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Preview: Northwestern 2018

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Michigan hits the road for the first time since the opener in South Bend. They face Pat Fitzgerald’s depleted Wildcats.

Northwestern v Purdue Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Since 2008, Northwestern is exactly one game better than Michigan.

From Rich Rodriguez’s first season until now, the Wolverines are 77-54, while Pat Fitzgerald has led the Wildcats to a 78-53 mark, including three bowl victories.

This serves as just another data point explaining the severity of the Jim Harbaugh’s recovery project coming into Ann Arbor three years ago. With a win this Saturday in Evanston, he accomplishes a few things.

One, his eighth different road win in conference since 2015. Two, the program’s sixth consecutive triumph over the Wildcats. Three, an end to another ignominious reminder of the last decade’s struggles.

MOTO (Master of the Obvious)

No. 14 Michigan (3-1, 1-0) at Northwestern (1-2, 1-0) (4:30 p.m. EST)

TV: FOX

Radio: Michigan IMG Sports Network (TuneIn)

Line: -15 (Bovada)

Series history: Michigan leads 57-15-2 over the Purple. Pat Fitzgerald’s only win (as coach) over the maize and blue was on a cold and wet day in Ann Arbor circa 2008.

Michigan routed the No. 13 Wildcats 38-0 in 2015, with Jehu Chesson scoring the game-winning points on the opening kickoff.

MICHIGAN METEOROLOGY

Accuweather projects temperatures of 60 degrees and partly cloudy skies. There’s an outside shot at precipitation, as well, so pray to the weather gods.

Northwestern alumnus Charlton Heston.

Michigan offense vs. Northwestern defense

THE PASSING GAME

Yes, Northwestern is 1-2, but the blame lies more with the offense than the defense.

Linebackers Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall spearhead the nation’s No. 27 S&P defense. While the sample size early in the season skews analytics, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s unit has allowed a decent 22.6 points a game of offense — defensive touchdowns removed.

Side note: Hankwitz played linebacker for Bo Schembechler’s first team.

If there is a weakness, it’s the secondary.

After picking off Purdue’s Elijah Sindelar three times in the opener, Duke and Akron combined for five touchdowns through the air and no turnovers in the ensuing two losses.

Zips quarterback Kato Nelson, in particular, completed 17-of-28 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns, including this one where a tight end torches a safety for 24 yards.

The secondary is split between seniors and underclassmen. Senior corner Montre Hartage and sophomore safety J.R. Pace both picked off Sindelar in West Lafayette. Hartage and true freshman corner Greg Newsome both stand over 6-foot and have 24 combined tackles.

Senior safety Jared McGee and Pace fill the big shoes of departed NFL safeties of Kyle Queiro and Godwin Igwebuike, but to mixed results.

Over three games, the back four have allowed seven pass plays over 25 yards, and three over 40.

Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones look to take advantage of this, as Shea Patterson has found them for several big plays through four games — and not just against bad competition.

Patterson needs time to execute these big plays, and Northwestern only generates 1.67 sacks a game (No. 88 nationally).

The conference’s leading sack master in 2017 was defensive end Joe Gaziano (nine). He’s added two more this year to rank No. 8 in Northwestern history. At 6-foot-4, 275 pounds, he gets to the quarterback more with power and effort than athleticism.

This approach feeds more into Jon Runyan and Juwann Bushell-Beatty’s strengths as guards playing tackle. The only other lineman with a sack is tackle Jordan Thompson (two). Without speed off the edge, the pass protection looks to be good enough.

Big plays and solid pass-blocking project a winning day for Patterson and company.

Advantage: Michigan

THE RUN GAME

After Purdue sprinted to a 202-yard outburst on opening weekend, the Wildcats held both Duke and Akron under 100 yards at three yards a pop. Overall, they rank No. 41 in the country by ceding just 129.7 yards a game.

Hankwitz’s defense is undersized up front. Starters in Gaziano, Thompson, Alex Miller and Sam Miller average 275 pounds. Ed Warinner’s line outweighs that on average of 30 to 40 pounds.

