Game Preview


Ryan Field
Saturday, October 8, 2011.  6:00 pm CDT
ESPN 1000 AM Chicago Radio 

Game Preview: Michigan
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (2-2, 0-1) head home to Evanston for what should be one of the best atmospheres of the season as the No. 11 (Coaches)/12 (AP) Michigan Wolverines (5-0, 1-0) head on the road for the first time this season in a Big Ten Legends Division matchup. The 'Cats know that they had a great opportunity to knock off a ranked opponent on the road last week, while Michigan will be tested for just the second time this season (the first being their miraculous comeback win over Notre Dame). Both teams have huge strengths on offense, starting at the quarterback position, while also carrying question marks on defense and special teams.

If you're looking for a potential barn-burner, look no further, with the Coaches' pick for 2010 all-Big Ten first team QB Dan Persa facing off with the 2010 Big Ten offensive player of the year QB Denard Robinson. Both of them have a number of weapons at their disposal on offense: primarily receivers, but both teams also have some shifty running backs that can do damage, particularly if the focus is not on them. On the other side of the ball, NU obviously got dinged badly through the air last week, while Michigan was gauged to the tune of 513 yards of total offense by Notre Dame (with their only saving grace being 3 Notre Dame turnovers, 2 of which were in the red zone). Fans will certainly be hungry for some offense after these teams scored a combined 93 points in last week's games.

In terms of the overall season, the Wildcats will be looking to avoid their first losing record since almost exactly four years ago (October 5, 2007, when NU was 2-3 before rattling off three consecutive wins) and deliver on what looked like a promising season with Persa at the helm of a senior-laden offense. On the other side of the ball, though, Michigan will be looking to prove that it is for real and deserves its high ranking while also establishing themselves as the team to beat in the Legends Division. There will be no real shortage of storylines here in what looks to be an intriguing battle that features two of the best quarterbacks in the conference.

Opening Line

Michigan by 6.

Who Should Win


The Wolverines are rolling in at 5-0, ranked in the top 15 in both major polls, and are scoring points at an impressive clip (37.2 points per game) while the defense looks like it has finally come around (ranking fourth nationally, yielding 10.3 points per game and coming off of their first Big Ten shutout on defense since 2001). They are of course led by Heisman Candidate Denard Robinson, who averages 313 yards of total offense per game this season and can do amazing things with his feet (he still leads the conference in rushing with 139.3 yards per game on the ground). With them running on all cylinders on both sides of the ball, Northwestern certainly faces an uphill battle.

Upset Factor

Last week, Northwestern showed that it can play with anyone, especially with Dan Persa at the helm. If the Wildcats can somehow fix their pass coverage (which would seem difficult to do after last week's debacle, in which they yielded 391 yards through the air, 218 of which came in the second half), the strategy they employed against Illinois would seem to work well in this game, given that the 'Cats yielded under 100 net rushing yards; if NU can force Robinson into uncomfortable passing situations, it may yield good results for the Wildcats. But, in reality, Northwestern's best chance for a win is what they tried to do last week: score a bunch of points and slow down the opponent with some takeaways (NU won the turnover battle 3-0 last week); NU's chances will certainly be better if Persa can remain in for the entire game.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Michigan Defense

Hopefully, the Northwestern offense can pick up where it left off (when Dan Persa left the Illinois game) after putting up 28 points in a little under two quarters when Persa looked like his old self. As stated prior to last week's game, Persa certainly provides a boost to the offense, and that was clearly evident in the game; despite throwing for just 123 yards, Dan had a whopping 4 TDs (a career record), and would finish with seven consecutive completions after missing on his first two pass attempts. With the rust shaken off and with some experience with the pain that should be expected in his condition, he should be good to go for the whole Michigan game, and he'll certainly be needed.

It will be very interesting to see how OC Mick McCall calls this game; he was derided by many Northwestern fans after a run-heavy performance last week (the 'Cats had just 16 pass attempts on the day, or just 29.9% of snaps,with 4 sacks included) given that Persa was back and passing is obviously a strength of this team with the experienced and talented WR corps coupled with Persa's accuracy. On the season, NU is running the ball 66.3% of the time (not including sacks), which seemed reasonable against lesser competition and with Colter at the helm, who is certainly a less polished passer and has good running ability.

