Game Preview


NU at Michigan
Michigan Stadium
Saturday, Nov. 15.  11:00 am CDT
WGN radio internet coverage.


Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) begins the final stretch of the 2008 regular season with a trip to Ann Arbor to face Michigan (3-7, 2-4), who is coming off of their biggest win of the season, a 29-6 win over Minnesota in Minneapolis.  The Wildcats, meanwhile, were beat soundly in last week's home game against Ohio State, and are struggling with injuries and despite being bowl eligible, are looking for another win to guarantee a warm weather destination.  Northwestern knows that Michigan is always a tough team and Ann Arbor is a tough place to play; the 'Cats' last 3 wins in this series have come in years when NU won Big Ten titles (2000, 1996, and 1995), and the last NU win in Ann Arbor was during the magical 1995 season.  But this year features a drastically different situation than these two teams have been a part of during most of their meetings over the last few decades.

Outside of last week's impressive win over the Gophers, Michigan has looked pretty bad through the whole season.  Most knew that this season, with a new head coach, new offensive system, and losing every offensive skill player and their best offensive linemen, would be very tough going - especially on offense - and reaching 6 wins and bowl eligibility would be the most expected from that squad.  Their defense, meanwhile, features some very talented players - including many starters returning from a relatively successful team one season ago.  But things definitely did not go their way over the first 3/4 of the season, with their only two victories coming over Miami (OH) and a disappointing Wisconsin squad by a total of only 12 points, and they lost to MAC basement dweller of 2008 Toledo in Ann Arbor (along with two crushing defeats at the hands of Illinois and Penn State).  Their offense was bad, and quite possibly worse than expected, as they turn the ball over early and often (Michigan has a -0.9 turnovers/game rate, good for 104th nationally) and haven't generated much of an offensive threat until last week's win over Minnesota.  On defense, the unit has underperformed and are 85th nationally in scoring defense, giving up 28.4 points/game, which has kept them out of many games this year.  Earlier this season, with their 7th loss of the year, to Purdue, they broke a streak of non-losing seasons dating back to 1967 and a bowl streak dating back to 1974 (when the Big Ten began allowing conference teams to go to bowls besides the Rose Bowl), so this Wolverine squad is fighting for pride - and looked rejuvenated in last week's victory.  Expect them to come out fighting, especially on defense, and to run their offense with a new-found confidence.

Just a few weeks ago, this game looked like a gimme in favor of the Wildcats, but now NU is coming off of a big home loss to Ohio State and is facing a piling list of injuries.  Backup RB Omar Conteh underwent knee surgery at the end of last week after sustaining said injury during a non-contact drill in practice and looks to be unavailable for this game, leaving sophomore Stephan Simmons as the 'Cats' primary RB, backed up by redshirt freshman walk-on Jacob Schmidt, who has looked good in special teams duty but has yet to see carries in non-garbage time.  QB CJ Bacher should be improved to the point where he can play, so a decision will have to be made between him and Mike Kafka, who has performed admirably in backup duty and has amassed 300 rushing yards over the past 2 games and provides a substantial running threat.  The Wildcats will have to find a way to get the offense going against what should be a staunt defense, especially after looking flat for much of the OSU game.  On defense, NU has been solid, but must find a way to generate turnovers: NU has lost all Big Ten games in which it failed to get a takeaway.  Against the Buckeyes, NU wasn't able to wrap up Pryor and Wells, despite getting to them in the backfield, and paid the price as they racked up big plays on the 'Cats.  The D will have their work cut out for them against a young but talented Michigan offense that may finally be getting the knack of the Rodriguez spread offense.

This is an important game for both teams: Northwestern is attempting to show that it can once again respond following a tough loss and climb one rung up the bowl ladder, while Michigan is playing for pride and showing that it is still a football team to be reckoned with.  Expect a hard-hitting battle in Ann Arbor this coming Saturday in what should be a close football game.

Michigan by 3.

Who Should Win: Toss-up.  Despite the Wolverines' 3-7 record, and the fact that they clinched a losing season and no bowl for the first time in over 4 decades two weeks ago, Michigan looked rejuvenated against Minnesota at the Metrodome (where they are and will be undefeated against the Gophers) with a strong 29-6 victory.  Michigan's defense looked as strong as it was expected to be before the year given the bevy of talent and returning starters on that side of the ball, and the offense finally got something going with a respectable passing game and some big plays when necessary.  Northwestern, meanwhile, got burned time and time again against the Buckeyes, but are still sporting a 7-3 record and have two respectable Big Ten road victories over Iowa and Minnesota.

