Northwestern (1-2) comes out of its bye week to face the Wolverines (3-1) at Ryan Field. With a week to recover from the befuddling loss against Akron, the Wildcats will need to play a near perfect game to keep up with the Wolverines. NBN sports breaks down what the 'Cats will need to do on offense and defense to spring an upset.
It’s been a rough time for Northwestern’s offense. After a disheartening showing against Akron, with three second-half turnovers and a few missed scoring opportunities, the group was then hit hard with the medical retirement of emerging sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin. Following their bye-week, the Wildcats now must face Michigan, a team known for its defensive talent, with their offensive abilities put into question. If Northwestern is going to shock the Big Ten with a win over the Wolverines, an inspiring scoring performance will be necessary.
Such a performance will rest on the shoulders of Clayton Thorson, the senior leader who has had a shaky season up to this point. After an Akron outing that saw Thorson have as many touchdowns (three) as turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble), it will be imperative that him and the offensive line stay calm and collected against significant pressure. Rashan Gary (23 tackles, two sacks), a defensive standout and coaches’ choice for the 2017 All-B1G First Team, will directly challenge an offensive line that has allowed six sacks in its last two games. Fellow First Teamer Devin Bush (32 tackles, 16 solo, 2.5 sacks) also figures to add pressure up close as linebacker along with Chase Winovich (two sacks) and Khaleke Hudson (out for the first half while serving a targeting suspension).
Such pressure will be difficult for Northwestern to overcome, especially with Larkin out of the equation. John Moten IV looks to step up for the ’Cats as the new ground game leader, but in his limited rushes this season hasn’t seen much success moving the ball forward (1.8 yards per carry). It’s possible that the junior will find his stride with a more consistent carry count, but against the Wolverines it might have to wait a week. But it certainly won’t hurt to try giving the run more opportunities in late game. Northwestern has elected to focus on the pass more often after halftime, while rushing tends to decrease both in carries and efficiency. Considering the scoring struggles the Wildcats have had in the second half, it might be worthwhile for Mick McCall and the offense to try something different.
When Cameron Green returned to the lineup against Akron, Northwestern’s receiving corps showed they are serviceable. The trio of Green, Ben Skowronek, and Flynn Nagel will see a majority of targets against Michigan. They’ll be matched up by cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long, as well as safeties Josh Metellus (two interceptions) and Tyree Kinnel (20 tackles). As strong safety, Metellus will attempt to disrupt both Green and the run game, so yardage gained against him will be crucial for the offense’s success.
Michigan allowed just 132 yards of offense against Nebraska, and gave up less touchdowns (one) than they forced turnovers (two). While the ’Cats have had an extra week to work on their offensive game plan against the Wolverines, it probably won’t be enough to come away victorious. But then again, this is the Wildcats we’re talking about, and they do tend to surprise us often.Defense
If there was any silver lining from the Akron debacle, it was that the defense actually held Akron’s attack, giving up only two receiving touchdowns to QB Kato Nelson. Although they failed to record a sack, the D pressured Nelson well in the first half before slowing down in the second.
Northwestern enters this week’s match against Michigan ranked 24th in the country in defensive S&P, but QB Shea Patterson and running back Karan Higdon pose the most formidable threat the Wildcat defense has faced all season. Since their first game against Notre Dame, in which the Wolverine O looked all sorts of dysfunctional in managing a measly 14 points, Michigan has outscored its opponents 150-33 and have generally looked unstoppable.
The ‘Cats defense will need to generate pressure against Michigan’s O-line; the Notre Dame D-line exposed Michigan’s line to the tune of three sacks and only 58 rushing yards allowed. The Irish forced Patterson to throw to an inexperienced group of receivers and throttled Michigan’s run game. The Michigan O-line stepped up against Nebraska last week, however, and the results showed; Patterson had more time to find his receivers, Harbaugh, a traditional pro-style coach, implemented fullback sets into his offense successfully, and Karan Higdon rushed for over 100 yards once more.
Recently, Higdon has asserted himself as the Wolverine’s lead back, and, especially in the first few quarters, has gotten rid of some of the pressure on Patterson’s shoulders. Alex Miller, Jordan Thompson, Samdup Miller and Joe Gaziano need to win the battle in the trenches if Northwestern has any shot at limiting the Wolverines’ attack.
If the Nebraska game was indicative of a trend for Michigan, this is easier said than done and the ‘Cats will struggle to defend against Michigan’s multifaceted power run game. If it was just an anomaly, though, Northwestern’s defense can force enough pressure to disrupt the Wolverine attack and spring a potential upset.
Jacob Munoz (1-2) - Michigan 38, Northwestern 14
Jono Zarrilli (2-1) - Michigan 41, Northwestern 20
Shreyas Iyer (1-2) - Michigan 40, Northwestern 17