Meanwhile, it's also clear that McCall would like to protect Persa as much as possible; Dan was sacked four times by Illinois, and came out of the game after the final sack (he ran the ball five other times including a few that looked to be blown-up passing plays). If Northwestern can maintain a respectable running game (which they seem to be doing, averaging 4.6 yards per carry when removing sacks), then they can keep the opposing defense honest and prevent them from full-out pass rushing Persa (this clearly appeared to be the plan against Illinois, particularly very early in the game and after NU had built its lead in the third quarter). But, the fact is that this type of offense won't be able to put up enough points to keep pace with Denard Robinson (which seems to be the theme in this game).

One doesn't need to dwell too long on NU's wide receiver weapons, led by Jeremy Ebert who has 5 TD grabs this year, as they will most certainly deliver if passes are dialed up by McCall. In terms of running backs, Northwestern's most explosive option, Mike Trumpy, unfortunately tore his ACL (knee) and will be out for the remainder of the year. But the other options at RB aren't too bad: Treyvon Green, Adonis Smith (who got just one carry last week as he was returning from an ankle injury that had him held out at Army), and Jacob Schmidt (primarily a short yardage/pass blocking/receiving back who did a good job in those roles last game). And the wild card, if you will, is Kain Colter, who will continue to have some role in the offense either as a slotback or behind center in place of Persa (both were tried against Illinois). Colter may very well be NU's most explosive running threat at this point, so look for him to get some touches here and down the stretch.

Final note on the NU offense is to pay attention to one oft-overlooked area, and that is the OL. They have looked good at times this year, but have also failed at other times, like during NU's current two-game losing streak in which they failed to open many running holes against Army and allowed pressure to get to the QB at Illinois. Having Persa back there certainly helped (he scrambled away from pressure either to avoid a sack or get a pass off multiple times), but they will have to hold back the tide, especially if McCall leans on the pass button going forward. NU's 2.5 sack per game average (tied for 89th nationally) won't cut it. One thing that will help in this game is that Michigan hasn't generated a whole lot of QB pressure this year, averaging just 1.25 sacks per game (93rd nationally).

On the other side, Michigan has a rejuvenated defense thanks to the addition of DC Greg Mattison and moving back to the reliable 4-3 defense (instead of the 3-3-5 that Rich Rodriguez seemingly preferred despite the fact that Michigan had few to no good defensive backs during his time there). The aforementioned scoring defense number (10.3 points per game, fourth nationally) is about as solid as one can get, and they haven't allowed a score for five quarters running. Their best player may be 304-lb. senior DT Mike Martin who holds down things in the middle, who has certainly given LB Kenny Demens opportunity to make tackles this season (he leads the Wolverines with 35).

A key to their defense this year has been gaining turnovers; they are tied for 12th nationally with 12 turnovers this season (which does not include another 3 in the Western Michigan game since that contest was called early due to weather and the stats don't count nationally): 4 INTs and a whopping 11 recovered fumbles. And returning three of those takeaways directly for touchdowns has certainly helped matters. Northwestern can definitely help its cause by protecting the football, which it has done a great job of this season having only one giveaway and not giving up the football in 14 consecutive quarters.

All of the gaudy defensive statistics don't mean that the Wolverines are not vulnerable: they have given up 325.5 yards per game (32nd nationally) and were particularly generous against some of the better offenses they faced (the aforementioned 513 yards yielded to ND along with 376 from San Diego St.). The Wildcats will almost definitely move the ball, and as long as they can continue protecting the football, they will likely be able to put points on the board (with many thanks to Dan Persa, or course) and hopefully keep pace. Also, it wouldn't hurt NU to play "keep away" with some of its infamous methodical drives given Michigan's offensive fire power detailed below.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Michigan Offense

If Northwestern is going to pull off the upset, here is how they will have to do it. Somehow, the 'Cats must contain the nation's most electric player, Denard Robinson, who can obviously hurt teams on the ground (he's fourth nationally in rushing yards per game, has 6 TDs on the ground, and averages 7.8 yards per carry) but also does a good bit of damage through the air (almost 160 yards per game passing with 8 TDs this season). With teams obviously keying to stop him on the ground, the most dangerous play is when he feigns the run and pulls back to pass where he quite often finds a wide open receiver behind the defense. And all of this goes without mentioning some of the other weapons they have: RBs Fitzgerald Toussaint, Vincent Smith, and Michael Shaw are all averaging over 6 yards per carry this season, while WRs Roy Roundtree, Kelvin Grady, and Junior Hemingway are experienced receivers who can do plenty of damage, especially with the defense worried about the run.