Upset Factor:  The fact is that Michigan is favored by 3 because it's the home team (the home field advantage for the spread is usually 3 points, indicating that if played on a neutral field this would be a toss-up), and a victory by either squad wouldn't really qualify as an upset.  But, Northwestern definitely needs this victory more than Michigan due to bowl positioning and the fact that the 'Cats haven't won in Ann Arbor since 1995.  A win over the Wolverines would get NU to 8 wins and would give the Wildcats a legitimate shot at that 4th bowl spot in the conference.  Meanwhile, Michigan will be looking to produce its first winning streak of the season, spoil NU's higher bowl hopes, and end their season on a positive note after an otherwise disappointing year.

What to Look For:

Northwestern Offense/Michigan Defense: For the 3rd consecutive game, the question is: Bacher or Kafka?  CJ should be close to full health, if not 100%, and his availability should give NU's passing game a boost, which, for the most part, has been lacking in the past 2 games with Kafka at the helm.  But NU would be amiss not to utilize Kafka's running ability, so look for both to get some action on Saturday.  As a whole, the NU offense must get the ball moving a little better after averaging just 17.7 points/game the last 3 contests (and some of those points have come thanks to the defense; Smith's INT return for TD against Minnesota).  An encouraging statistic is that NU has scored on its first possession in each of the last 3 games, and scored a TD on its opening drive the last 2 games, and the fact is that Northwestern's chances substantially increase with a first quarter lead.  The Wildcats need to take shots down the field, though, as OSU was all over its Kafka run/short pass options after that first successful drive last week.  The 'Cats are still in the middle of the pack offensively (368.8 yards/game, 56th nationally and 24.6 points/game, 68th nationally) and only have one real breakout game this year (48 points against Purdue) that mostly came thanks to turnovers (5 takeaways).  Northwestern will face a tough task against a talented Michigan defense, who are in the lower half nationally, but are coming off of what was arguably their best performance of the year.  They rank 73rd in total defense (373.0 yards/game) and 85th in scoring defense (28.4 points/game), but have solid sack (2.3/game, 38th nationally) and TFL (6.2/game, 39th nationally) numbers.  Their most talented players are DTs Taylor and Johnson, with NFL prospects Jamison and Graham on the ends to fill out the DL.  Graham is a force on the end, having racked up 14.5 TFLs, including 8 sacks, in 10 contests this year; Jamison has chimed in for another 4.5 TFLs, including 2 sacks.  The LB corps features Ezeh, who leads the team (by a mile) with 79 tackles, 6 for a loss, along with an INT and 2 PBUs.  Thompson (48 tackles, 1 INT, 3 forced fumbles) and Mouton (53 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble) round out a solid linebacking corps.  And in the secondary, the Wolverines are led by Trent (2 INTs, 2 PBUs) and Warren at the corners with safeties Brown and Harrison (who are 4th and 2nd on the team in tackles, respectively).  This defense features a lot of experienced playmakers who finally put it all together for a solid performance last week, so the NU offense will have a chore moving the ball against this rejuvenated unit.

Northwestern Defense/Michigan Offense: The Michigan offense has undoubtedly struggled this year, but they have the playmakers at WR and RB to make things happen when given the opportunity, as shown last week.  WRs Odoms, Matthews, and Stonum have the speed and talent to make things happen when the ball is delivered on target; each has a reception of at least 35 yards this season - showing that Michigan is not afraid to go deep.  RBs Minor (who got dinged up against Minnesota, see injury report below), McGuffie, Shaw, and Grady provide viable threats out of the backfield: both Minor and McGuffie have over 400 rushing yards on the year and average 5.2 and 4.1 yards/carry, respectively.  All told, these are significant offensive threats, but the weak link so far has been the QB - which has been left in the hands of two redshirt freshmen (Threet and Sheridan), neither of whom are particularly suited for a spread attack, and a true freshman Feagin, who hasn't thrown a pass so far this season.  While Sheridan looked pretty good against Minnesota last week, he struggled until then, throwing just 2 TDs to 5 INTs and completing just over 56% of his passes.  Threet, while providing a little more of a running threat, has a better TD:INT ratio (9:6) but has completed just 50.8% of his passing attempts.  Feagin's only action so far has been 7 carries for 49 yards against Minnesota, so the 'Cats must be careful when he is thrown in the mix.  The OL, which was devoid of experience going into the year, has held up relatively well, as they are allowing 1.8 sacks/game (right at the middle of the pack at 59th nationally) and opening up enough holes to gain 3.8 yards/carry on the ground.  Northwestern's defense will hinge on the play of the DL: Gill, Wootton, Bryant, and Mims will have to penetrate the backfield early and often to get after the Michigan QBs because, as OSU showed, if given enough time someone will get open - especially with a talented WR corps.  NU has done reasonably well containing the run this year (44th nationally in run defense, giving up 122.8 yards/game on the ground) and has contained the spread offenses it has faced rather well (most recently, Minnesota).  Overall, NU is still a respectable 39th nationally in scoring defense (20.8 points/game) but has fallen to 58th nationally in total defense (351.7 yards/game yielded).  The key will be forcing turnovers: Michigan has turned the ball over relatively often this season, which forces it into a big hole.  The NU defense has been successful when forcing turnovers, going undefeated in games where they can grab at least one.  So, the key will be containing the ground game, making Michigan throw, and forcing bad throws from their still relatively inexperienced QBs.

