Game Preview


Michigan Stadium
Saturday, November 10.  11:00 am CST
WGN Radio

Game Preview: Michigan
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (7-2, 3-2) are back in action as they make the first of two consecutive road trips to the state of Michigan, this time heading to Ann Arbor to face the Michigan Wolverines (6-3, 4-1), who are coming off of a solid road win at Minnesota that featured Devin Gardner filling in at QB for the injured Denard Robinson. Gardner looked more than competent despite his practice time being focused more on WR than QB over the past year; he was 12-of-18 for 234 yards with 2 TD and 1 INT, plus another rushing TD as he sparked the previously struggling Wolverine offense to 35 points on the road. Meanwhile, the Michigan defense continued to perform well, holding the Gophers to just 13 points and keeping Minnesota out of the bowl eligible column for now.

Although the Cornhuskers retained their place in the driver's seat for the Legends Division crown with a come-from-behind win at Michigan State on Saturday, this game will decide whether Michigan or Northwestern will be riding shotgun through the final two weeks of the regular season hoping Nebraska will somehow lose another game or two (Nebraska has head-to-head wins over both of these teams). But, of more interest to these two squads will be all-important bowl positioning with a potential trip to the Capital One Bowl on the line for the winner who could very well end up with the second-best record amongst non-sanctioned Big Ten teams.

Both teams come in with their share of disappointments on the season (three losses to ranked teams for Michigan, two of whom remain undefeated, and two blown double-digit fourth quarter leads for NU), but this game provides a chance for both teams to make an important statement and turn this season from an average one into a good one.

Opening Line: Michigan by 11.

Who Should Win: Michigan. The Wolverines haven't played well against great teams this season (losses have come to top four teams Alabama and Notre Dame, along with at Big Ten Legends Division leader Nebraska) but against everyone else they've been dominant (an average margin of victory of 26.0 in their 6 wins), plus they've won 12 in a row at home dating back to 2010 (meaning that Brady Hoke hasn't lost a home game as head coach).

Upset Factor:
Northwestern has won as a 7+ point underdog at least once every season since 2003 (14 games total) but hasn't yet been a 7+ point underdog in 2012. The 'Cats have played their best football under Fitzgerald in November, and NU has shown flashes of greatness on both sides of the football this season. NU could very well put together a complete game and pull off an upset here, especially against a Michigan team that has had its share of issues this season.

NU Offense vs. Michigan Defense:
30.4 points per game (52nd/4th) vs. 16.8 points per game allowed (13th/2nd)
400.4 yards per game (67th/5th) vs. 288.7 yards per game allowed (7th/2nd)
237.6 rushing yards per game (13th/3rd) vs. 143.2 rushing yards per game allowed (44th/6th)
162.9 passing yards per game (109th/12th) vs. 145.4 passing yards per game allowed (1st/1st)
118.2 passing efficiency (96th/9th) vs. 105.6 pass efficiency defense (12th/3rd)
1.33 sacks allowed per game (24th/2nd) vs. 1.22 sacks per game (105th/11th)
Northwestern Turnover Margin: +0.67 per game (29th/3rd)

After sputtering over their previous three weeks, the NU offense steamrolled Iowa on the ground to the tune of 349 rushing yards as it found its true "identity" at the hands of Kain Colter. And this strength in the run game (in which the 'Cats rank 13th nationally) plays well to Michigan's strengths and weaknesses, as the Wolverines are excellent against the pass (first nationally in fewest passing yards allowed per game) but average against the run (44th nationally). Overall, Michigan has a stout defense and has bottled up all but the three ranked opponents they've faced this season. On the other hand, they haven't exactly faced a bevy of high octane attacks (the average total offense ranking of the six teams they've beaten is 88.7) so NU will hope to replicate what UM's opponents did in their three losses. The Wildcats have also done a great job at holding onto the football, ranking 13th nationally in fewest turnovers on the year (9), while Michigan has had some issues generating turnovers (72nd in turnovers gained at 14); this trend must continue for NU to have a shot here. Ultimately it will be up to Colter and RB Venric Mark to make things happen on the ground which should help open up some things in the air. Also, the Wolverines don't generate much pressure on opposing QBs, coming in next to last in the conference in sacks per game. In terms of who to watch out for, it's UM's linebacking corps of Jake Ryan (tackle leader at 65, who also has 3 PBUs, 2 forced fumbles, and 3.5 sacks), Desmond Morgan, and Kenny Demens (the latter two tied for second on the team with 58 tackles). They also have some playmakers in the secondary, with 5 INTs and 8 PBUs contributed by the defensive backs.