Like the offense, it will be interesting to see what strategy DC Mike Hankwitz employs to try and contain the Michigan offense. It would seem logical that the 'Cats use a strategy similar to last week where they held the Illini in check on the ground (3.1 yards per carry for just 107 rushing yards after removing sacks), but after seeing Illinois torch the secondary throughout the second half, NU may rethink that strategy. But, that's likely what they'll have to stick to given that Michigan's ground game is so dangerous, and they'll have to look at Robinson's passing numbers (54.9% completion rate and 6 INTs) and hope that he makes mistakes in the air. The one good note coming out of last week is that some of the less experienced defensive backs were the main cause of the problems (redshirt freshman S Ibraheim Campbell and first year starter CB Jeravin Matthews who switched to the position mid-career), and this week's practices will certainly provide the opportunity to correct some of those issues.

Fitz provided some additional motivation for these guys, though, by putting two guys directly behind Campbell on the depth chart: the more experienced Jared Carpenter and sophomore Davion Fleming (this is the only position on this week's two-deep with three players listed). He also called out the secondary in this week's press conference where he inferred that if performances like last week continue he will make personnel changes. Northwestern's only chance in this game will to get better play from the entire secondary (since it only takes one breakdown to make the whole unit look bad) with the front seven being almost exclusively dedicated to stopping the run.

I haven't spent much time on the numbers for good reason: the 'Cats aren't so hot on D (80th or lower nationally in rush defense, pass defense, pass efficiency defense, and total defense and 55th in scoring defense, likely thanks to a positive turnover ratio), while Michigan is tearing it up on offense (in the top 20 in rushing offense, total offense, and scoring offense). A lot of that can be explained by "explosion plays," in this case plays of 30+ yards: the Northwestern defense has yielded 13 such plays so far this season (worst in the conference) while the Wolverines have gained 16 such plays on offense (best in the conference). Four 30+ yard plays were given up to Illinois last week, which was a big reason that they were able to come back from such a deficit. The Wildcats must find a way to prevent these breakdowns if they are to have a chance against Denard and company: if they can somehow force them to methodically drive down the field, there will certainly be more opportunities for errors (Michigan ranks 59th nationally with 8 turnovers lost).

It seems like an almost insurmountable challenge, but the fact is that last week the defense did fairly well outside of a few blatant breakdowns in the secondary that cost NU the game. If they can correct some of those, which are likely as simple as improved communication, which Fitz emphasized in his press conference, things can certainly get better. Michigan will get yards and points with Robinson leading the way, but the D only needs to generate a few big stops and/or takeaways to turn the tide in NU's favor.

What to Look for: Special Teams

Northwestern may have a special teams advantage here; a few weeks ago I would have said definitely, but Jeff Budzien followed up a make on his first collegiate FG try with two misses (including an inexplicable miss inside of 30 yards at Army) while Brandon Williams is having a lot of trouble with short kicks (three at Illinois were for less than 30 yards, including an 11-yarder; though it is worth noting that the wind forced many rugby-style punts). Both of them looked good coming into the year and they are certainly capable of returning to that form (Williams' final punt was a nice booming kick that went 65 yards and forced Illinois to start deep in their own end).

On the other side of the ball, Michigan is still not completely sure about its placekicker: Brendan Gibbons has been alright so far this year (4-of-5 on FGs and perfect on 20 XPs) but last year he hit on just 1-of-5 FG tries and also missed an XP; true freshman Matt Wile (who handles kickoffs) is listed as the co-placekicker. Punter Will Hagerup is respectable (but no Zoltan Mesko), with Michigan a middle-of-the-pack 50th in net punting. Both teams have certainly had their issues in the kicking game and neither team looks like it can rely on this area for an advantage.

Now, where NU certainly has an edge is the return game, thanks to Venric Mark. The 'Cats rank eight nationally in punt returns (17.3 yards per return), which looks even better considering how bad NU was in that area before Mark's arrival. Michigan is 45th nationally in punt return defense. And on kickoffs, Northwestern ranks 32nd (23.3 yards per return) while the Wolverines are 34th in kick return defense. Once again, this will be a great opportunity for Venric to be a spark for the 'Cats, especially with conditions likely to be better than the windy Illinois game.

On the flip side, the 'Cats' coverage teams are excellent, ranking 11th nationally in punt return defense and 10th against kick returns. Michigan is not overly impressive in either category, ranking 59th on punt returns and a measly 108th on kick returns. Northwestern's edge in the return game is an edge that the 'Cats need to exploit, particularly to provide a counter-punch to Michigan's explosive offense.

