Collin Ellis is still watching tape from 2012.
"I looked back on the film from last year, and I didn't like the way I played," Ellis told PurpleWildcats.com. "I'm tired of losing."
Northwestern's lost seven of its last eight games against the Wolverines and have just four wins against them since 1965. Perhaps the worst of those losses came in last year's overtime thriller, where Roy Roundtree came down with a last-second Hail Mary to keep Michigan alive. Though that 2012 team was lead by Denard Robinson, the Cats were the hosts of Devin Gardner's coming out party.
This year's Wolverines aren't nearly as formidable; with a combined eight conference losses between the two teams, Saturday's game won't mean much to the rest of the Big Ten. But for a Northwestern team that's disastrously failed to meet its own expectations, getting revenge on Michigan can give the season an upbeat ending.
"Coach Fitz says the hardest thing you'll ever do is win a Big Ten football game. We're learning that the hard way this year," Ellis said. "We're really focused on this week."
Making a spot start for Robinson, Gardner didn't do much damage through the air, completing just 55 percent of his throws and tossing an interception. Instead, he caused problems in the running game, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and rushing for two touchdowns. If the Wildcats have a shot at slowing Gardner down, he'll have to be held within the tackles.
Pat Fitzgerald noted Gardner's double-pump moves and praised Michigan's vertical passing game, but when asked how to stop a Michigan offense averaging more than 35 points a game, his answer was brief.
"We've got to make sure we control the quarterback run game," he said Wednesday. "We can't let [Gardner] get going. We've got to get him off his tracks."
The task falls to Northwestern's front seven, which has made drastic improvements over the past few weeks and is finally getting healthy after the bye week. Ellis stressed the importance of patience with defending Gardner, something this unit has been excellent with since the Minnesota game.
"You have to contain and hit gaps. If you don't hit them, you can get sprung right there," Ellis said. "We can't give him any outlets. He'll take off."
A conservative front seven and an emphasis on gap defense does open the door for deep passes; top Wolverine receivers Jeremy Gallon, Devin Funchess and Jehu Chesson are each averaging more than 17 yards a catch this season. But Ellis and Fitzgerald are confident that if Gardner is contained, Northwestern can control the pace of the game, something it hasn't done since nonconference play.
You can't blame Collin Ellis for being tired of losing. To right the ship and get back on pace for bowl eligibility, he and the Wildcats will have to avoid a historically common loss.