Game Ten Preview: Michigan at Northwestern

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan takes on the only other Big Ten program in as much of a downward spiral as itself with a visit to Northwestern to face the winless-in-the-Big-Ten Northwestern Wildcats.

This is the fall of our discontent.

I'm not even sure if I have used that recently, but it certainly feels like it. Somehow, it is appropriate to pull out in this week's preview. The only team having a worse time that Michigan this year is Northwestern.

The Wildcats were perhaps even heavier favorites for a Legends division title than Michigan was coming into the season. The offense looked to be stacked, bringing back all sorts of skill position players including two capable quarterbacks and one of the best running backs in the Big Ten. The defense looked to be good enough thanks to adding some skill up front, and in a division full of question marks, Northwestern seemingly had the least. The season started out fine with four wins in four games. Then Ohio State came to town.

I doubt now that this game was the turning point for Northwestern's season in the all-encompassing way that it seems to be. That isn't to say that the Ohio State loss had a big effect on what Northwestern would do over the next month, just that the Buckeyes didn't break the Cats as much as the Venric Mark injury the following week did.

Still, when Northwestern wasn't able to convert a fourth down late — thanks in part to a dubious spot — it was the end of what had been as close to a program defining win as Northwestern has had. Ohio State came into that game as the king, a top-five team looking at a likely undefeated season. Northwestern missed, and the Cats are still spinning.

The next week Wisconsin ran the Cats ouf of the building. After that the better-than-we-thought-they-were Minnesota Golden Gophers snuck out a win against Northwestern. Iowa followed that up with an OT win and then Nebraska did it with a hail mary.

It certainly does seem to be raining shit on Northwestern football right now.

But that was before a bye week, and also all before a game against a Michigan team that might be in a worse place despite a better record.

When Michigan has the ball

It will go backward a lot, and you will think about the sweet embrace of death and an eternity not spent watching blitz pickups go un-done.

Maybe it isn't that bad (yet), but Michigan's offense has been an unholy abomination for the last two weeks. Michigan has two games in which seven sacks pushed the rushing totals into the negatives, and in neither of those could Michigan crack 200 yards of total offense. The first game was against possibly the best defense in the nation. The second was against one of the worst in the Big Ten. Michigan's offense right now is just plain bad, and not looking to get any better.

Northwestern's defense is now a little worse than Nebraska's in yards/carry (4.11), and tied with Michigan at 6.7 yards/pass attempt. That puts the Wildcats solidly in average territory in the conference. Northwestern is also middle of the pack in average third-down distance allowed (6.7 yards) and allowing opponents to convert 42 percent of those.

The defense is averaging just over two sacks per game and senior DE Tyler Scott leads the way with five this season while freshman DE Ifeadi Odenigbo has four. The Cats are also third in tackles for loss per game and haven't had the pleasure of playing Michigan yet like the two teams above them.

Outlook

This one is short and sweet: Can Michigan get any sort of push with its offensive line, and can either A) it give Devin Gardner time to get the ball out on longer passes or B) can Michigan work in enough shorter passes and constraints to keep Northwestern from totally selling out and sending blitzes every two out of three plays?

Considering that this defense is probably better on the whole than Nebraska's, I am not all that confident that Michigan turns it around in any noticeable way. The book on team 134 has been written: bring pressure early and often and you can stop the offense before it is able to generate anything.

When Northwestern has the ball

The good news for Michigan is that Venric Mark won't be out there. He suffered a season ending injury against Wisconsin after missing bits and pieces of the first few games. He is a monster weapon both in the backfield and as a returner, and Michigan is dodging a bullet by not having to defend him.

Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy will be the primary running backs in this offense. Green is averaging 6.4 yards/carry with over 600 yards and eight touchdowns this season. He is more of an all purpose threat, while Mike Trumpy is a less dynamic runner.

Of course, the most important piece on offense will be quarterback Kain Colter, a true dual threat that has played just about everywhere on this offense in the last three years and is the best non-Mark weapon that the Cats have. Colter has 400 yards on 4.3 yards/carry and four touchdowns on the ground with another 545 yards passing with a 78% completion rate. He has been injured off and on this season but should be rested for this game. If he can't go, Trevor Siemian will take his place. Last year Siemian tore Michigan apart with surgical downfield passes. This year he is completing 56% of his passes with one less interception than touchdown.

Northwestern has four receivers with around 20+ catches and 300+ yards on the year. Junior receiver Tony Jones leads the way with Christian Jones right behind. Superback Dan Vitale will also pose a matchup problem as Northwestern uses him in different ways as a FB and U-back type.

