Michigan-Northwestern Preview

Rich Barnes-US PRESSWIRE

Last Saturday Michigan got renewed hope of a competent offense in the wake of Denard Robinson's nerve injury and then watched as the odds of a Big Ten title game appearance got longer. This week the Wolverines take on a dangerous Northwestern team at home, and could be without Denard Robinson for the second straight week.

Michigan vs. Northwestern

12:00PM, ESPN

Enemy Blogs: Sippin' on Purple, Lake the Posts

(This is coming late and therefore will be a condensed version due to me having no time this week. Enjoy).

When Michigan has the ball

This is the great unknown. If Robinson is healthy and ready to go (I doubt that) then Michigan will be able to move the ball on the ground and should get steady offensive production against a solid run defense. The status of Northwestern's pass defense as downright bad so that should even out the effects of Robinson throwing on a recently nerve damaged arm.

If Gardner can go the results are going to be somewhere between "he's the savior this offense has been waiting for" and "he's been playing wide receiver for most of the year and results against a bad pass defense aren't necessarily repeatable". If Michigan couldn't run against Minnesota that will go doubly so for Northwestern without Robinson in the game. Therefore it comes down to Devin Gardner doing against Northwestern what he did against Minnesota.

Outlook

Either way I don't see Michigan's offense having a banner day against the Wildcats. Robinson is an injury risk, Gardner is still prone to mistakes, and the running game is a flaming pile of mediocrity. Michigan should be able to score around 20 points, but if this turns into a shootout the Wolverines won't be able to keep up.

When Northwestern has the ball

The Wildcats have been all run all the time yet this year. Despite this, against Nebraska and Penn State the rush offense was largely shut down. Michigan should be able to recreate this type of defensive containment and hold the Wildcats to around 150 yards on the ground.

The big question is whether moving Kain Colter to quarterback is going to have a noticable effect on the Wildcats downfield passing game. That is the one area where Michigan seems vulnerable coming in, and if there is any chance of an upset, it is Kain Colter finding receivers down the field for big plays to open up a bottled up run game.

Outlook

I'll believe Colter can regularly hit receivers in stride 40 yards down the field when I see it. However, Mark is a big play waiting to happen, and Michigan could get burned once or twice. The key is to keep bottling up the run game and not let Northwestern get the edge with outside zones and options. Michigan has been pretty good at this so far.

When someone is kicking the ball

Hey Will Hagerup, stop doing that, mmkay?

Northwestern has Jeff Budzien, a junior place kicker that has hit 11 of 12 tries with three coming from 40 or more yards. He is what we thought Brendan Gibbons was until we realized brunettes dig the long ball too. The Wildcats are average punting (42nd in net punting) but have Mark as a returner and thus are third in punt return average. This is scary and could provide a big play a la the Penn State game.

That's fast.

Other Stuff

Key Matchups:

  • OLBs/DEs vs. giving up the edge - Northwestern shouldn't have any luck between the tackles, but if Mark or Colter are able to get to the edge and turn upfield they could break a big play. Michigan absolutely has to keep edge contain and'/or string things out to the sideline.
  • JT Floyd/Raymon Taylor vs. huge coverage busts - Neither of these guys are capable of being shut down corners on deep routes (well, Taylor may be, but he is still young). Colter isn't the kind of QB that can kill you over the top unless he has a big window. If the CBs bust big, it'll open up big plays in the pass game.
  • Devin Gardner vs. expectations - Gardner had a good first game, but he was helped out signficantly by his receivers and a few lucky bounces. With little to no run game to rely on, Gardner will once again need to find a way to create big plays in the pass game.
  • The interior Oline vs. getting replaced - There has been chatter about Michigan working new players into the lineup on the inside, and another game like last week and it could happen Saturday afternoon.

Alternate Programming: Wisconsin and Indiana play for the Leaders division title at noon. Yes, this is real life. The afternoon slate should be solid with Oregon State-Stanford (Rose Bowl opponent?!), West Virginia-Oklahoma State (fireworks!), TAMU-Alabama (Johnny Football!), and Penn State-Nebraska (Michigan's title chances!). Start drinking early as well, because there aren't any good games on at night outside of Kansas State-TCU -- which probably won't even be all that entertaining.

Inanimate Object Threat Level: 4 - Michigan's defense should be solid in this one, but any time you roll out a duo of skill players like Colter and Mark, things can go south.

Final Predictions: No more bullet points here, let's have some realtalk.

Michigan's defense should be solid in this one, and I can't see Northwestern going over 20 points. However, the Wildcats will get close and will most likely have a couple big plays because that's what happens when you play someone as fast and talented as Venric Mark (everyone who has ever played against Denard nods in unison).

This all means that in the end the game is going to come down to the Michigan offense against a defense that looks to be a little better than last week's foe. The way to beat good teams in low scoring games like this is with a certain amount of offensive balance that keeps the chains moving and the defense on its heels. Michigan isn't capable of running for 300 yards with Robinson running the ball himself 20 times even if he plays. That means that not only will Devin Gardner have to make smart decisions in the passing game Saturday, someone will have to run the ball and pick up yards against a pretty solid run defense.

I'm not totally convinced that this is going to happen, but when it comes down to close games my rule of thumb is to side with the best unit on the field. That is Michigan's defense.

Michigan 20 - Northwestern 18

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