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Tale of the Tape: Northwestern 2018

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Northwestern quietly put together a very solid last decade under Pat Fitzgerald.

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Team A is 74-53 in the last decade, winning two bowl games and finishing No. 2 in its own division only twice.

Team B is 77-51 during the same time frame, snagging three bowl wins and placing No. 2 in its division two of the last three seasons.

Team A is Michigan, and Team B is Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern Wildcats. Despite besting the Wolverines only twice in the last two decades, Fitzgerald took the baton from the late Randy Walker, ran with it to solid success and now boasts stunning new facilities overlooking Lake Michigan.

Northwestern is another one of those “Rodney Dangerfield’s” of college football.* No respect, despite a fine resume. Somewhat lost in last year’s Big Ten race is that the Wildcats were one bad third quarter at Wisconsin from meeting Ohio State in Indianapolis. They finished 10-3 and second in the West, capping the year with a Music City Bowl win over Kentucky.

*H/T to Alan Abrahamson for the zinger.

Despite last year’s accomplishments, the computers had Northwestern ranked well below Michigan due to several tight wins in a soft schedule.

How does a 10-3 team finish 18 spots lower than an 8-5 one? Northwestern scuffled past below-average-to-mediocre squads ranging from Nevada to Nebraska to Purdue. Michigan — for all the frustration last year — put away the dregs of their schedule by multiple scores.

Numbers aside, Fitzgerald did something Harbaugh couldn’t in 2017: beat Michigan State.

It took three overtimes, but Clayton Thorson threw for 356 yards and two scores in a 39-31 triumph.

Northwestern offense

The biggest question: Will Clayton Thorson recover from his ACL injury in time to start Aug. 30 against Purdue? Pat Fitzgerald is calling him “day-to-day.

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound senior quarterback wasn’t stellar last year — only six yards an attempt, 15 touchdowns and 12 picks — but he was at his best against the Spartans.

He ably executed Mick McCall’s pass-heavy scheme that relies far more on timing and precision than explosive plays. At 2:15, watch senior slot receiver Flynn Nagel take advantage of a cushion with a sharp slant route off play-action, quickly gaining a first down.

Later in that first drive, junior superback Cameron Green breaks open after rubbing off Michigan State’s Joe Bachie, and Thorson hits him in stride for a third-down conversion (2:39).

The problem with this rhythm approach is you need perfect execution simply to move the ball against top defenses. Northwestern has few athletes, and against elite ones they flounder. Watch its 31-7 home loss last year to Penn State, or this from 2015 against Michigan.

Just like they couldn’t get separation from Jourdan Lewis, the outside receivers were lockstep with the Spartan secondary all day. The few deep passes — like at 15:54 or 24:30 — fell harmlessly to the turf as the departed Macan Wilson or returning junior Bennett Skowronek had no room to make a play.

The aforementioned Green, on the other hand, caught six passes for 76 yards and a touchdown by beating linebackers one-on-one. At 24:20, he sprints to the flat, torching Chris Frey in the process, to spring loose for a 25-yard jaunt. He later burns Frey again on a wheel route out the backfield for the first overtime touchdown (33:15).

Unless a new receiver emerges, Green is Thorson’s best option for big plays, as his size-speed combination is a matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties.

As far as the running games goes, you’d think the school that produced the third-leading rusher in conference history had a pile-driving line. You’d be wrong, as Justin Jackson earned every inch of his 5,440 career yards, particularly in this game.

He constantly found two or three defenders in his grill, as he mustered 41 yards on 17 carries. Northwestern’s line returned four starters last year — just like this year — but only managed the No. 76 S&P rushing offense.

His replacement is Jeremy Larkin, who at 22:42 nearly breaks a home run off an option pitch. While he only spotted Jackson with three totes for 14 yards, he appears to have an extra gear than Jackson. He showed excellent lateral mobility as well against Nebraska.

With 503 yards at six yards a pop his freshman year, he may be called upon while Thorson continues to nurse his knee in the early-going.

Basically, Northwestern has a scheme designed to manufacture points with perfect execution, but there aren’t a bevy of athletes to take advantage of elite defenses. While seven starters do return, last year’s backups in Green and Larkin may be the athletic jolt needed.

