In 2014, Michigan and Northwestern fans bonded as they watched their respective schools participate in one of the sloppiest, most-Yakety Sax-filled football games in recent memory. It was dubbed "#M00N," and we have since tried to erase it from our memory banks. One year later, we may see the #M00N again, but, if we do, it will be because we witnessed two of the best defenses in the nation take the field when No. 18 Michigan hosts No. 13 Northwestern at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.
It should go without saying how important this Saturday's showdown will be, but, as our managing editor Anthony Broome wrote in his Detroit Free Press column, it will feature the Big Ten's two most impressive teams thus far. We introduced you to this Northwestern team yesterday, but it's time to learn about the Wildcats from someone who knows them better than we do: Zach Pereles, who is an editor at Inside NU. Why has Northwestern had such a huge turnaround in just one season? How will Justin Jackson and NU try to move the ball against Michigan's run defense? Will Northwestern finally not "Northwestern" against Michigan? Zach answers that and much more below.
And here is the Q&A that I did at Inside NU, which includes my prediction for the game.
Last season, Michigan and Northwestern participated in the infamous #M00N game, during which both teams stumbled and derped their way to a 10-9 result and 5-7 seasons. Now, just one season later, Northwestern travels to Ann Arbor with a 5-0 record and as the No. 13 team in the AP poll to face No. 18 Michigan. Much has changed in a year. What's been the biggest difference for NU between 2014 and 2015?
The biggest difference this year, by far, has been the incredible jump made by Northwestern's defense and-- at a less-recognized but similarly impressive level-- special teams. Last year, Northwestern's defense was solid at times but was not a unit that could win a football game. This year, Northwestern's defense has basically been why the Wildcats beat their three most reputable opponents: Stanford, Duke (when Clayton Thorson struggled mightily) and Minnesota. While the offense has struggled at times, it doesn't have to be great when the defense is giving up just seven points per game. Additionally, last year's special teams performance cost Northwestern dearly. They finished the year ranked near the bottom of special teams efficiency ratings. This year, the Wildcats have gotten two game-changing returns-- a kickoff return touchdown to take the lead against Duke and a 55-yard punt return against Minnesota to set the offense up for its first touchdown-- and solid kick coverage.
Northwestern has three notable wins this season: vs. No. 16 Stanford (16-6), at Duke (19-10), and vs. Minnesota (27-0). Which of these wins was the most impressive? Why?
The win over Stanford was most impressive, and it continues to look more and more impressive each week as Stanford steamrolls through the Pac-12. Clayton Thorson had no turnovers in his college debut and the defense made a major statement by holding Kevin Hogan and Co. to just two field goals. The Wildcats used a near-perfect game plan and executed it: Justin Jackson's 134 yards led a 225-yard team effort on the ground-- nearly three times as many as Stanford's 85-- and the Wildcats played turnover-free football. When this team avoids turnovers, as they did against the Cardinal, they are tough to beat.
Northwestern's defense has been one of the best units in the nation. The Wildcats are first in the nation in scoring defense (7.0 PPG), fifth in total defense (247.4 YPG), and sixth in Defensive S&P+. The reason for this seems to be the pass defense, which is third in the nation in both YPA (4.0) and passer rating (83.35). Why has the Wildcats' back seven been so superb this season? And how will they plan to defend quarterback Jake Rudock, who has been an inconsistent game manager thus far for Michigan?
The Wildcats' defensive backs have been terrific because they are one very good, experienced, cohesive unit. Nick VanHoose, a second-team All-Big Ten performer last year, and Matt Harris are an outstanding cornerback tandem. Harris has been the ballhawk this year with three picks, but VanHoose is as steady as anyone in the nation and provides senior leadership. Safety Traveon Henry, a converted linebacker from two years ago, has finally settled into his role in the coverage schemes and can still pack a punch on his hits. Godwin Igwebuike is a terrific open-field tackler who has a penchant for making big plays. He had three interceptions last year against Wisconsin and forced and recovered a crucial fumble against Duke in Week 3 this year. The depth at the position is also outstanding, though it will be tested after Kyle Queiro went down with a broken arm against Ball State. Marcus McShepard, Keith Watkins II and Jared McGee (who's replacing Queiro) are steady replacements whenever any of the starters need a breather. In the linebacking corps, Anthony Walker and Drew Smith are good athletes who can cover decently, but the best coverage linebacker is Nate Hall, who swaps in and out with Jaylen Prater, who plays primarily on running downs.
