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Getting To Know Michigan's Week Six Opponent: Northwestern Wildcats

Taking a look at Michigan's second Big Ten opponent this season and more in preparation for the weekend matchup.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the season during game week, we will be taking a look at what Michigan's opponent that Saturday has done so far and what the team looks like. With the game against Northwestern being a week six opponent, we automatically go to the Wildcats' win over Minnesota this past weekend and their defensive success.

Northwestern Overview: Big Ten's Surprise Program

Ricky: Michigan and Northwestern are two of the best defensive teams in the country. Per, Northwestern has the nation’s best scoring defense (7 points allowed per game); Michigan is slotted in at No. 2 with 7.6 points allowed per game. Michigan gets the edge in rushing defense (fifth in nation), while Northwestern bests the Wolverines in passing defense (seventh in nation). All signs point to a defensive slugfest. In that scenario, which team would it favor and how would that team get an edge?

Zach: I give the advantage to Michigan’s defense, for the reason being of Northwestern’s woes this season within the opponent 20-yard line. Bleacher Report posted a statistic that the Wildcats have reached the red zone 17 times, but have managed to garner to just five touchdowns. They have converted 90% of their field goals from the area as well. Considering how many times Northwestern has left four points on the board this year is enough for Michigan to get the edge to further continues NU's struggles. Being that this will be the defensive battle, the latest over/under is 36...if you’re a betting man like myself, would you have no problem placing money on the under?

Ricky: Oh, yeah. I feel that’s a comfortable over/under to bet on. I don’t see Northwestern scoring many points, if any. I believe Michigan’s defense is elite now. The playmakers are starting to show, and guys are improving at fast rates (Jourdan Lewis and Ryan Glasgow). As good as Michigan’s running defense is, you’d have to think Justin Jackson isn’t going to make things easy on the unit. Northwestern owns the top rushing offense in the Big Ten, and the sophomore running back is a huge reason. He’s slotted at third in the conference in rushing yards per game (127.20 yards). What are your thoughts on Jackson, and will he pose much of a threat to Michigan?

Zach: Through five games this season, Jackson has rushed for over 100 yards in four, highlighted by 184-yards and a long of 62-yard performance against Ball State two weeks ago. What’s more impressive about Jackson’s season is him coming off a meniscus injury last offseason to now considered to be one of the top rushers in the conference. Northwestern hasn’t been afraid for Jackson to carry the load on the ground, handing him the rock over 30 times in two games. If the Wildcats want to wear down the No. 5 ranked rush defense, they must utilize Jackson regularly, even if that means him carrying the ball 30+ times again. How about Michigan’s rushing attack though? Drake Johnson is back and is listed behind De’Veon Smith on the depth chart and had a solid outing (68-yards, 1 TD) against Maryland last week. Can he repeat this outing on Saturday?

Ricky: It’s hard to say. For most of the season, Michigan has been riding Smith and utilizing other backs when needed. One week, it was Ty Isaac. The next, Drake Johnson. Their roles fluctuate often. I really enjoy how well Johnson compliments Smith. If he sees extended action, say, 10 or more carries, I think it’s possible. He looks even better than last year, and he was darn good during that November stretch (320 yards and four touchdowns on 55 carries). Let’s look at the man handing the ball off to the backs; Jake Rudock. He struggled with the deep ball last week and looked bad in the first half. He completed 50 percent of his passes for 180 yards and a touchdown. He also threw one interception. What should the expectation be for Rudock vs. Northwestern?

Zach: Last season in his final year at quarterback for Iowa, Rudock threw just five interceptions. Flash forward to today, in five games at quarterback for Michigan, Rudock has been picked off six times. His inability to not turn the ball arguably cost Michigan a win against Utah in the season opener. Jim Harbaugh has reiterated that the starting job is Rudock’s so it’s easy to assume that there isn’t a solid replacement. The level of importance of Michigan winning this game is at an all-time high, and the difference between winning and losing falls on the transfer’s hands.

Recap: Northwestern 27, Minnesota 0

Before the season, Northwestern’s game against Minnesota looked to be all Gophers. They were eyeing the Big Ten West title after a string of strong seasons under Jerry Kill.

Northwestern wasn’t having any of that.

The Wildcats demoralized Minnesota Saturday, winning 27-0. Their offense totaled 312 yards of offense while holding the Gophers to 173 yards.

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson was the perfect compliment to running back Justin Jackson. Thorson completed 74 percent of his passes while Jackson rushed for 120 yards.

The Wildcats defense — one of the best in the country — forced a quarterback change; three-year starter Mitch Leidner was pulled for freshman Demry Croft.

But neither could pose anything close to a threat against Northwestern.

Leidner went 10-for-21 passing with 71 yards and an interception. Croft completed 5-of-11 passes for 27 yards.

Minnesota could only convert 4-of-16 third down chances, and whiffed on all four fourth-down attempts.

Key Players To Watch

Justin Jackson, Running Back

As discussed in the conversation, Jackson is a work horse, leading the country in carries per game this season with 138 attempts. That being said, Jackson has yet to face a defense as physical and mentally tough like Michigan's. The Wolverines have been able to successfully contain each of the five running backs they've faced this year. But will that streak come to a close in Ann Arbor on Saturday?

Clayton Thorson, Quarterback

This will be the redshirt freshman's biggest game played this season, despite defeating now No. 16 ranked Stanford in week one at home. He understands the capacity crowd that'll be in attendance this weekend and told the Chicago Tribune that he won't let the crowd affect his style of play. Taking snaps in front of 100,000+ spectators can be intimidating and we'll see how that'll play a factor for the pocket passer.

Entire Defense, All 11 Players

Who would have thought that Northwestern would bring the No. 1 ranked defense into the Big House this Saturday? Their front seven is led by redshirt sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker, who's been a machine at the middle spot, already collecting three interceptions. The Wildcats were able to contain the No. 31 ranked offense (Stanford) to just six points in the season opener, so prepare yourself for a hard nosed battle between two talented defenses.

Hot Takes

Zach: Last year’s contest ended with a 10-9 win for Michigan. I fully expect the score in that ballpark on Saturday, as well as another Wolverines victory before their game against Michigan State.

Ricky: This game is going to be a defensive slugfest. But it will be Michigan who exits a winner, with a third-consecutive shutout.