Know Your Opponent: Northwestern

GoBlueWolverine's Sam Webb goes one on one with college football analyst Steve Clarke to get an in-depth breakdown of this week's opponent. Northwestern enters the game struggling on offense. The Wildcats haven't hit the 30 point mark this season, has scored a total of 41 points in the last three games, and were 9/24 for 75 yards through the air in a 48-7 thrashing at Iowa last week.

Sam Webb:  The Northwestern Wildcats, was that even a pick, I don’t think either of us went with Northwestern in that game.

Steve Clarke:  “The same thing, the Wildcats have won six of the past nine games in that series and thought it would be close.  They played in overtime last year in Kinnick and this one was a blowout from start to finish, 41-7 was the final score.  Northwestern’s offense was held to season low 180 yards.  They were 24-0 nothing in the first quarter, 38-7 at halftime.  There quarterback got pulled.  Their offense is just getting worse and worse and worse with each week.  In fact, they’ve scored the least of all the Big Ten teams this year.  You wouldn’t think that with Northwestern, but at 20 points per game, they are officially the worst scoring team in the Big Ten.”

Sam Webb:  Obviously a part of that is Kain Colter graduates and then the one that had to hit them like a sonic boom was Venric Mark leaving and they never seemed to get on track offensively this year.

Steve Clarke:  “When you lose Kain Colter and Venric Mark, it has absolutely devastates the offense because the threat of the speed option and the running game kept defenses honest against them.  They had just enough talent at quarterback and just enough at wide receiver.  When you look at it, Trevor Siemian versus Kain Colter, there was no question that it was Kain Colter.  The problem was that Colter wasn’t much of a passing threat.  So Siemian would come in there, Colter would move to running back and the defenses didn’t know exactly what to prepare for, which is what makes it easier.  If you don’t have that speed option threat any more than you can just bear down on Siemian and make things difficult.  It is that analogy, play in basketball, if a guy can shoot from three point land, but he can’t dribble drive, then just guard him real close and put a hand in his face.  But if a guy can dribble drive, you can’t get with doing that.  It is the same thing with a dribble drive guy who can’t shoot.  You got a dribble drive guy, just give him all the space in the world and let him hit some bricks.”

Sam Webb:  When you look at their offense, you say they struggle or they are struggling… what do they do well?  Who do you circle if you’re a defensive coordinator and say that’s the guy to be concerned with?  Is there anyone that jumps like that and what do they do well?

Steve Clarke:  “Well the emergence of Justin Jackson is what is what they’re looking at right now.  He’s getting close to basically being a 100 yard per game guy.  He had 96 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown last week.  The thing about Northwestern’s touchdown last week, that came off of a muffed punt from Iowa deep in their own territory.  Otherwise that game would have been a complete shutout.  Justin Jackson is the one guy that they’re pointing to, but the receiving threats are really not there for the Wildcats.  The super back, Dan Vitale…the super back position at Northwestern is basically what Justice Hayes does.  He comes in on third down, he can take a pass out of the backfield and run with it.  Dan Vitale has been there a long time and he can do a few things, but there just isn’t a whole lot offensively for Northwestern at this point.”

Sam Webb:  Let’s switch to the other side of the ball, there was some optimism about some young talent rising to the fore on the defensive side.  It doesn’t jump out at you in a 40 point loss, but what do you see on the defensive side of the ball for Northwestern.

Steve Clarke:  “You’ve always got Traeveon Henry and Nick VanHoose, in the secondary Ibraheim Campbell has been dealing with some injuries and that may be one of the reasons that Northwestern has been giving up some points.  He has been trying to get it in.  It doesn’t look like he’ll be able to make it back.  I’m not exactly sure how that is going to go for him.  Over on the linebacking side, you’ve always got Chi Ariguzo who makes some plays on the defense.  He’s a good run stopper, can intercept the ball.  Then you’ve got some guys on the front end, but there are some hits and misses with the young talent that they’ve had over the defensive end spots.”

Sam Webb:  The two guys I was thinking about in the secondary Godwin Igwebuike and then Ifeadi Odenigbo. Those are two guys that were pretty heavily recruited.  They were two guys that Michigan had been recruiting as well and wonder if those are guys that have made noise this year.  Odenigbo is supposed to be a pass rush extraordinaire and then Godwin is a guy who could play corner or safety.  I remember him having a few interceptions in a game earlier this season, but obviously those types of showings have been few and far between for Northwestern this year. 

Steve Clarke:  “The thing about the defensive end is that he has not been doing well in the run game.  He’s been benched a little bit and that has been a topic of conversation with Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern Wildcats and why he isn’t playing much.  It’s one of those things that you need to be honest and say something because it isn’t necessarily clear to the people who are covering it.  You can do well on one area and aspect of the ball, but not well on the other and that’s kind of what is keeping them out of games right now.  Another guy who may miss out and this could be big is senior linebacker Connor Ellis, who has been out several weeks with a concussion.  He is still considered week-to-week and Fitzgerald admitted on Monday that it is not likely that he will play.”

Sam Webb:  Handicap it for Michigan. I believe Northwestern started out the contest as a two point favorite, I don’t know if that still holds, but do you think that line is right.

Steve Clarke:  “Dead even teams right now Sam.  Northwestern scores the least in the Big Ten, that’s sort of Michigan’s trouble as well.  They’re both tied for worse in total yards.  Northwestern has the worse in passing efficiency.  The one thing Northwestern does have a big advantage over Michigan is the turnover margin.  Wildcats are +5, Michigan is -13, by far the worst in the Big Ten.  When you go back over the history, the last three games have kind of gone up in the air.  Back in 2011 over at Northwestern, Denard took over in the second half and came back from a 10 point halftime deficit.  In the previous two matches in 2012 at home and 2013 on the road, they both went into overtime.  I think this particular game could look a lot like last year’s game with the offense’s struggling.  The game is being played in November.  I thought in 2013 Michigan actually had won of their first few running games in that one.  De’Veon Smith was able to burst in a few and maybe that will be him, maybe that will Drake Johnson, may be able to get some running plays in chunks that they haven’t normally been able to get this year and last year.  The one thing that comes to my mind if you are a Northwestern person is all the dropped interceptions they had last year against Devin Gardner.  Northwestern had 10 pass breakups in the game and at least half of those were interceptions that didn’t go off diving fingertips.  They went off palms of the hands of the Northwestern players.  Northwestern went into the game last year tied in the nation for first in interceptions and dropped at least five of them.  If you imagine that they pulled down a couple that would have been a completely different ballgame than Michigan getting the last second field goal to end regulation in a 9-9 tie and ended up going into overtime.  I think a big key for them is Northwestern putting pressure on Devin Gardner force him to make mistakes and hang onto the ball with those interceptions and bad passes come.”   

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