Special Teams: Michigan, like OSU, features steady special teams units that are capable of making big plays as they have enough talent to field quality players on special teams without putting a lineup of starters out there.  On punt returns, Michigan typically fields Odoms, who took one back against Purdue, and on kick returns, the Wolverines field Odoms and another speedy freshman, Cissoko.  Meanwhile, their kicking units get the job done, especially P Zoltan Mesko, who has led Michigan to a number one national rank in net punting at an impressive 42.2 yards/punt; he ranks 9th nationally in punt yards at 44.6 yards/punt and should have a shot at the next level once he graduates.  The Wolverines also feature a reliable place kicker in KC Lopata who has hit 10 of 13 FG attempts on the year, with half of those coming on a 5 for 5 performance against Minnesota in the Metrodome last week; he's also hit 24 of 26 XPs this season.  Northwestern, meanwhile, is still looking to get things going in special teams: NU's kick returns haven't looked good in weeks (19.7 yards/kick return, 101st nationally), and nothing's going in the punt return game (6.7 yards/punt return, 92nd nationally), but at least the 'Cats can rely on Villarreal (24 of 26 XPs, 17 of 21 FGs) and their coverage units, which have been respectably solid (kick coverage: 19.2 yards/kick return allowed, 22nd nationally; punt coverage: 7.5 yards/punt return allowed, 47th nationally).  At some point it would be nice for the 'Cats to get something going in the return game, although it is nice to have reliable coverage units to at least keep teams deep in their own end following a kick of punt.  The biggest objective here for NU should be to tackle Michigan's dangerous return men and force them to drive the length of the field; accomplishing this especially helped against Minnesota for the 'Cats.

- Streaks: Northwestern will be looking to continue the trends of this season, with the Wildcats not losing consecutive games this year and Michigan not winning consecutive games.
- The Big House:  The 100,000+ capacity stadium is always a tough place to play, and NU knows it first hand - their only win since 1959 was in the magical 1995 Big Ten championship year.  It will be interesting to see how many Michigan fans come out to support their 3-7 team in their last home game of the 2008 campaign.
- Bowl Positioning:  The Wildcats need an 8th win to guarantee a warm weather destination, and each victory from this point onward should move NU up one slot on the bowl ladder.  The biggest remaining questions are how the bowl bids will shake out between NU, Iowa, and Minnesota, who all stand within one win of each other at this stage.  Iowa gets the benefit of the doubt with a large fan base that travels well (and their huge win over Penn State this past week) and would likely jump NU if it is within one win of the 'Cats, despite NU having a better record and a head-to-head win at this point.  Northwestern can do itself a favor by winning its last 2 contests and hoping for an Iowa loss to either Purdue or Minnesota.  The Gophers also have a tough road, facing Wisconsin and Iowa their last two weeks, and may find themselves struggling to finish the year after jumping out to a 7-1 start.
- 3rd Down Conversions:  Northwestern, despite a poor showing against OSU on both sides of the ball, still boasts a 46.8% 3rd down conversion rate on offense (22nd nationally) while holding opponents to a 35.2% conversion rate (39th nationally).  Michigan, meanwhile, isn't doing itself any favors on offense, converting just 30.2% of their 3rd downs (111th nationally) but holding opponents to a 38.8% conversion rate (67th in the country).  The 'Cats D must do a better job of holding back Michigan on 3rd down attempts which they did not do well at all against OSU.
- Scoring by Quarters:  Michigan has outscored its opponents 79-71 in the first quarter but has been outscored in each of the final 3 quarters by a total of 114-207, but is especially bad in the 3rd quarter, scoring a total of 14 points in that period over 10 games (those scores came by way of a TD against Wisconsin and a TD against MSU).  Northwestern, meanwhile, has only been outscored in the first quarter (39-57), outscoring opponents in each of the final 3 quarters by a total of 207-151.
- Villarreal: Amado has quietly racked up some impressive numbers in the kicking game: he's now made at least one FG attempt in nine straight games, tying the NU record with Gowins (1997), he has an NU all-time leading made-FG percentage of 76.3% (at least 20 made FGs), his 17 made FGs ties for 3rd most in an NU season (the record is 20, again by Gowins in 1997), and on the year he is 17 for 21 (80.1%), the third best single season percentage in NU history (at least 12 made FGs).
- NU 2-deep notes: No major changes except for RB, where Simmons is the starter and Schmidt will be the backup.  No decision on the QB starter has been made and nobody will likely know who will play until Saturday morning.  Villarreal or Demos is listed as handling kickoffs, although Villarreal has done a nice job in that role the past 2 games.

