Last week:"Denard will play. Don't you trust me, guys?"
Time: 12 ET (ESPN)
Place: Michigan Stadium--Ann Arbor, MI
Line: Michigan -9.5
Mood: Let's take care of business, eh?
This season, like every one before it, has sped on without your consent, like a city bus driver who sees you running up to door outside buts pull away anyway.
After a second trip up in Iowa City last season, the Wolverines entered the final triumvirate of games (Illinois, Nebraska and Ohio State) with a lot at stake and many questions left unanswered. Would the Wolverines be able to shake their offensive struggles on the road to get the win against a defensively solid Illini team? What about Nebraska? I also heard that there was some sort of looming streak against the Buckeyes that needed to be taken care of that definitely hadn't constantly been on all of our minds.
The circumstances this time around aren't exactly the same. Michigan rolls into this stretch with one more loss than they had at this point last season, this year's Iowa team is probably the weakest of either trio of opponents in question (i.e. last three games of 2011 and 2012) and the Wolverines get a much better Ohio State team on the road.
As a relatively new student at Northwestern, I took it upon myself to, you know, pay attention to Northwestern football. I watched most of--and in some cases, all (!)--the Wildcats' first five games, but I admittedly haven't been able to keep up from the Penn State game onward. So, a decent percentage of the things I will write here are colored significantly by watching them in September, FWIW.
Brady Hoke will continue to say things regarding Denard's status, but it's pretty clear at this point that Hoke is the Mozart of the trolling craft (yes, you the annoyed fan are indeed Salieri in this ridiculous analogy). With that said, I'm going to remain under the assumption that Devin Gardner will start until proven otherwise, which should happen at right around 11:59 a.m. ET on Saturday.
Northwestern has actually been pretty tough defensively this season, particularly against the run, which is bad news for a Michigan team that hasn't gotten much of a non-Denard ground game going against anybody this season. If Denard goes, this concern is mitigated, but that is, in fact, an "if." Northwestern sits at a respectable 43rd in defensive S&P+; of course, they are 49th in pass defense S&P+, 35th against the pass, furthering my already extensive confusion vis-a-vis the world of ADVANCED STATZ.
DC Mike Hankwitz has done a good job molding this defense into a solid run D outfit, headlined by its three linebackers, Damien Proby, Brian Nwabuisi, and the spectacularly named Chi Chi Ariguzo. Before I move on, I just want to note that Mike Hankwitz basically is Heisenberg, you guys:
Maybe we should not mess with this guy. (HT: nusports.com)
The Wildcats have had capable linebackers in the past, including some guy named Pat Fitzgerald, so it's no surprise that that is the case now. Proby and Nwabuisi lead the team in tackles (86 and 75, respectively) and Ariguzo and safety Ibraheim "Guy You Probably Know From Reading Preseason Preview Magazines" Campbell are tied at third with 67 each. That is the sign of a good run defense.
The Cats have given up 41 on the road at Syracuse, 39 at Penn State, 29 against Nebraska in a pseudo-home game and had a rough second half against Indiana (albeit one that featured an IU kickoff return for a TD from Tevin Coleman), with the Hoosiers finishing with 29 after backup Nate Sudfeld had taken over at quarterback. Otherwise, the Northwestern D has generally put the clamps down on most teams, although none of those teams are very good at the offense thing.
Unfortunately, Michigan has been debatably good on that front as well. However, this defense isn't Alabama's or Notre Dame's, obviously. For a point of reference, Iowa sits at 45th in def. S&P+, two spots behind NU.
As you'd expect, the weak link in this defense is the secondary. Campbell, to quote Hoke, is a "guy who can do some things," but he can't do it alone. Redshirt freshman corner Nick VanHoose has shown promise at times but has also been picked on at various points; the same applies for Stanford grad transfer Quinn Evans. However, the two didn't play two weeks ago against Iowa after VanHoose suffered a shoulder injury and Evans an ankle injury against Nebraska the week before. Playing backups at both corner spots against Iowa, the Wildcats made it okay, giving up only 17 points against an Iowa offense that has been absolutely disastrous minus Mark Weisman's TRUE GRIT.
As of a few days ago, it seems that VanHoose and Evans will both go Saturday.
To make a long story short, Northwestern will generally look to contain Denard and hope he doesn't complete any bombs deep like he did last season. This generally worked during the first half last season, when Denard tossed three picks. Given what we saw from Gardner last week, the Wildcats might not be in a much better position if he ends up starting.
This is the type of game that probably keeps Borges up the night before. I'm talking about the "night before the first game of the season excitement" sort of restlessness and not the "OH GOD I HAVE TO DO THIS AGAIN I HAVE A LINE MADE OF OFFICE SUPPLIES AND EVERYBODY HATES ME NO MATTER WHAT AHHH" kind.