Northwestern defense

Former Michigan player and graduate assistant Mike Hankwitz helms a defense molded to resemble their head coach. Harkening back to the “Best Of” roster, few individuals stand out on this unit, but just like their former All-American linebacker of a coach, they fly to the ball.

The Wildcats boasted the No. 17 S&P rush defense last year, buoyed by breakout turns from defensive end Joe Gaziano and linebackers Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall.

Gaziano quietly outdid Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa statistically, racking up nine sacks and 13 tackles for loss. At 6-foot-4, 280 pounds, the redshirt junior is shaped more like a run-stopper, but he muscles his way to the quarterback, like at 8:35.

Paddy Fisher not only shares his head coach’s initials, but is on the same career trajectory. Fitzgerald likes to evade the comparison.

He started at middle linebacker as a freshman and tallied 111 tackles — nine for loss — and forced four fumbles. He gets strong side help from Hall, who led the team with 17 TFL’s — five of which were sacks.

Michigan State had a chance to blow the game open early. Up 7-0 in the red zone, the Spartans called two consecutive sweeps. Paddy Fisher changed the complexion of the game, forcing two consecutive fumbles to eliminate the threat. Skip to 5:34 for the sequence.

38 of MSU’s 95 rushing yards came off Brian Lewerke scrambles and gadget plays to Charles Stewart. On a down-to-down basis, it’s hard running against this front. They lost a 300-plus pounder in Tyler Lancaster to graduation, so time will tell if they are able to reinforce the requisite beef.

Watch the penetration on runs like the one at 13:46. That’s returning senior Jordan Thompson, who just bullrushes his way to L.J. Scott. For Michigan, the line problems stemmed from mental errors rather than physical strength, so it’ll be interesting to see if they can neutralize this level of power.

The biggest surprise from watching this MSU game is how abysmal Northwestern’s secondary performed. They featured two senior safeties in Kyle Queiro and Godwin Igwebuike, and PFF touted Queiro as an elite cover man.

Brian Lewerke threw for 445 yards and four touchdowns, connecting on several bombs over the pair and returning senior corner Montre Hartage.

At 1:04, Hartage and Igwebuike simply lose a foot race with Cody White to march the Spartans into the red zone. White wins a jump ball later at 26:23, boxing out the defender to flip field position.

Part of this is play-calling. Either Hankwitz or Fitzgerald, particularly on the MSU two-minute drill to tie the game, would rather give receivers 10-plus yards of cushion than...I don’t know...defending them.

From 29:51 to 31:48, Lewerke has way too much room to operate. When the Wildcats finally called tighter man coverage, Hartage loses a jump ball with Felton Davis.

This continued in overtime until Lewerke threw a duck to Nate Hall to end the game, but only after fumbling the snap and impersonating Benny Hill before the heave.

While Hartage and fellow corner Alonzo Mayo return, the loss of the two supposedly stellar safeties spells trouble for last year’s No. 62 pass defense per S&P.

Shea Patterson needs to be locked in with his tight ends and receivers, as Northwestern will surely sell out to stop the run. If Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and company make a substantial leap this year, Michigan has the advantage here.

Final thoughts

Michigan last dropped a game in Evanston 18 years ago, as Randy Walker introduced the sports world to the ultimate “level-the-playing field” tool: the spread offense. If Anthony Thomas holds onto the ball, we probably forget it.

Since then, even Brady Hoke dominated the series. As mentioned earlier, Pat Fitzgerald took one of his best teams into Ann Arbor in 2015, only for Jehu Chesson to incinerate them faster than Thanos with the Infinity Gauntlet.

The 2018 edition might be setting up to be similar to 2015. If you remember, Michigan visited Utah with lots of offensive questions, lost, ripped off four straight wins behind a stellar defense before defenestrating the Wildcats.

If 2018 follows that script, Michigan loses a tough battle in South Bend, rips off four straight wins against weak defenses to get the offense in line before the visit to Evanston.

Until Michigan’s offense proves otherwise, a blowout prediction is premature. Karan Higdon and Chris Evans will have to work for every yard on the ground, so this game is up to Shea Patterson and the passing game.

Fortunately, Don Brown’s defense figures to hold Northwestern — already a questionable offense with question marks at quarterback, running back and running the ball up front — under double-digits.

Prediction: first team to 10 wins. Michigan 20, Northwestern 9,