"We're excited to get back home, only our second home game of the year," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. "We've been on the road for three out of our first four weeks. It's been a tremendous challenge for us. There's been some good and bad but we're definitely battle tested and ready to get home and play in front of our students. It's going to be fun to be on BTN (Big Ten Network), primetime television, and obviously against an outstanding opponent."
At 2-2 and 0-1 in the Big 10, the Wildcats want to avoid falling to 2-3 for the first time since starting 2-3 in 2007. The Wildcats are still hurting from last week's emotional 38-35 loss at Illinois. Northwestern led 28-10 late in the third quarter before allowing the Illini to score 28 points in the last 19 minutes.
Before the Wildcats figure out a way to stop Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, they must concentrate on finding some capable replacements.
Quarterback Dan Persa returned to the field in the Illinois loss, but left the game with a right foot injury. Persa is scheduled to start against the Wolverines, but don't be surprised if backup Kain Colter gets some snaps. Persa looked sharp against the Illini, completing 10-of-14 passes for 123 yards and four touchdowns.
"Dan Persa worked out (on Monday) and was great, so we expect him to be great on Saturday," Fitzgerald said. "He's ready to go. He was running around great. He's coming off a minor injury, and when he gets a little dinged up, we're going to err on the side of being smart."
The Wildcats suffered a key loss when tailback Mike Trumpy was ruled out for the season after tearing his left ACL. Trumpy led the Wildcats with an average of 5.2 yards per rush, ranking second on the team with 182 yards in three games. Treyvon Green, Adonis Smith and Jacob Schmidt will shoulder the rushing load.
"Well losing Mike, it's tough for him individually, you never like to see anybody get injured. It was non-contact, stuck his foot in the ground and tried to change direction," Fitzgerald said. "It's unfortunate to see that. I still thought we ran the ball pretty well when Mike wasn't in there. I liked the way that Treyvon Green ran the football. Jacob Schmidt has been a tough guy and now with Adonis coming on and getting back off of injury-same thing with Tyris (Jones). We've got four guys there that have been involved in a lot of games, but I thought Treyvon played pretty well on Saturday for a young guy. It's so nice to have him out there. I'd love to be able to tell you which knee (is injured on Trumpy). He has two, it's right or left, not sure which one. I believe it's his left."
Any chance at pulling an upset over Michigan on Saturday night hinges on stopping Robinson. The junior is the main reason the Wolverines have won their first five games, including a 58-0 victory over Minnesota last week. The Wildcats must repeat last year's effort against the Wolverines, when they posted a 21-14 win by forcing a pair of turnovers and limiting Michigan to 83 passing yards. The Wolverines, led by Robinson, average 293 yards rushing per game.
"There's no question he's a special player," Fitzgerald said of Robinson. "Denard's a Heisman Trophy candidate for a reason. He is explosive with his legs, he's made great decisions this year, from what I've seen on tape, with throwing the football. He's a difference-maker no matter when he touches the ball. You've got to be disciplined with what you do and then you've got to incorporate some other guys. You've got to have multiple sets of eyes on him. You can't just expect your front four, if you drop eight, to have just three. He's going to take too much advantage of it. It comes down to discipline, and I thought we did a pretty good job on Saturday, except for a couple of mental errors."
—The Michigan game marks Northwestern's first contest of the year against a Legends Division opponent.
—The Wildcats rank second nationally in fewest turnovers lost with two. Northwestern is one of 16 FBS teams in the country that have thrown one or fewer interceptions this season.
—WR Jeremy Ebert, the school's active leading receiver with 1,570 career receiving yards, ranks third on Northwestern's all-time touchdown receiving list with 15 after catching three touchdown passes at Illinois last week.
—DE Vince Browne had one of Northwestern's four sacks last week. Browne has 18 career sacks to rank tied for eighth among active FBS players.
SERIES HISTORY: Michigan leads Northwestern 52-15-2 (last meeting, 21-14, NU).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Northwestern offense welcomed back the return of quarterback Dan Persa last week against Illinois. Persa missed the first three games after rupturing his Achilles' tendon last year. Persa threw four touchdown passes, but left the game in the fourth quarter as a precautionary method after experiencing pain in his right foot. Persa is cleared to play this week against Michigan. Backup Kain Colter leads the team with 266 yards rushing and scored four touchdowns, while passing for 427 yards and one touchdown.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Wildcats had seven tackles for losses last week at Illinois, but allowed 28 points in the final 19 minutes to spoil a 28-10 lead. The Wildcats have relied on a solid pass rush, moving into 31st nationally after registering four sacks last week. The Wildcats average 2.5 sacks per game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's good to be home. We've been on the road forever. We've been on the road more than any other Big Ten team. Meet our fans, meet our students, it's going to be great to be in front of the class of 2015 for the first time. I was talking to Ron Zook before the game, and they hadn't been on the road yet, in Champaign, and it's a huge advantage. It's just a quirk in the scheduling this year where we've been on the road so much. You'd like to avoid it if you can but we're battle tested, there's no doubt about that. We've been in three dogfights, unfortunately we've come up on the short end of a couple of them. We've got a confident football team, we know how close we are, we've got the right pieces of the puzzle." – Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: No. 12 Michigan at Northwestern, Oct. 8 — The Wildcats are seeking their second straight win over the Wolverines. Northwestern has played one home game this year, back on Sept. 10 against Eastern Illinois. The Wildcats play their first-ever game against a team from the newly named Legends Division.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Stop Denard Robinson. Make that slow down Denard Robinson. The Wildcats will try and follow last year's formula against the Wolverines by forcing them to pass the ball by obtaining an early lead. The Wildcats must not allow Robinson to get out of the pocket and scramble for big gains. Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa will attempt to spread out Michigan's defense, exposing some weak areas with his experience.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Dan Persa — Expected to play after leaving in the fourth quarter last week at Illinois. Persa is one of the best quarterbacks in the conference. The Wildcats need his experience against a talented Michigan squad.
LB David Nwabuisi — The starting middle linebacker will hone on Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, attempting to keep him from running wild.
RB Jacob Schmidt — One of a group of players called on to carry the rushing load with a season-ending injury to Mike Trumpy.
—RB Mike Trumpy was ruled out for the season after tearing his left ACL.
—QB Dan Persa is expected to start after leaving last week's game at Illinois in the fourth quarter with a right foot injury.