NU Defense vs. Michigan Offense:

28.8 points per game (60th/5th) vs. 22.3 points per game allowed (35th/6th)
379.3 yards per game (82nd/7th) vs. 393.8 yards per game allowed (60th/10th)
200.9 rushing yards per game (28th/4th) vs. 121.3 rushing yards per game allowed (23rd/4th)
178.4 passing yards per game (105th/10th) vs. 272.4 passing yards per game allowed (96th/9th)
118.9 passing efficiency (95th/8th) vs. 125.1 pass efficiency defense (48th/8th)
1.11 sacks allowed per game (18th/1st) vs. 2.11 sacks per game (52nd/6th)
Michigan Turnover Margin: -0.44 per game (85th/10th)

Northwestern will be facing a virtual mirror image of its own offense: a team that relies heavily on the ground game starting with option runs handled by the QB and then taking advantage of opponents clamping down on the run by going deep from time to time. It will be very interesting if speedy Denard Robinson is held out again this week (he came out during the Nebraska game after injuring his elbow and did not play at Minnesota although he traveled and dressed for the game), but the aforementioned Gardner performed admirably in his stead (particularly through the air). The Wildcat defense seems to be suited for this type of attack, ranking 23rd nationally against the run, although NU fans have seen what can happen against such a team against Nebraska where a run-first QB threw his way to victory despite an ugly passing motion. Speaking of pass defense, a lot of NU's success will likely depend on the availability of defensive backs Nick VanHoose (shoulder) and Quinn Evans (leg) who missed the 'Cats' last game but have had two full weeks to rest with the bye last weekend. The 'Cats could definitely benefit from generating some turnovers via fumbles (the 'Cats rank 4th nationally in fumbles recovered with 12 on the year) or interceptions (UM is 117th in interceptions thrown with 15 on the year) which could help overcome some defensive weaknesses, particularly against the pass, and help give NU the chance to pull off an upset.

Special Teams:
21.0 yards per NU punt return (3rd/1st) vs. 7.0 yards per punt return allowed by UM (49th/6th)
15.9 yards per NU kickoff return (116th/12th) vs. 21.7 yards per kickoff return allowed by UM (68th/9th)
8.9 yards per UM punt return (57th/5th) vs. 3.3 yards per punt allowed by NU (11th/2nd)
22.4 yards per UM kickoff return (53d/3rd) vs. 20.0 yards per kickoff return allowed by NU (38th/2nd)
38.2 net yards per NU punt (42nd/3rd) vs. 35.7 net yards per UM punt (84th/8th)
NU: 12/13 FGs (44 yd long) & 34/34 XPs vs. Mich: 14/17 FGs (52 yd long) & 31/31 XPs

These squads are pretty even in the kicking game with Jeff Budzien continuing to be Mr. Reliable for the 'Cats and UM seeing the emergence of Brendan Gibbons who has hit 13/15 FGs on the season with a 52 yard long (including the game-winner against MSU). But in the return game, the Wildcats have a decided advantage with Mark who will be facing an average coverage team. Meanwhile, Northwestern's coverage teams are pretty darn good, particularly on punts where NU rarely allows a return and takes down the return man almost immediately (also note that NU has done a good job of taking advantage of muffed punts as well). With Michigan seemingly holding a slight edge on offense and defense, an edge in special teams could be huge for the 'Cats' chances.