Against Rudock, the Wildcats won't change their game plan: they'll hope to get pressure with their front four while allowing short yardage passes underneath and tackling consistently. Northwestern has been very good about not allowing people get behind the defense, and once the pass goes short, tackling has generally been solid.
If there is an area in Northwestern's defense that Michigan may be able to exploit, it's the run defense as the Wildcats are 44th in YPC (3.72). Though the run defense holds up well on a down-by-down basis, it can permit some explosive runs -- 57th in S&P+'s Rushing IsoPPP and 56th in 10-plus-yard runs allowed. Michigan generally isn't explosive on the ground barring two jet sweeps by receiver Jehu Chesson, but U-M can grind out yards with De'Veon Smith -- a bruiser of a back that should return from his ankle injury this weekend. How have opponents had success running the ball against Northwestern? And how should Michigan account for linebacker Anthony Walker, who has 44 tackles and eight tackles for loss against the run alone in just five games?
When the offensive line play holds up well, running backs have success. It's when Northwestern's defense wins the battle-- which has been the case most of the season-- when the Wildcats are especially adept at stopping the run. When the interior of the offensive line gets at least one person to the second level to engage in blocking Walker, running against Northwestern can be successful. When the defensive linemen occupy blockers and allow Walker to play downhill, however, it's very difficult to run because that's when Walker is at his best.
For as excellent as Northwestern's defense has been, the offense has been just as poor. The Wildcats are 89th in scoring offense (25.4 PPG), tied for 116th in yards per play (4.90 YPP), and 100th in Offensive S&P+. The blame mostly falls on the arm of redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson, who is 64-of-113 (56.6 pct.) for 711 yards (6.3 YPA), four touchdowns, and three picks. What have been Thorson's biggest issues as a thrower? And does he have any chance of success against Michigan's pass defense, which harassed BYU's Tanner Mangum and Maryland's Caleb Rowe into a combined stat line of 20-of-55 (36.4 pct.) for 102 yards (1.9 YPA), no touchdowns, and three picks?
Thorson has had, as one would expect, an up-and-down start to his career. Against Stanford, he made some shaky decisions that he was lucky to get away with, but in general he played solidly. After a good showing against Eastern Illinois, he really struggled against Duke, throwing two costly picks. Luckily for him, he got a terrific performance from his defense and special teams. He then again looked bad against Ball State, committing three turnovers in the first half, but he responded with a two-touchdown, turnover-free second half and then played very well against Minnesota. Over the past game-and-a-half, Thorson's decisions have been much better; he's thrown the ball away rather than forcing completions, he's looked more and more comfortable in the pocket, and his accuracy has improved.
Thorson's biggest issues have been turnovers and short pass accuracy. But he's improving, and any Northwestern fan has to be optimistic for his future in the program. I would expect something like this from Thorson against a very good Michigan defense: 14-for-24, 155 yards, one touchdown, one interception.
Even if Clayton Thorson can't get it going through the air, Northwestern's offensive success against Michigan will be predicated on how well NU runs the ball as the Wildcats are third in the nation in carries per game (57.0). Running back Justin Jackson is a workhorse (138 car., 636 yards, 4.61 YPC, TD), and Thorson (41 car., 165 yards, 4.02 YPC, 4 TD) is a threat with his legs as well. However, Northwestern relies on picking up chunk yardage on the ground to move the ball -- 109th in S&P+'s run efficiency metric and 29th in S&P+'s run explosiveness metric -- and Michigan's run defense shuts down big runs -- 19th in S&P+'s run explosiveness metric. What will Jackson and Thorson try to do to break through this stout Michigan run defense?