Injury Report:

Northwestern: SB Dunsmore (out for season, knee), CB Vaughn (out for season, shoulder), LB Rejae Johnson (out for season, shoulder), LB Arrington (out for season, knee), RB Sutton (out for regular season, wrist), QB Bacher (probable, hamstring), DE Browne (out for regular season, knee), RB Conteh (out for season, knee).

Michigan: QB Threet (questionable, concussion), RB Minor (questionable, shoulder), LB Leach (questionable, high ankle sprain), WR Robinson (questionable, knee), WR Hemingway (questionable, mononucleosis), RB Brown (questionable, sprained ankle/foot), G Huyge (questionable, high ankle sprain), G Zirbel (out, knee).

Northwestern suffered another loss with Conteh going out just before the Ohio State game with a knee injury (he had surgery at the end of last week), handing the starting RB job to sophomore Simmons.  Following Simmons on the RB depth chart will be Schmidt (who saw limited action against OSU, mostly in blocking duty), Concannon, and new addition Jeravin Matthews, who has been moved over from WR starting this week (he's appeared in the majority of games this season as a member of the special teams unit) - he played RB in high school.  QB CJ Bacher should be close to full health after sitting for 2 weeks with his hamstring injury, although the question is how he and Kafka will be utilized; his playing status will not be known until the starter jogs out on the field Saturday morning.  Another OL, Bartels, came out of the OSU game for a bit, but NU has fortunate depth at OL with experienced senior Belding backing him up.  Otherwise, the Wildcats escaped without other significant physical injuries.

Michigan has also lost some contributors to inury over the year; starting QB Threet sat out last week with concussion-like symptoms and he will be questionable for this week's contest; Sheridan will take over if he cannot go and will likely be spelled by Feagin (who has yet to attempt a pass) who is a significant running threat as he racked up 49 yards on the ground against Minnesota in spot duty.  RB Minor will be questionable with a shoulder injury sustained against Minnesota, but Michigan has a bevy of solid RBs with Shaw and McGuffie ready to carry the load.  Otherwise, Michigan has managed to stay healthy during a long season, especially on defense.

Prediction: Northwestern 31 - Michigan 21

I fully expect this to be a close game until the end, and this final score indicates my confidence that NU's OC McCall will find a way to incorporate both CJ Bacher and Mike Kafka in the offensive gameplan and will utilize each of their skillsets to give NU its best offensive performance since the Purdue game.  Of course, that is a tall order against a tough Michigan D that is finally finding their way, but I also expect the NU defense to chime in with some takeaways to help the offense out - the 'Cats have won each game this season in which they have at least one takeaway.  The Wolverine offense showed their best performance of the year a week ago, but they still had to settle for 5 FGs; hopefully the NU D can force them back into the shell that they occupied for much of the first half of this season.

The Wildcats cannot afford to do two things: 1. lose the turnover battle (especially if NU fails to generate a takeaway), and 2. lose the battle of field position.  Michigan has a quality special teams unit between their punter (as a team they lead the nation in net punting), kicker (5/5 FGs last week), and return teams (they have two fast return guys on kicks and punts); NU must find a way to get out of its own end while keeping Michigan there - the D's efforts against the Michigan offense can receive a lot of help by forcing them to drive the entire field (which was a recipe for success against Minnesota).

On offense, the 'Cats must find a way to capitalize on good field position, and an interesting scenario has CJ in to move the ball between the 20s with Kafka coming in to cap off drives inside the red zone.  It's unknown if this is even being considered, but it would be a scenario that utilizes each of their talents: Bacher has shown the ability to move the ball down the field, while Kafka hasn't really thrown a deep ball but provides a big running threat while retaining the ability to make those shorter passes.  While I don't usually advocate changing QBs mid-drive, the unique situation calls for an innovative solution.  Either way, NU will have its work cut out for themselves against a rejuvenated Wolverines squad in the Big House.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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