Miscellaneous Notes

Ryan Field Sellouts & Night Games

The game is listed as a sellout (with Northwestern having held back only limited seats for season ticket sales), which will make it Northwestern's third sellout in the last four games (counting the Wrigley Field game). Since 2000, this would be NU's seventh sellout at Ryan Field, and the 'Cats are 3-3 in those previous games (including wins over Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa).

This also marks the 13th true night game in Ryan Field/Dyche Stadium, which have included some memorable games (2004 win over OSU), and some not-so-memorable ones (last year's loss to Purdue, the 2007 loss to Duke among them). With NU's next home game (in two weeks against Penn State for homecoming) also a night game, this will mark the first time ever that Northwestern has had two night games at home in a season.

NU vs. Michigan

Since 1995, the Wildcats have beaten Michigan four times (4-8 record overall), but have gone on to win eight or more games and have gone to a bowl in each of those four seasons that included a win over the Wolverines (three of the four included a Big Ten Championship). In the 'Cats last meeting with Michigan (2008 in Ann Arbor), the 'Cats won 21-14, with Persa making an appearance on special teams as a blocker, but due to a short kickoff he had a 15 yard kickoff return. The last time that Northwestern won two consecutive meetings with Michigan was 1995-96.

Coaching Connections

NU fans shouldn't forget that Michigan's offseason coaching search, that included contacting Pat Fitzgerald, sparked the contract discussion that ended with a 10-year extension for Fitz. There are also a couple of other coaching connections: NU DC Mike Hankwitz attended and was an assistant at Michigan, while Michigan DC Greg Mattison was NU's defensive line coach during the dark ages years of 1978-80 (after which he would understandably take a year off to work in sporting goods before returning to coaching: NU went 1-31-1 during that time).

NU's Close Second Halves

Under Fitz, Northwestern has been tied or in the lead of 77.6% of its games (75.4% of games vs FBS teams, 72.0% of games against AQ teams, and 70.7% of Big Ten games). With Persa as the starting quarterback, Northwestern has had a second half lead in all 11 games. This certainly bodes well for NU's chances of making this game interesting.

Injury Report


RB Mike Trumpy (out for season, knee), DT Brian Arnfelt (doubtful, foot), WR Tony Jones (doubtful, leg), S Mike Bolden (doubtful, leg).

The big loss for this week (and the remainder of the season) is NU's most explosive running back, Mike Trumpy, who went down for a season-ending injury for the second consecutive season against Illinois (last season, it was his wrist, this year, it was an ACL). Somewhat fortunately, NU has a number of other options at running back: Treyvon Green, Adonis Smith, and Jacob Schmidt all have a number of carries on the season, and with Persa back at QB look for Kain Colter to contribute in a running back type role (either subbing in for Persa or playing at the same time, which NU debuted against Illinois on occasion). The best news was, of course, the fact that Persa is okay and should be in great shape after leaving with some foot pain which turned out to be more of a precautionary measure than anything else. Otherwise, Northwestern seemed to come out of the bye week in pretty good shape, highlighted by some key additions to the defense (LB Collin Ellis making his first start/collegiate playing time and DT Jack DiNardo returning in the middle).


OL Ricky Barnum (day to day, undisclosed), LB Cam Gordon (questionable, back), LB Marell Evans (out indefinitely, eligibility), WR Darryl Stonum (out for season, suspended).

Like Illinois a week ago, a key factor in Michigan starting the season undefeated has been lack of significant injuries, particularly to QB Denard Robinson who has had difficulties finishing games in the past due to his high number of carries. It also helps to have health in the secondary, which had been missing in previous seasons. Although they are missing a couple of components, they aren't missing any key starters (Stonum was suspended prior to the start of the season).


Northwestern 31, Michigan 42

I am not going too far out on a limb here to predict that this will be a high scoring affair. With Persa firmly in charge of the NU offense, I expect them to put up plenty of yards and points on the Wolverine defense even with this year's improvement for that unit. Special teams and/or turnovers will also provide a boost for the 'Cats' point output. Unfortunately, Michigan's offense is just too good, and I expect that they will get some nice gains both on the ground and through the air, given that Robinson can go wild in the running game even when the opposition sells out to stop him in that phase.

If the defense can somehow replicate last week's performance while also getting better performances out of the aforementioned younger members of their secondary, NU will have a shot here. An upset in this game would be a huge boon to Northwestern's season, especially with just one ranked opponent remaining and five home games left on the slate.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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