- For the second time since 1995, Northwestern will enter a game against Michigan with more wins than the Wolverines; the other time was 2008, also in Ann Arbor, which the 'Cats won by a score of 21-14.
- Under Coach Fitz, Northwestern is 7-0 in season openers but 0-7 after in-season off weeks (byes, bowl games). This seems to be a strange dichotomy, but NU was an underdog following all 7 in-season off weeks, while the 'Cats were a favorite in 6 of 7 season openers.
- Under Fitzgerald, Northwestern is 13-8 in November games, including 6-3 on the road; NU has been an underdog in all 9 of those November road games by an average of 12.5 points.
- Also in November, Fitz is 8-3 versus unranked teams, but also note that all 5 of Fitz's wins over ranked teams have come in Nov. Fitz's record versus ranked teams (AP) by month: Sep. 0-1, Oct. 0-6, Nov. 5-5, Dec. 0-1.
- In Nov. Fitz is 12-1 when NU allows 28 or fewer points in the game.
- Northwestern with Fitz as head coach has had a second half lead in 62 of 85 games (72.9%); Fitz's overall winning rate is 55.3%.
- Kain Colter brought home Big Ten offensive player of the week for his 4 TD performance against Iowa, which gives Northwestern players 6 Player of the Week honors on the year.
- The 'Cats are 14-11 under Fitz in road games on artificial turf and have won their last 4 such games.
- NU has won 8 of its last 10 road games with an 11AM CT kickoff. Under Fitz, Northwestern is 32-18 in 11AM CT kickoffs and 12-8 on the road in such games.
- NU is 3-9 on ESPN under Fitz, but has won 2 of its last 3 road games televised on ESPN.
- The Wildcats are a combined 39-19 (0.672) during presidential election years since 1995 (counting this season) with 2 Big Ten championships.
- Through 9 games this season, NU has a =8.1 points per game scoring margin, which is the highest under Fitz (previously +4.2 in 2008) and highest for NU since 1995 (+10.8).
- Northwestern's top three tacklers on the year are its starting linebacking corps: Damien Proby (86), David Nwabuisi (75), and Chi Chi Ariguzo (67).
- Northwestern has won the last 5 games in which it has thrown an interception as well as the last 5 games in which it had a negative turnover margin.
- The Wildcats have won the last 7 games in which Colter has attempted 6 or more passes. NU is 9-2 in games with 6 or more Colter pass attempts.
- Northwestern out-sacked Iowa 3-0 and is now 14-2 under Fitzgerald when out-sacking its opponent; interestingly, both losses came this season. NU DE Tyler Scott led the Big Ten with 7 sacks after the Iowa game. NU was also tied for the league lead in sacks with 13 in 5 games.
- The NU OL has been outstanding, allowing just 2 sacks through 5 Big Ten games; overall NU is 28th nationally and 2nd in the conference in fewest sacks per game allowed.
- The statistical achievements of Venric Mark are huge: he's 6th nationally and 1st in the Big Ten in all purpose yards per game with 184.1; 13th nationally and 2nd in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game with 119.7. In Big Ten play only, he leads the conference in rushing yards per game with 135.6. Mark led all players in all-purpose yards for the 8th time in 9 NU games this season.
- Fitzgerald needs just 2 wins to tie the NU all-time record for head coaches and will have at least 4 more chances to do so this season.
- Fitz has already secured his fourth winning season (in his seventh as NU head coach), which equals Gary Barnett and Randy Walker combined (both coached for seven seasons each).
- NU home attendance is averaging 36,244, which is on pace for NU's highest season average since 1998.
- Northwestern is ranked in both poll components of the BCS rankings (21st in the Coaches Poll and 24th in the Harris Poll) and has cracked the BCS rankings at 24th. This is the 6th time since 1995 that NU will go into a game ranked in the Coaches Poll but unranked by the AP. Also, this is the 8th time since 1995 that the 'Cats will be an underdog as a ranked team facing an unranked opponent (Coaches); NU is 3-4 in those games.

Prediction: Michigan 31 - Northwestern 24

Expect NU to keep this one closer than the initial spread thanks to some special teams plays and being able to move the ball to some degree on the ground. Unfortunately, Michigan's defense is superior to Northwestern's so far, and it will be tough for the 'Cats' defense to hold down the Wolverines for the entire game no matter who is behind center. NU's best hope is to clamp down on the run game and hope to get some solid play from the secondary through the entire game. At the very least this should be a very entertaining game, as any good Wildcat fan should expect.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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