Michigan will likely get off to a slow start again as it finds its bearings and establishes a non-zero threat to run. Once that happens, look for Borges to initiate "RexGrossmanGameplanGOINGDEEP.exe."
As frustrating as it has been to talk about the offense, the defense has been like a ceaseless ray of sunshine. Michigan is truly #blessed to have a DC like Greg Mattison, no question Jim.
The Wildcats have been a shifting amorphous blob of an offense, particularly at quarterback, but it would seem that they have decided to roll with Kain Colter full-time. Pocket passing freshman Trevor Siemian got some serious run early in the season, with Colter serving as a Wildcat (literally) QB/WR. Siemian attempted only one pass against Iowa, and the 'Cats only threw the ball 10 times total. That's "Big Ten football at its best."*
But wait, it's not, because Northwestern is decidedly a run-based spread outfit. The 'Cats are 13th in rushing yardage per game (236 per) and 113th in passing (162 per). If you have watched Northwestern play for even five minutes this season, this is probably not a surprise to you.
Colter is not Denard when it comes to top-end speed, but in the context of a read-option offense, that's not necessarily the most important thing. Colter, as I mentioned earlier in the season, has a particular set of skills. Of those skills,
The Wildcats have managed a 61:41 run-pass split to date. Complementing Colter's zone read sorcery is diminutive tailback Venric Mark, who has honestly been one of the most exciting players in the country. He is a threat to break a big play at almost any time. Mark has racked up 910 yards with a nice and shiny 6.1 YPC.
The Wildcats do in fact have some capable receivers, even if Kyle Prater hasn't turned out to be the instantly impactful guy that NU fans were hoping. The quartet of Tony Jones, Demetrius Fields, Rashad Lawrence and Christian Jones all have similar numbers (200s in yardage, 0-2 TDs each). The Wildcats don't pass much though, especially with Colter taking almost all of the snaps.
Michigan shut down a run-based Minnesota team last week and did a pretty solid job against Nebraska (up until the very end) despite have an offense about as effective as one composed of 11 boxes of Cheerios. Washington and Campbell should be able to get a little push up the middle when NU does pass or run little isos and draws out of the shotgun.
Where Michigan can get beat, on occasion, is on the edges. With Colter and Mark's general jukability, Michigan's edge defenders will need to be vigilant. Even the glorious Jake Ryan has had lapses on the edge this season, although they've been relatively infrequent occurrences. So, this game will basically come down to how Michigan responds in these situations.
*Hey BTN, if you haven't trademarked this yet then I hereby claim it. I'm pretty sure this is how copyright law works, right?
Simply put, Michigan needs: a) no costly derps from Gallon and b) a not terrible performance from Hagerup, especially since I get the feeling that Michigan will get off to a slow start again on offense.
From the Northwestern side, Mark is also a special teams dynamo. He's been okay on kicks, but on punts he has picked up two touchdowns in 10 returns, with an average of 25 yards per. Dear Michigan ST guys: lanes, get to them!
Oh, also, kicker Jeff Budzien is 11/12 on the year with a long of 44, in addition to being perfect on extra points. He's a dependable guy who should be able to chip in some points when Northwestern drives stall.
Predictions of Negligible Worth
Gardner's performance last week was undoubtedly a jolt of confidence for the jittery post-Denard injury Michigan fan. Yes, it was just Minnesota, but Gardner looked far more capable than he has at any point in his career; I truly believe all the talk that his time at receiver helped him last week.
Defensively, I just see a fairly one-dimensional--albeit talented and dangerous--Northwestern offense, and Greg Mattison has dreams about those sorts of things. Colter and Mark are good enough that they will find their way onto the second level from time to time, but I don't believe that this is the week that Michigan starts giving up multiple big plays.
This will come down to Jake Ryan maintaining his level of play to date and Michigan's corners, namely J.T. Floyd, bringing the appropriate support on edge runs and screens. If all goes according to plan, Northwestern will be forced to execute several grinding drives; if this happens, I'm willing to bet that at least one or two of those ends in a field goal or no points at all.
To be quite honest, I'm not sweating the whole "will he or won't he play" re: Denard. If he plays, everything will be fine and dandy and Michigan will actually have a running game. If Devin is in, assuming last week wasn't a mirage, Michigan should be more than fine. He has the arm to test Northwestern's corners deep, and he should be able to pick up some more yardage on the ground a la last week when the first couple of reads aren't there.
Northwestern will keep it close throughout. This might be the strongest defensive front seven the 'Cats have fielded in some time, and Michigan's interior OL hasn't shown the ability to dominate anybody on a consistent basis all year, let alone against solid to pretty good fronts.
Colter can make some plays through the air, but I don't know that Northwestern will really try all that much. Barring a complete defensive implosion, Michigan should hold Northwestern to around 20 points, give or take. I'm thinking that we get an encore performance of last week's game: rough beginning, triumphant middle, medals being handed out on Endor in the end.
Score: Michigan 31, Northwestern 17.