Who: 3-5 (2-3) Northwestern Wildcats
Time: 3:30 ET (ESPN2)
Date: Saturday, Nov. 8
Place: Ryan Field--Evanston, Ill.
Strike up the Big and Rich, because the Wolverines are coming to my citay!
For admittedly selfish reasons, I'm excited for this game for the sole reason that Michigan will be coming to my current hometown, the beautiful City of Evanston. As for the game itself, well, it won't exactly be the the greatest display of football the Chicago area has seen (and this is a town haunted by the spectre of the Chicago Bears, ranging from horrid at worst to underachieving at best).
So, this week, I'll hop on the Purple Line, forget about the records, and enjoy what is likely to be a 13-10 slopfest with lakefront winds biting to and fro.
The Wildcats know this feeling, too. Last year, glorious Fightin' Warrior Poets (my second alma mater, so there is a little bit of love there...miss you, Medill!) started 4-0, with ESPN and the Buckeyes coming to town. Since then, Pat Fitzgerald and Co. have gone 4-12, including a loss at home earlier this season against Northern Illinois. The following week, I checked out Northwestern's game against Western Illinois; they won, 24-7, in the least impressive fashion possible.
Then, the 'Cats bounced back. Like the 2013-14 basketball season, the Wildcats were at one point improbably near the top of the conference standings after thumping Penn State in Happy Valley then knocking out Wisconsin at home, 20-14, thanks to poor UW quarterback play, mistake-free play from Trevor Siemian, three interceptions from safety Godwin Igwebuike and a big game from tailback Justin Jackson. They did this despite Melvin Gordon rushing for 259 yards, his career single-game high -- college football, but especially Northwestern, often doesn't make sense.
They've fallen back to earth, with a tough loss at Minnesota and blowouts losses against Nebraska and Iowa (48-7).
This is not a good football team, but neither is Michigan. Let the games begin!
When Michigan has the ball
The Wildcats defense was looking solid enough, up until getting 38 points dropped on it by Nebraska and a whopping 49 by Iowa, an outfit not exactly known for its offensive ability.
They come in ranked 59th in defensive FEI, and a not so good 94th in the methodical drives category (i.e. the percentage of opponents' drives that run for 10 plays or more). In terms of things they are good at, relatively, they ranked 44th in first down rate (i.e. the percentage of opponents' drive that yield at least one first down).
Iowa QB Jake Rudock passed for a ridiculous 12.6 YPA while tailbacks Akrum Wadley and Mark Weisman rushed for 7.1 and 4.7 YPC, respectively. Needless to say, sometimes things fall apart.
Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo, he of the All-Name Team, is also pretty good at football. He leads the 'Cats with 72, including four tackles for loss and a team-high three quarterback hurries. Unfortunately, as is often a bad indicator, Northwestern's second through fourth leading tacklers are defensive backs, corners Nick VanHoose and Matthew Harris and safety Traveon Henry. Usually safety Ibraheim Campbell is up there in tackles, but he's been out since sustaining an injury against Penn State. Luckily Igwebuike has stepped up, but you never want to lose a fifth-year senior like Campbell back there.
Also on the injury front, linebacker Anthony Walker has filled in at the MIKE spot for the injured Collin Ellis, with Walker starting the last two games. He notched eight tackles against Penn State, and a combined 12 against Nebraska and Iowa.
Up front, defensive end Dean Lowry leads the way with 3.5 sacks on the season, while Ifeadi Odenigbo has three, despite seemingly not being on the two-deep the past couple of weeks. Northwestern comes in ranked 87th in sacks per game -- teams like Indiana and Illinois are just ahead of them in the standings.
Despite forcing four turnovers against Wisconsin, they're also a middling 55th in turnovers forced, with 14 on the season. These things would seem to bode well for Michigan, but, as we all know, Michigan's deficiencies seem to become even more glaring on the road. They're also 65th in rushing defense and 83rd in third down conversion defense.
If Drake Johnson is a real thing and not a product of the Indiana defense, Michigan might be able to keep Gardner and the offensive line from too many third and longs. Not only is Michigan incapable of converting on third and long, that increases the chances of disaster happening.
Melvin Gordon is walking through that door, but Michigan should be able to do something. Northwestern does have solid size in the middle, with the 205-pound Chance Carter and the 300-pound Greg Kuhar. Michigan's best bet will probably be to
When the U-M defense is on the field
The Northwestern offense has had its fair share of problems, just like Michigan.
Without Venric Mark and Kain Colter around to bolster the ground game, they've embarked on a search for the next guy to tote the rock. That guy has been Carol Stream, Ill., native Justin Jackson, who has 726 yards and five touchdowns on 4.6 YPC this season. Jackson solidified that role against Wisconsin, when he ground up the UW run defense for 162 yards on 33 carries. He then popped off 106, 126 and 96 yards against Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa, respectively.
In short, at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, he's the most consistent weapon the 'Cats offense has. Overall, they rank 50th in offensive FEI and 11th in the methodical drive category. However, when they aren't grinding out long drives, things don't look too rosy. ranking in the 100s in the explosive drive, available yards and value drives categories.
While Siemian looked like Joe Montana against Michigan in the Big House two years ago, he has not looked so great since. Thus far in 2014, he's completed 56.2 percent of his passes for a paltry 5.53 yards per attempt and just four touchdowns to six interceptions.
Part of the problem there is a lack of dynamic playmaking on the outside. Kyle Prater leads the way with 29 receptions and 286 yards, but just one interception; the 6-foot-5 receiver hasn't quite lived up to his former 5-star billing, unfortunately.
Superback Dan Vitale comes next, with 26-282-1 on the season. Miles Shuler, a Rutgers transfer, hasn't brought big plays with his blazing speed (23-190-0, with a long of 22 yards).
If there was a game for Michigan to maybe go back to more press-man, this one might be it. But look at me, getting all cocky after a win against Indiana. Good times!
Anyway, the last time Michigan faced a pairing of a "solid" tailback and an anemic passing game, well...that was the Minnesota game. Will that play out once again by Lake Michigan? Hopefully not, but you really never know with this team.
I am planning on enjoying the experience of Michigan football live, something I haven't had the chance to do since the 2012 Michigan State game. It will be a bad game, full of herps and derps and punts and third and longs. People will Bronx cheer, and then they won't even do that, because what's the point?
Given the way the season has gone, I'm not even sure Michigan can count on the usual pseudo-home field advantage it has at Ryan Field. Will Michigan fans come out for this one? Who knows, but if they don't, more Mustard's Last Stand for the rest of us, I suppose.
Michigan is fighting for a bowl berth, an admittedly insignificant accomplishment, especially in light of the impending changes at the top. Nonetheless, a loss Saturday would assuredly put the nail in the coffin on those aspirations, as the odds of a win in Columbus are slim to none, and Slim just caught the last train out of town to watch some other team play in Shreveport or Boca Raton or Boise, because Slim just loves the spectacle.
Which team will be less bad? To echo political pundits on Tuesday night, it might be too close to call. Once again, I'm left to close my eyes and take a guess. Michigan is a slight underdog, but definitely has a shot to win this one. However, I'll side with Michigan's track record on the road under Hoke, and guess that Michigan drops a close one.
Michigan 17, Northwestern 21.