Game Preview


Michigan at Northwestern
Ryan Field
Saturday, Sept. 29.  Time: 11:00 am CDT
TV: Big Ten Network
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Michigan
by Jonathan Hodges


Northwestern (2-2, 0-1) comes back to Evanston to play at home for the 4th time this month against the Michigan Wolverines (2-2, 1-0) in a rare early day game (11:00) appearance (NU has not played Michigan in an 11AM start at Ryan Field since the mid-90s as both the 2003 and 2005 games were at night and the fabled 2000 game was a 2:30 start which went into the evening hours).  Many 'Cats fans knew NU would have a rough stretch of games at the end of September, but unfortunately that stretch started earlier than expected with the tough loss to Duke and got ugly last week with the drubbing at the hands of Ohio State.  Meanwhile, Michigan, which will play its first away game of the season against NU, has seemingly turned it around from its early 0-2 start where it gave up 35.5 points a game and is coming off of a 2-0 stretch where it has given up an average of 4.5 points per game and no touchdowns.  The question for both NU and Michigan is which team will show up on Saturday?

During the first 3 games, the NU offense was rather effective with Bacher passing for over 200 yards in all 3 games (including over 300 against Duke), but its deficiencies were highlighted against OSU who kept NU's offense off the board all day.  In fact, Northwestern never entered (or even got close to) the red zone - managing only a meager 120 yards of offense (all passing).  The Buckeyes employed constant blitzing to throw off Northwestern's pass-heavy attack, meanwhile sacks and ineffective runs by Conteh stymied NU's ground game.  Through the 'Cats' current 2 game losing streak everyone has seen that NU's offense cannot handle the blitz.  Expect Carr to take advantage of this and step up the pass rush all day long.  Sutton's ankle injury (apparently a high ankle sprain - which typically keeps players sidelined for some time) will most likely keep him out again, despite his continued presence as the starter on NU's 2-deep.  His loss will once again hurt NU's (non-existent) rushing game, which is something the Wildcats will need to try to counter the constant blitzing.  Until Northwestern proves it can overcome the blitzing with either effective blocking and a solid game plan, expect the same results as the past couple games.

On defense, NU was once again exposed.  The first half/second half numbers are even more startling, with NU giving up 22.3 points/game in the first half and 5.0 points/game in the second half.  Of course those numbers are skewed by OSU's conservative play in the second half of the game since they racked up so many first half points, but still the fact is that teams know they can be aggressive early and rack up a big lead on the 'Cats.  Expect Michigan to do the same - they saw all of those play action TD passes that OSU threw and don't think for one minute Carr wasn't licking his chops.  And if the secondary makes a point of staying deep, expect to see Hart carry the ball early and often for long distances.  RB Hart already seemingly carried Michigan on his back to victories over Notre Dame and a tough PSU squad (at least defensively), so expect to see a ton of carries from him.  Carr usually plays conservatively against NU and I wouldn't expect anything different on Saturday - lots of Hart carries - and if NU plays like it did last week lots of yards given up.

NU's special teams were the only positive point, up until the horrid punting performance against Ohio State.  The usually rock-solid Demos had a bad game, but then again he is a redshirt freshman kicking out of the endzone at Ohio State against a Buckeye squad who was foaming at the mouth most of the game, so I'll cut him some slack.  NU did have its first kick/punt TD return of the Fitzgerald era as Simmons took the opening 2nd half kickoff 99 yards for the score, so hopefully NU will be able to get that type of return off of a punt (assuming that they can force more than one punt in an entire game).  Despite the poor punting and poor kickoff blocking during the first half last week (where we saw a McManis concussion), NU's special teams are more than capable of keeping the 'Cats in the game and hopefully they can put together a solid game overall.