Outlook

Michigan's defense has been getting dogged all year, and late touchdowns allowed in both of the last two games aren't going to help perceptions. Northwestern's offense has given Greg Mattison's defense problems the past two years, but without Venric Mark the Cats are missing perhaps the most important weapon in the option game. Nebraska showed that Michigan has some issues with assignment football, but Michigan also held the Huskers in check most of the game and it was good for a season low in yards/carry for Nebraska.

Michigan's defense can slow this offense down, but whether it can stop it outright enough to give MIchigan's offense as many (and as well set up) chances as it needs remains to be seen — mostly because it still isn't clear that Michigan can score at all. The Michigan defense should be able to put up a similar performance this week which leads to lots of punts and field goal attempts and only one or two long scoring drives. What the Michigan offense does both in not giving up opportunities to Northwestern and in converting the opportunities that the Michigan D can create will go a long way toward dictating the perception of this matchup. No matter how it ends up looking, the defense will be pretty good but not great.

When someone is kicking

That Brendan Gibbons apparently needing bank shots for field goals now isn't even being discussed just goes to show how serious and numerous the issues on offense are. But hey, Matt Wile has been looking better, and he beautifully flipped field position at a crucial time early against Nebraska.

Northwestern's punter, Brandon Williams, is averaging 37 yards per punt, but Michigan doesn't ever return those anyway, so it probably won't matter. Kicker Jeff Budzien is 14 for 16 on the season after going 19 for 20 a year ago.

If it is close enough to come down to field goals, it definitely looks like Michigan is at a disadvantage.

Other Stuff

Key Matchups:

- The offensive line vs. our expectation for failure. Michigan needs some sort of blocking up front or else this game is going to end like the last two.

- Gallon and Funchess getting open. Michigan has hitched its wagons to a lot of max-protect two-man routes that rely on these two getting open against bracketed coverage. If that doesn't happen it doesn't matter how much time Devin Gardner has to thorw.

- Play assignment football. Northwestern is capable of tearing a defense apart with its option run game, and Kain Colter can do a little bit of everything. Michigan has to play lights out on defense to give the offense any shot.

- Who starts at safety. Thomas Gordon may or may not be hurt and Jarrod Wilson is almost definitely in the doghouse. Josh Furman and Courtney Avery are not viable options, so let's hope the starters are back in from the get go.

Alternate Programming: At noon you could watch Indiana-Wisconsin, which should just be an unabashed scoring spectacle. Opposite MIchigan-NU at 3:30 the Spartans will be taking on Nebraska for pole position in the Legends division going into the final weeks. Texas-Okla St, Auburn-UGA, and Miami-Duke (yes, I said Miami-Duke) all have conference implications and should (could?) be good games. The night slate of games looks a little lopsided with UF-South Carolina, Stanford-USC, Oregon State-ASU, and Texas Tech-Baylor all seeming like games that won't be that close.

Inanimate Object Threat Level - 10: From EZGame in last week's postgame thread:

Funny story....
.
Sooo, Huskers score final TD on blown (soft CB) coverage... I get mad, and regrettably hit my desk, which causes a series of reactions. 1) Desk shakes. 2) Three hole punch falls a 3/4 full box of stuff. 3) It lands right on the edge of an architectural ruler (you know a triangle shaped one), which flies across room, end over end. 4) Then stick itself right into my wall... thank god, I needed that one too, like a hole......well?
.
So I'm panicikng... knowing I just f'ed up aaaaaagain (already on short leash since the Sparty loss). So I quickly push said 3/4 full box over to wall, blocking minor 1 inch hole (guestimating). Wife wants to know if everythings ok??? Yes, dear :) Michigan's not doing well, that's all.
.
Dinner. One on one time... ta-da, I think I've gotten away with oopsey? I still got a hole to fix. But nothing a little plaster can't fill?

It's been that kind of season.

Final Thoughts

There really isn't much to say about this team. The odds are low that the offense shows up, and even lower that it does so at any acceptable level of production. Northwestern has seen the game tape and will blitz unabashedly knowing that this will work.

Michigan's defense will put up a good fight only to see the offense squander a couple really nice opportunities. A late score after the wind has been sucked out of this team will make the game look worse that it was for the defense.

I'm just going to try and pay attention to small signs of growth from this team and forget that I ever thought it was good enough to challenge for a Big Ten title.

Northwestern 23 - Michigan 14

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