Let Gardner Live
Earlier on in the 2013 season, Michigan's offense could count on Devin Gardner's ability to escape the pocket when it inevitably came crashing in on him. Notre Dame's front seven struggled to contain him, and many others failed to keep him from rolling out to find his targets off of broken plays. This is no longer the case, as the offensive line stood by to watch as Gardner was thrown violently to the ground with terrible consistency. Gardner's legs are shot, which only makes a bad offensive situation worse.
Whoever sees repetitions at guard and center needs to play with their head on a swivel. Pick up basic stunts by handing defenders off and shifting over. Identify MIKE linebackers early and find the players your responsible for if Northwestern brings the head; they will be bringing the heat. Any semblance of pass protection will give fans hope and allow Devin Gardner the time needed to get his once-elusive legs back.
Continue to Hold the Rock
All of the offensive woes aren't on Michigan's guards and centers, believe it or not. Gardner struggled with turnovers for most of the season, but he seems to be improved in the ball security department. Part of this is because Devin has continued to eat the ball when he feels pressure, opting to give Michigan a chance to punt (it's the most important play in football!) and live to see another day.
For the fiftieth time this year: Devin Gardner has to hold onto the ball when he feels pressure and isn't sure where to go with the ball. Winning the game is usually as simple as winning the turnover battle.
Will the Real Jake Ryan Please Stand Up
An October return against Penn State had Michigan fans optimistic about Jake Ryan. Weeks later, Ryan still isn't playing the amount of snaps we would like to see, and he isn't disrupting offenses like he once did, either.
Michigan has to get great play from Ryan on Saturday. Northwestern will attempt to run around Michigan's front with the option game, much like Nebraska did days ago. Quinton Washington, Willie Henry and the rest of the front did well when it came to runs between the tackles, but the linebackers and defensive ends failed Michigan in its efforts against the option, which exploited the edge on more than a handful of occasions. Ryan will be responsible for making plays on the edge against the pitch, which used to be easy work for him.
Jake also needs to find his inner sack artist. Frank Clark looks like a better player as the season rolls on, but one above average end doesn't cut it. Ryan could fix the defense's glaring weakness if he can tap into the Jake Ryan of old.
Find a Consistent Defensive Backfield
Earlier in the season, Blake Countess, Raymon Taylor, Thomas Gordon and Jarrod Wilson made up a starting defensive backfield that looked to be written in stone, especially when Wilson came out crushing bodies.
That lineup hasn't help up, for one reason or another. Countess has been beat up, Taylor has been inconsistent in his coverage, Gordon has had issues with the coaching staff and Wilson has lost snaps to safeties who shouldn't be taking them.
Greg Mattison and his defensive staff need to find the right combination on the back end. This is doubly important this season, which has been one long year of opposing passers standing in a clean pocket. Watch for true freshman Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis at cornerback. Both youngsters have been picked on by offensive coordinators and quarterbacks alike, but both will be just fine. Josh Furman and Courtney Avery could both make appearances at safety, too.
Each game becomes more important as Michigan's losses pile up. A win this week would give the team a respectable win to work off of, possibly leading to a win over a tough Iowa team before Ohio State runs around the field with ease. A loss would only add to the pressure that the entire coaching staff feels right now, and no one wants that. The offensive line has created more than enough problems for Al Borges, the secondary and pass rush are both grinding Greg Mattison's gears, and another five-star recruiting failure must have dampened the spirits of Brady Hoke. The staff and team in general need this one.