Michigan vs. Northwestern Primer

Going to the game…a tailgate… maybe just the day with watching with friends on TV? Don't be caught off guard with what happens on the field Saturday. Know your opponent with the Northwestern Wildcats Primer.

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 (5-0) at Northwestern (2-2)

Michigan Schedule:
(W) Western MI   34-10
(W) Notre Dame  35-31
(W) Eastern MI    31-3
(W) San Diego State  28-7
(W) Minnesota  58-0

Northwestern Schedule:
(W) at Boston College   24-17
(W) Eastern Illinois   42-21
(L) at Army   14-21
(L) at Illinois  35-38

Northwestern Players to Watch:
QB Dan Persa (Sr. #7) Returned last Saturday after an Achilles injury. Biggest difference maker on team
WR Jeremy Ebert (Sr. #11) NU's active leading receiver with 1,570 career receiving yards
DE Vince Browne (Sr. #94) Consensus preseason All-Big Ten selection; 18 career sacks; 33 career TFL’s
CB Jordan Mabin (Sr. #26) Seven career interceptions including one against Michigan in ’08
S Brian Peters (Sr. #10) Eight career interceptions; had one pick and a forced fumble against Illinois

Over the summer when Hokeamania was at a frenzy as one four-star recruit after another pledging verbally to the Maize and Blue, people started going through the schedule. Predictions of 8-10 wins seem to be common on the radio. A common theme was that a night win on the road in Evanston was an automatic. They may very well be right. The Wildcats lost to an undermanned Purdue team last season at night, but one has to remember that even though Northwestern hasn’t met the Wolverines since 2008, the Wildcats have had a better record and a better team over the past three seasons.

From 2008-10, Northwestern went to three straight bowl games, had a 13-11 Big Ten record and were 24-15 overall. A direct comparison with Michigan is not necessary nor does there need to be a reminder. What’s necessary is perspective. It also bears mentioning that the Wildcats win totals are declining each year. They won nine games in 2008, eight in 2009, and seven games in 2010. At 2-2 with winnable games against Rice, Indiana and Minnesota, the Wildcats have some work to do to get to win seven games. However, one man on this team can elevate the Wildcats to potentially nine wins on the top end.

Dan Persa

Quarterback Dan Persa (Sr. #7) finished the 2010 football season with the Big Ten completion percentage record (73.5%) and the conference coaches named him to the First Team quarterback. Persa threw for 15 touchdowns and just four interceptions on 302 attempts, the best ratio in the FBS.

“I think he's a tough-minded kid,” said Michigan Head Coach Brady Hoke. “Looking from a year ago in the off-season, he's a guy who is not afraid to tuck the ball running, take a hit, deliver a hit.”

He also rushed for nine touchdowns and 519 yards in an abbreviated season that ended when he ruptured his Achilles just after throwing the game winning touchdown in the final two minutes against #13 Iowa. Saturday will be his first game back at Ryan Field as the coaching staff has been deliberate in their patience not to rush their best player back to the field.

His importance to the Wildcats is just as valuable as Denard Robinson (Jr. #16) is to Michigan. Without Persa, the Wildcats would lose their three remaining games, and have started this season at 2-2. Kain Colter (So. #2) has done more than an adequate job showing that he too can put up numbers in the air and on the ground. However, in Colter’s three starts this season, it became clear that on 3rd and pass, Colter struggled moving the chains. Just as troubling, Colter couldn’t find a way to connect with the team’s best receiver Jeremy Ebert (Sr. #11).

Ebert, who in 2010 was named to the All Big Ten First team by the media for scoring eight touchdowns and having 953 yards, had only four catches for 54 yards after the team’s first two games.

Colter was benched in the fourth quarter of the Army game. When Persa returned for the Illinois game, Ebert scored three times for the Wildcats.

