With Michigan State's defense looking like the best unit in the country, Northwestern has one final chance to lean towards bowl eligibility. The Wildcats host another disappointing team on Saturday, as Michigan somehow trails Minnesota and Iowa in the Big Ten standings.
Both teams have underachieved. Both teams have porous offensive lines. Both teams hold senior quarterbacks whose careers are bleeding to an end. But on Saturday, NU can pull off what should be considered an upset, and Michigan can begin salvaging its own pathetic season.
NU's bye week, though, arrived at an opportune moment — anything in the past month might have qualified. After losing five consecutive games, the Wildcats made an effort to heal. Tyler Scott, Dean Lowry, Tony Jones and Nick VanHoose should all be fine.
The program gained much-needed momentum when Pat Fitzgerald announced Tuesday that Venric Mark will seek a medical hardship waiver and fifth season. For now, NU fans will need to respect guys–especially Scott and Colter–whose careers are nearly over.
On last year
Last year's game held different stakes. Then at 7-2, Northwestern traveled to Ann Arbor looking to build on its No. 24 ranking. The Wildcats seized a three-point lead with four minutes remaining, and after a Demetrius Dugar interception, regained possession and gained a crucial first down. When they punted, things fell apart.
Instead of fulfilling the instruction to kick the ball out of bounds, Brandon Williams punted directly to Jeremy Gallon — who returned the ball 23 yards and gave Michigan a hope of completing a desperation Hail Mary pass. So the Wolverines did: Gardner-to-Roundtree for 53 yards. Brendan Gibbons converted the 26-yard field goal and Michigan eventually won in overtime.
Still, the Wildcats are frustrated with their futility against Michigan. Collin Ellis told Steven Goldstein of PurpleWildcats.com that he "didn't like the way he played" in last year's edition. Last year's tape may serve as motivation for more than one player; it would be quite the "revenge" game for Northwestern, though they'd never really admit it.
On the running backs
They're generally back. Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy will lead the rushing attack in Evanston, with Malin Jones preparing to step in for a handful of carries. Green's quietly had an exceptional season, and might be hurt most by Mark's return. (He would clearly have started in his senior year.) Regardless, he's got an outside chance at reaching the 1,000-yard mark despite injuries — needing about 130 yards per game.
Mike Trumpy, meanwhile, could use a positive conclusion to his career after his disaster in Iowa. Trumpy had two costly fumbles during the loss: "When you're faced with adversity, you have to have to a positive attitude," he said in very Northwestern fashion. He'll be the unquestioned number two given that Mark and Stephen Buckley are out for the season.
Is he the same quarterback? That's been the fair question during the bye week. Northwestern's option 1-b did enough in his career to earn trust, but much of that eroded when he lost mental focus. Thrust into the starter's role (alone) against Minnesota, he tossed two awful interceptions and began wilting in the face of constant pressure.
Right now, though, he's fighting for his job next year. In my opinion, offensive coordinator Mick McCall has every reason to give freshman Matt Alviti a chance. Siemian needs to show off his actual, real-life offseason improvements, like better precision throws to the outside and enhanced mobility. Not only that, Siemian was the reason NU pulled ahead in so many key games last year. They need him to get going, quickly.