Northwestern Wildcats (4-3, 0-3) - November 16th at Ryan Field
Season To Date
Wins of negligible importance: 44-30 at Cal, 48-27 vs. Syracuse, 38-17 vs. Western Michigan, 35-21 vs. Maine
Closest Loss: 40-30 vs. Ohio State - Don't let the final score fool you, this one was very tight until late in the game. Northwestern had a good chance to score and take the lead with three minutes left, but a 4th-1 try from OSU's 34 was stopped short (or was it?) and OSU got the ball back. Northwestern did well limiting OSU touchdowns early, but a blocked punt and score for the Buckeyes swung the game and the Wildcats couldn't do a thing about Carlos Hyde, who ran for 6.5 yards/carry and three touchdowns.
Worst Loss (lopsided division): 35-6 at Wisconsin - Playing at Wisconsin the week after the biggest game in program history (which was lost in heartbreaking fashion) isn't usually going to end well, and this one didn't. Wisconsin steamrolled the Cats, with both Melvin Gordon (172 yards, 1 TD) and James White (101 yards, 1 TD) going over the century mark in rushing. The WIldcat offense was limited with both Colter and Mark still banged up, and Northwestern only managed a field goal in each of the first two quarters.
Worst Loss (competition division): 20-17 vs. Minnesota - Northwestern, looking for the hat-trick in "losses that will surely kill our season" completed it with a dismal effort against Minnesota last week. With both Mark and Colter on the sideline, Trevor Siemian struggled to lead the offense, completing just over half his passes for a paltry 5.1 yards/att with two interceptions and just one touchdown. No Wildcat went over 60 yards rushing and the 10-point fourth quarter rally fell short to make it three in a row for Northwestern.
The dual-threat of a Siemian/Colter backfield is a serious boost for this team. Northwestern spent parts of last year and the beginning of this one proving that if you have two quarterbacks you might not have none after all. Colter is a do-it-all weapon that can run the entire offense and destroy other teams in option looks. Siemian — you remember him from his appearance last year where he picked Michigan's secondary apart — is just as effective. However, with Colter out, the offense gets one-dimensional and easier to stop.
Part of that is because Venric Mark isn't there to provide a rushing threat. Mark is one of the most talented backs in the conference, but he has played in just three games this season. If he is healthy in a couple weeks when Michigan travels to Chicago, he could be a game changer, as he also returns kicks and punts very well. If he is still banged up, the rushing load will fall to Treyvon Green, a junior who all but disappeared in the last three games.
Outlook vs. Michigan
Injuries make this a tough case to call.
Michigan's defense has had a hard time with the Northwestern offense, most notably last year when the Cats put up an offensive clinic on the Wolverines, but fell short when Devin Gardner pulled one out his a—. You get what I'm saying. If Colter and Mark are relatively healthy, this is one of the best offenses in the conference, capable of picking defenses apart through the air or in the option run game. Given Michigan's relative struggles against spread passing teams, and the added fear of trying to drop seven into coverage while still defending against a potent option run attack from an aggressive offense, this could be a defensive performance somewhere on the level of Michigan vs. Indiana. Thankfully for the Wolverines, it looks as though Northwestern will not be at full strength, limiting offensive options and giving Michigan a bigger advantage as the defense can focus on stopping less.
Defensively, the Cats have struggled against strong power running attacks. Since Michigan doesn't have one of those, it will be up to Devin Gardner and the passing game to make big plays while the run game keeps things moving thanks to a heavy dose of spread rushing, option football, and giving Fitz Toussaint space to work. If Michigan plays like it did against Indiana, it should have success, but not to the level of 67 points (because Indiana's defense is bad, yo).
Early Advantage: Michigan*
*(This flips to Northwestern if Colter and/or Mark get healthy)