Last Week vs. Illinois
Last Saturday’s game against Illinois was the most exciting Big Ten game of the week. The Wildcats led 28-10 in the third quarter, only to trail by three, midway through the fourth. With over a minute remaining in the game, Northwestern retook the lead 35-31, but came up the loser when Illinois scored the game winning touchdown with 13 seconds remaining. That’s the headlines, but did Northwestern give the game away or was the Wildcats fortunate to be in it at all?

After reviewing the game it’s debatable. Two Illinois turnovers and a long punt return allowed Northwestern to start three possessions inside Illinois territory. With good field position, the Wildcats scored touchdowns on all three occasions.

Persa picked up where he left off from last year and then some. Persa threw a career high four touchdown pass (three to Ebert) on just 15 throws. Persa had as many touchdowns as incompletions.

Once Illinois learned in the 2nd half that they couldn’t run, they went to the air and that’s how the comeback started. Missed assignments by the secondary resulted in two long touchdowns, both to A.J.Jenkins, who had a school record 268 yards receiving to go along with three scores.

“We had a lapse of communication,” Wildcat Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald admitted. “We had the game in hand and we lost momentum in three plays. We had the breakdown of communication and we give up the touchdown, two plays later we have a second communication breakdown and we give up a big play.”

Specifically a safety, Ibraheim Campbell (R-Fr. #24) got caught out of position a few times. It was enough for Jenkins to become a hero.

“Ninety-five percent of the game we played well, and five percent we didn't and it cost us the football game,” said Fitzgerald.

But why was Northwestern offense stuck on 28 during the Illini’s 18 point comeback?

Injuries had something to do with it. It started with their best running back Mike Trumpy (So. #29) going down with an ACL injury in the third quarter. The Wildcats would score two touchdowns through the air in the quarter, but the running backs were caught behind the line of scrimmage too often the rest of the game.

“I still thought we ran the ball pretty well when Mike wasn't in there,” Fitzgerald countered. “I liked the way that Treyvon Green ran the football.”

Illinois’s defense tallied five tackles-for-a-loss after Trumpy’s injury.

Persa would take himself out of the game after a tackle early in the fourth quarter. Saying that his heel felt tight and after experiencing a setback in a similar fashion in the summer, Persa and the trainers agreed it was prudent for Persa to sit out the rest of the game.

After Northwestern forced and recovered a fumble inside their own territory with three minutes to play, Colter and the Wildcats knew it was their last chance to get the lead back. To their credit, they needed only five rushing plays and a personal foul penalty on Illinois to cover the 36 yards needed for what they thought was the game winning score. Maybe that’s what Fitzgerald liked about his running game.

Northwestern Offense vs. Michigan Defense
There are some definite parallels in the personnel in both the Northwestern and Michigan offenses. The quarterbacks are the leading rushers. Trumpy, their best running back is out for the season, so Oscar Schmidt (Sr. #39) will lead the committee of running backs for the future.

Trumpy's a little bit down," Schmidt said Monday. "You know, it's tough. Injuries are part of the game, but when you lose a guy as special as Mike is it hurts both our team and it obviously hurts him to be on the sideline. But as a group we've got to pick up the flag, we've got to embrace our role and just play that much better.”

There’s no question about Persa’s health according to Fitzgerald.

Pat Fitzgerald

"The only question about his health is from you, you the media,” said Fitzgerald. “He's great, he's ready to go. He's running around great today.”

It’s hard to imagine that Persa can produce the rushing yards he had last year, but he did show against Illinois that he can buy his receivers some time to get open.

“This quarterback, Persa, is the real deal, says Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.  “You get out of your rush lanes in any way or you rush too far up field or you aren’t doing what you’re supposed to be doing, he’s going to turn a pass opportunity into a 15 yard game as a minimum. This guy is a really, really good football player. We’ve got our work cut out for this week.”

Just like Devin Gardner (So. #7) did last week for Michigan; Colter will probably take some snaps under center and line up as a receiver because Fitzgerald doesn’t want someone as athletic as Colter to sit on the bench.

