L) at Penn State 39-28
(W) at Minnesota 21-13
(L) Nebraska 29-28
(W) Iowa 28-17
Northwestern Players to Watch:
What a win means for Michigan: That they’re still alive in the Legends Division race. They will have beaten Northwestern in nine of the last 11 meetings.
What a win means for Northwestern: They too would still be alive, but also hanging by a thread.
What Northwestern Brags About: Their GPA and their Academic Progress Rating; they’re ranked in the BCS; 2012 Senior Class is the winningest in school history.
Starting cornerback Nick Vanhoose (Fr. #23) is questionable after suffering a shoulder injury in the Nebraska game. He’s the team’s best corner. He was in a non-contact jersey during Wednesday’s practice.
Reserve cornerback Quinn Evans (Sr. #31) is likely to play after missing the Iowa game. He has made three starts earlier in the season.
The Last Time They Met
It was a tale of two halves. Denard Robinson (Sr. #16) threw three first half interceptions, but in the second half, the defense forced some turnovers of their own and the team scored the last 28 points to win 42-24 in Evanston. Robinson had 454 yards of total offense with four touchdowns, two passing and two rushing. Brandin Hawthorne (Sr. #7) got an interception and Thomas Gordon (Jr. #30) forced a fumble to diffuse any threat Northwestern gave.
Ibraheim Campbell (So. #24) had two interceptions for the Wildcats. Michigan running back had Vincent Smith (Sr. #2) had two tackles off interceptions. Northwestern’s two turnovers doubled their entire season’s count.
There was some controversy on the Wildcats sideline after Jordan Kovacs (Sr. #32) sacked quarterback Dan Persa ending another Northwestern possession. It appeared Kovacs went a little high sending Persa’s helmet flying. Even though Persa didn’t go down, the play was over once the helmet came off. A demonstrative Pat Fitzgerald remained mum in the post game conference citing that he was concerned about the college funds of his three kids when asked about his feelings on the play. For Kovacs, it was his 2nd fourth down stop of the night. Michigan won their first road game of the year after opening the season with five straight home wins.
Venric Mark (#5), a dangerous running back, played as a spy on defense against Robinson during some parts of the game. He had an assist on a single tackle. More on his significant transition coming soon.
Their Season So Far
Before the season began most looked at the Wildcat’s opening three games as critical to their season. On paper, it looked like three evenly matched teams. If they lost two or all three of those games, than it would indicate they wouldn’t be able to contend or compete in Legends division. There was some skepticism. The Wildcats have a history of losing games in September that they shouldn’t like New Hampshire, Duke, Nevada, and Army. Others forecasted a down year in part because the ‘Cats’ were trending that way. Since peaking with a 9-4 record in 2008 in the Fitzgerald era, Northwestern’s win total has decreased every year since. If that trend continued, they wouldn’t be going to a bowl after this season.
Northwestern would wind up winning all three games raising the barometer and expectations since very few teams in the Big Ten, Ohio State, and Minnesota survived the non-conference schedule unscathed. At 5-0, the Legends Division became a four team race, instead of three, until more evidence of another negative attribute showed up in Happy Valley…the ability to give up 2nd half and fourth quarter leads.
After Northwestern gave up a 28-17 fourth quarter lead to Penn State, two weeks later they would lose a 28-16 fourth quarter lead to Nebraska giving the Huskers another 4th quarter comeback win 29-28. If it weren’t for double-digit comebacks, the Wildcats would be 9-0, and this week’s game could have been for the Legends Title.
The Wildcats beat Iowa convincingly at home 28-17 by doing what they do best, running and gashing up-tempo. Northwestern rushed for 349 yards while passing only 10 times for 84 yards. Mark became the first Wildcat to surpass the seasonal 1,000 yard mark since Tyrell Sutton in 2006, with a 162 yard effort.
Northwestern led 28-3 early in the 2nd half before Iowa made the pasting look respectable and in turn gave Wildcats fans indigestion. For the third time in four games, the Northwestern defense was absent in the 2nd half, but Iowa was in too big a hole to make a complete comeback. The Hawkeyes were shorthanded on the O-Line missing two starters. It was their sixth win over Iowa in their last eight meetings.
Now that we are five games into conference play, please note that many of the team and individual statistics and rankings are measured through conference games only. Rankings and statistics can be misleading when one team plays Alabama and another team plays an FCS team.
The Northwestern Offense vs. Michigan’s Defense
The Wildcats are exclusively a run team with multiple weapons in Kolter and Mark. Lloyd Carr always preached that a balanced offense is necessary and the Wildcats, who led the team in passing in 2009 and 2011, aren’t nearly as effective after Dan Persa’s eligibility ran out.
They tried to have balance by putting in sophomore Trevor Siemian (#13) who can throw the ball better than Kolter, but after a few games the personnel shifts became too predictable. If Kolter was in at QB it was a run. When Siemian came in it was a pass. Kolter is so much more effective as a runner than Siemian and Siemian doesn’t execute the zone read with Mark nearly as well either. Eventually both games suffered once the defenses knew what was coming.
Kolter after the Nebraska game called out his offense and his coaches by telling ESPN.com that “they don’t have an identity.” It’s ironic because those that follow the Wildcats understand that Kolter is the engine and ignition that makes the Wildcats run. The message was sent, no backlash for Kolter, and he took over as the primary quarterback last week against Iowa. Kolter had three rushing touchdowns and one passing TD and their ratio of running plays to passing plays was more than 4:1. Northwestern realizes they aren’t perfect, but after some experimentation, they appear to be comfortable with who they are. For those reasons expect Michigan to remain #1 in pass defense.