The plan rarely changes for Jackson, who has terrific footwork, agility, vision and patience. He'll never burn the defense with speed, but he sets up his blockers very well and is a terrific one-cut back. If the Northwestern offensive line gets a push, Jackson will chip away over and over again until he bursts a long one; he gets stronger as the game goes on. Thorson's carries are almost always on designed runs. If he gets to the corner, he's dangerous because he has good straight-line speed, but over one-fourth of his career rushing yards came on a 42-yard keeper for a score against Stanford.
Running back is another position where Northwestern has terrific depth. Warren Long is regarded as the short-yardage back, but even he broke off a 55-yard score against Duke. Solomon Vault is the quickest and most well-rounded of the group and a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Michigan has a new staff in town, but, in the past, Michigan has had trouble handling up-tempo offenses. The Wolverines haven't faced one yet this season, but they will against Northwestern, who is seventh in adjusted pace. How has Clayton Thorson handled the increased tempo as a frosh? Have prior opponents struggled to defend it?
Early in the game, it doesn't seem that defenses struggle to stop the pace. But as the game wears on, defenses tire out and Thorson can simply continue to feed Jackson. It would seem that, nursing a lead, Northwestern would take more time in the fourth quarter, but that hasn't been the case. The Wildcats like to pick up the tempo late in games so defensive players can't sub out and the Wildcats can run the ball down their opponents' throats. Thorson has been good in this setting thus far, and Pat Fitzgerald makes sure to rotate a lot of players in at wide receiver and along the offensive line.
Northwestern and Michigan have the two best scoring defenses and nothing better than meh offenses, so this is expected to be "#M00N: The Sequel." Accordingly, special teams should have an added impact as both teams try to win the field-position battle. The edge here seems to go to Michigan as the U-M has had some of the best field position in the nation while Northwestern has had some of the worst. The culprit seems to be punter Hunter Niswander, who is averaging only 38.9 yards per punt -- 92nd in the nation. Why has Niswander struggled? How effective has Northwestern's punt coverage unit been as Michigan has a dangerous returner in Jabrill Peppers?
Niswander has his struggles, but he gets decent hang time on his punts-- or at least enough for his fantastic coverage units down the field. It's unclear why he has struggled so much, but last week he was certainly kicking into a strong wind on some punts. Also, Niswander's individual stat line is somewhat skewed because the Wildcats rank 45th nationally in net punt yards at 37.6 per punt, meaning they don't give up many return yards. Jabrill Peppers is a very dangerous return man as Fitzgerald mentioned in his Monday press conference, but this is one of the best special teams coverage units Fitzgerald had at his time here at Northwestern.
Northwestern has suffered some awful luck in each of its last three meetings against Michigan. There was the Hail Mary to Roy Roundtree in 2012. There was Brendan Gibbons' hurry-up field goal to force OT in 2013. And there was the Wildcats' failed two-point conversion in the final seconds in 2014. If it comes down to the wire again on Saturday, how terrible will your flashbacks be? And would NU's luck finally turn?
The flashbacks are terrible. Awful. Northwestern has "Northwesterned" each of the past three contests against the Wolverines, but they have to be due for some luck eventually, right? Right?
Fill in the blank: for Northwestern to beat Michigan, NU must _______________?
Win the turnover battle. The only times Northwestern has trailed at halftime this year has been when they've turned it over in the first half: against Ball State and Duke. If Thorson takes care of the ball, it's a huge boost to Northwestern's chances of pulling it out in Ann Arbor.
Prediction time. Who wins? What's the score? Will we stare at the #M00N again?
I'm taking Northwestern, 16-13. There's something special about this team. They have a certain mental toughness that has been missing the past two seasons. At halftime, it's 10-7 in favor of Northwestern. Heading into the fourth, it's 13-10 and the Wolverines tie it up at 13 about midway through the quarter before Jack Mitchell (who's great in clutch situations and not quite as great in other situations) comes through with the game-winner. The Wildcats' luck finally changes on the back of another solid defensive performance.
A big thank you to Zach for answering our questions! Follow him on Twitter here.