Pace of play could also be a challenge for Michigan and a hindrance for the Wildcats. Northwestern runs a hurry-up offense that usually gets the snap off with more than 20 seconds left on the 40-second play clock. When you have momentum, it’s an effective tool. The defense can’t substitute as well and Mattison likes to rotate his front guys.

A fast pace of play can also stymie an offense that isn’t clicking. Teams can go 3 & out real quick and instead of tiring the opposing defense, they can tire out their own defense by putting them back on the field within two minutes of coming off.

The Wildcats offensive line has 125 career starts among them. They’re led by Al Netter (Sr. #75) and Ben Burkett (Sr. #65) who are both four year starters.

The Wolverine defense has been fantastic this year in not giving up the big play. They must be aware of Persa’s ability to find anyone in a chaotic situation. The defensive front can’t afford to let Persa go if they have him in their sights. The secondary will have to be wary of Persa’s favorite target, Ebert. The Wildcats will put him in some different alignments to avoid being put into press coverage.

The Wolverines have been also good at forcing turnovers. They’ve recovered 11 fumbles and four interceptions and have a conference best +7 turnover margin. The Wildcats are 2nd in the conference with a +5, but they have only turned it over twice all season. It’s the fewest turnovers in the conference (#2 in the nation), and it’s the only statistical category where the Wildcats have an edge. If the Wolverines maintain their average the Wildcats will have to turn it over three times.

The red zone offense is 14-18 with 14 TD’s. The Wildcats are 1-3 on field goals making a 43 yarder in the season opener.

Michigan Offense vs. Northwestern Defense
The Wildcats are 11th in total defense but even Hoke would like certain aspects of it. They are very physical up front and are always looking to strip the ball. The line is also good at pressuring the quarterback which could put Robinson out of his comfort zone.

“They play as hard, if not harder, than anybody we’ve played, and they play smart,” said Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges.

The statistics prove otherwise. They give up yards; they give points and mostly give up the scores on the ground. No team has given up more rushing touchdowns (9) than Northwestern and they’ve played one less game than ten other conference teams.

The Cardiac Cats have been revered for their ability to win close games, but people are also taking notice that the Wildcats are blowing big leads. In addition to the 18 pt 2nd half comeback, Northwestern lost a 17-0 lead at home to Michigan State and a 21-0 lead to Penn State, both happening last season. Michigan fans should never feel out of it, if their team falls behind.

Pat Fitzgerald

“Please keep writing negative things about them, you're doing a great job motivating them” says Fitzgerald. “I'd like our fans to continue to do that too; it's a beautiful thing.” 

Fitzgerald feels they are tackling better than they were at this time a year ago.

“(The players) know who to listen to and they're just going to keep working their butts off to get better.”

The defense has seven first-year starters but they have been healthy. They’ve only had three man games lost this season.

Northwestern was able to slow down the Illinois running game last week and that is no easy task. The Illini led the conference in rushing last season after coming in 2nd in 2009. If Michigan’s rushing game has improved we’ll know if someone other than Robinson can get more than 80 yards.

The Northwestern defense is led by coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who graduated from Michigan in 1970 and served as a graduate assistant coach from 1970-72.

Most Likely Wolverine to Have a Career Game:  Blake Countess
The true freshman cornerback may have to cover Ebert from time to time. Countess saw his first extended playing time against San Diego State. He has three passes broken-up and a forced fumble in the last two weeks. He’s gotten better with each game he’s played and might win a few match-ups with the talented Wildcat receiver.

Most Likely Wildcat You’ll Remember After the Game is Over: Persa
Expect Persa to make some Michigan fans frustrated with his ability to make something out of nothing. He’ll definitely remind of you Tate Forcier in that regard. He can run for his life, stop on a dime and find someone to throw to on the opposite side of the field.  Some in Big Ten country still think Persa, not Robinson was the most outstanding player in the conference last season.


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