The Wildcats are last in pass offense at 144 yard per game, but second in rush offense during conference games with a 251 yard average.
The big key is for Michigan to read their keys and not make a mental mistake in Northwestern’s rushing attack. The Wolverines are playing faster to the ball, but won’t be able to keep up with Kolter or Mark if a mistake is made.
The Michigan defense is #1 in scoring at 11.8 ppg in conference play and lead in total defense by 50 yards more than any other team in the Big Ten. Yet defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is still concerned about mistakes and continues to say so each week.
“I mean, until we play error free, 100% effort, and great technique, you’re not there.”
Michigan’s lone touchdown against them came on a missed assignment. Perhaps that’s why Mattison harps on perfection. Perhaps he’s setting them up for the Northwestern test of team speed.
“Well they’ve got great speed… It’s a classic example of if you want to be successful, you cannot allow big plays. They have very very fast players in their skill positions. Their running back (Mark), when he breaks, he breaks.”
As a running back, Mark is lucky he became one. Originally a receiver he was too diminutive to be productive. He begged the coaching staff to become a running back instead of standing on the sideline. The coaches all thought that if he was too short and light (a generous 5’8” 180lbs) to be a receiver, how could he handle the physical pounding he would take at tailback? Mark got his shot in summer camp and surprised everyone how he held up running between the tackles. Next thing you know he’s averaging over 100 yards per game. Mark has become leading rusher in conference games and has 1,072 yards overall this season.
“You better make sure you’re assignment-conscious,” says Mattison. “Because if you don’t, if you fall asleep and you take what you’re not supposed to take, he’ll make you pay."
Mark is 6th in the FBS in all-purpose yards taking two kick returns to the house after having six returns of 40 or more yards in 2011. Teams are avoiding punting to Mark and settling for reduced net gains in the punt game to avoid punting directly to him.
“And the quarterback (Kolter) is a very very good football player,” says Mattison. “You make a mistake on him and he’ll make you pay. It’s not just with his feet, you know. It’s with his competitiveness, it’s with his ability to cut back and see the whole field, and then if you fall asleep, he’ll throw the ball in there for a big one.”
Northwestern brings a nice balance of power to their run game with Mike Trumpy (Jr. #32). He won’t run more than a half-dozen times and he isn’t as bruising Montee Ball or Le’Veon Bell but his 4.7 ypc seems to suggest he’s a decent counter-punch.
Jake Ryan (So. #47) continues to play well making plays behind the line. Last week he added three more tackles- for- loss to his Big Ten leading tally. Ryan is quietly contending for conference honors as a 1st team linebacker despite the heavy competition.
As long Ryan and the rest of the defense play well, Michigan should win this battle. Since the Notre Dame game, the defense has proven they can defend the field vertically and horizontally as well as defend power. Now we’ll see what happens with defending two fast runners on zone-read. The Wolverines are holding opponents on third down better than anyone and that will be tested as the Wildcats will probably have a number of third and short situations. Michigan can’t afford to play bend and not break, because Northwestern is better than anyone in the Big Ten at breaking those defenses. For the season, the Wildcats are 32-35 with 22 TD’s in the red zone. In conference play they’re 16-17 with 13 TD’s.
The Northwestern Defense vs. the Michigan Offense
With a history of 2nd half let downs this season and in seasons past, it’s hard not to conclude that the defense is a 1st half team. It’s not for a lack of effort. In fact, the offense is as much to blame as anyone because they have hard time staying on the field.
Though there has been a change in personnel from last year, the storylines are the same. They’re pretty good against the run, not very good against the pass but do have fairly competent pass rushers.
Tyler Scott (Jr. #97) leads the conference in sacks with seven. Scott also has four pass breakups this season and has caused a Big Ten-best three fumbles. The Wildcats are #2 in sacks in conference play with 13.
Though Campbell doesn’t have a pick this season, he does have nine passes broken up and will be an important player in the secondary if Vanhoose can’t go.
The biggest question Northwestern fans are asking themselves is who they’d prefer to see at quarterback?
The Wildcats are last in pass defense with nearly twice as many yards given up as Michigan (255 vs. 138 in conf). While Devin Gardner (Jr. #12) threw the deep ball well and often, the receivers did a spectacular job of hanging on while Minnesota was attempting to rake the ball out. Roy Roundtree (Sr. #21) did a great David Tyree impersonation near the goal line, and Jeremy Gallon (Sr. #10) had magic hands holding on to his touchdown grab. Gardner at 6’5”, likely sees the field better and is more willing to dodge the bullets in the backfield waiting for something to develop whereas Denard will take off running.
The Wildcats think they may have an early Thanksgiving feast of interceptions if Denard plays. The Wildcats picked him off three times last year in Evanston and Fitzgerald said after the game they should have had more. It might be wishful thinking; the Wildcats have only three interceptions all year.
It’s also easy to forget that Denard made two long accurate throws to Roundtree in the center of Nebraska’s secondary before getting hurt. Only one was considered a completion with the other being overturned, but the point is they were on target.
Michigan is first in the Big Ten on 3rd down at nearly 50%. Credit Denard for his designed and undersigned rushes in addition to passing. He’s bailed out the running backs and offensive line and kept the chains moving more times on his own than I can count. He made a joke of the Wildcats rush defense in the 2nd half last year. So, no matter who starts, the sense that Michigan can’t move across the street if Denard doesn’t play is now just an irrational thought.
Some last statistical surprises:
U-M in conference play is #1 in red zone opportunities. The Wolverines are 17-17 but have only scored nine touchdowns.
Northwestern is +6 in seasonal turnover margin while U-M is -4. However in conference play U-M is +3 while Northwestern is only +2.
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