Last year the 'Cats played Michigan rather close on the road in a 17-3 loss on a cold, rainy day, and that was against a #2 ranked squad, and that was with 5 turnovers and a running game that was stopped cold.  While NU has seemingly taken a step back over the last 2 games and a win over Michigan remains a long shot, the 'Cats are more than capable of making this a game assuming the glaring errors over the past 2 weeks can be corrected.  Despite my long term dislike for the Wolverines and my desire to see NU beat them again (the only victory I have seen over Michigan by NU was the historical 2000 contest), I can't see NU winning this game unless the 'Cats find a way to completely change things around from the way they've been playing.

Line: Michigan by 16.5

Who Should Win: Michigan, especially the trends in the play of both teams continue - NU on a downslide and Michigan on an upswing.  OSU gave Michigan a perfect game plan for this week which it should be able to execute well: run with a few play action passes for big yardage on offense and blitz on defense.  Northwestern has shown thus far it cannot deal with that strategy, and until the 'Cats can overcome it, Michigan should be sitting pretty.

Upset Factor: If Northwestern can: effectively block and effectively spread the ball around the field (including downfield passes and a good running game) and find a way to contain Hart while not giving up huge passes, the 'Cats could stay in the game.  NU will also need solid all-around special teams play and turnovers to bounce in its favor in order to think about the upset.  Most of this relies on the preparation by the Northwestern coaching staff, and hopefully they can correct the problems that have beleaguered the 'Cats over the past 2 games.

What to Look For:

Michigan Offense/NU Defense: RB Michael Hart.  The senior will be handed the ball early and often.  NU must find a way to stop him.  Michigan will also need to throw the ball (at least once in a while), and Northwestern will need to get to the quarterback - whether it be freshman Mallett or Henne (who is still recovering from an injury).  It could be a long day if NU cannot get pressure up front and if Hart can pick up yards by the bunch.  Oh, and NU's defense has to keep NU in the game in the first half, otherwise it could get ugly... again.

Michigan Defense/NU Offense: They have seemingly turned the corner over the past 2 games, although it is becoming obvious that they faced 2 poor offenses over that span.  No doubt they will put the pressure on Bacher and force NU to get the ball off quickly and to throw deep passes.  Northwestern must take advantage and come up with a strategy to truly spread the ball across and down the field (that includes running the ball), while the OL must improve its blocking.  If the 'Cats can manage to do that at least some of the time, they should be able to move the ball.


- Ryan Field is apparently close to a sellout, and if the rest of the tickets are sold by gametime, it will mark NU's 4th consecutive year with a home sellout.  Also, it would be the first 11AM sellout since prior to 2000.  Also, the undergraduate students are back on campus so this will mark the first game of the season with a true gameday atmosphere (despite being the 5th game of the season).
- NU is even on turnover margin on the year after the Ohio State game (good for 55th in the country).
- Northwestern's total offense has dropped substantially after the sub-par showing last week and now is ranked at 72nd in the nation with 368.5 yards/game, with the scoring offense also taking a hit as well which now stands at 95th in the country with 21.0 points/game.
- The 'Cats sack woes continue, NU's defense ranks 111th in the country with 0.75 sacks/game and the offense has allowed 3.0 sacks/game, good for 103rd nationally.
- The only fumble lost by NU this season was Bacher's during the OSU game that was returned for a TD.

Injury Report:
Eddie Simpson (LB): questionable (leg), he did not dress against OSU but reports have him improving this week so it's possible he would make it into the game - he does not appear on this week's 2-deep.
Tyrell Sutton (RB): questionable (ankle), he did not dress against OSU and reportedly has a high ankle sprain which will make his return challenging - once again he remains as the starter on this week's 2-deep. [Editor's note: as of this preview posting Thursday evening, Sutton is not expected to play vs. Michgan.]
Sherrick McManis (CB/KR): questionable (concussion), although reports have him sitting out early this week and returning to practice on Thursday.
Ramon Diaz (OL), Gerard Hamlett (DB), Andrew Brewer (WR): out for season.

Prediction: Northwestern 17 - Michigan 35

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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