The bulk of the tackles get funneled to Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Hall. Fisher is a possible clone of Pat Fitzgerald, all the way down to sharing initials.

Last year, he amassed 111 tackles with nine for loss. In the Michigan State game above, he tallied 17, marking his fourth double-digit performance of 2017. Karan Higdon will likely have to beat Fisher one-on-one multiple times.

Gallagher has 26 tackles of his own, while Hall has 21, as well as an interception.

Michigan obliterated Nebraska last week for nearly 300 yards rushing, but the Huskers didn’t have the same linebacker talent or discipline as Northwestern. If Fitzgerald and Hankwitz load the box, don’t expect their defense to get out of position.

Last time Harbaugh schemed against the Purple, he used wrinkles such as fullback traps and early play-action to throw a top-ranked defense off balance for 201 yards on the ground. Michigan likely will need similar variety in their attack to replicate that success.

Advantage: Slightly Northwestern

Michigan defense vs Northwestern offense

THE PASSING GAME

Clayton Thorson and TJ Green have split quarterback duties, with the former on a “series count” after recovering from ACL surgery following the 2017 season.

The former additionally has regressed since throwing for 3,182 yards and 22 scores his sophomore season in 2016. He dipped under 3,000 yards last year with a 15-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

This year, his play is front and center on why the Wildcats are below .500.

His two interceptions and one fumble against Akron led to returns for touchdowns. It turned a 39-34 loss to 34-20 victory. Not exactly first-round material.

Four sacks crippled his effectiveness against Duke, as he threw for less than 200 yards and no touchdowns.

Green, the son of former NFL quarterback Trent, is a walk-on who slows down the flow of the offense when he hits the field. He’s mustered only 169 passing yards on 3.5 yards an attempt.

Their targets are Flynn Nagel and Ben Skowronek at receiver and Cameron Green at super back. The receivers are decidedly possession guys in offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s dink-and-dunk attack. Nagel has 20 catches for 226 yards, while Skowronek has chipped in 14 more for 172.

The danger man here is Green.

At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Green has the size to box out safeties and the speed to beat linebackers out of the backfield.

In 2018, he’s snagged 17 balls for 183 yards and two touchdowns. Josh Ross, and especially Devin Bush, have the speed and physicality to stick with Green. When Khaleke Hudson returns from his targeting suspension in the second half, another bullet arrives to cover him.

Lavert Hill and David Long will likely shut down the rest of the attack. With the Wildcats allowing six sacks through three games, will Thorson even have time to find his targets?

Advantage: Michigan

THE RUN GAME

This one’s pretty simple. Jeremy Larkin medically retired this week due to cervical stenosis.

He leaves behind his 346 yards and five touchdowns from this season. His replacement is John Moten IV, a bigger back with only 21 yards on 12 carries.

With the Wolverines ranking No. 15 nationally in rush defense, and their defensive tackles beginning to hold firm in the interior, it’s hard to see how Northwestern can move the ball on the ground.

Advantage: Michigan

ISN’T THAT SPECIAL

Kicker Charlie Kuhbander has converted only one field goal with three attempts. Advantage Quinn Nordin, as long as he makes his extra points.

Wildcat punter Jake Collins is managing only 37.3 yards a punt, while the Wolverine’s Will Hart is booming the ball at a 52-yard clip. Averaging nearly 15 yards more a punt is a field position win.

Overall, Michigan ranks No. 7 in special teams S&P versus Northwestern checking in at No. 115.

FINAL THOUGHTS

It’s hard to imagine Northwestern scoring more than 10 points, and even that may be generous.

How can Thorson take advantage of Hill and Long? How can the line protect him from Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich? How will Moten find room on the ground?

Meanwhile, Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton boast several athletes on offense that have sparked a total of 150 points the last three outings. The only way Fitzgerald pulls the upset here is if his defense can strangle the run game, force Michigan to throw and punish them by harassing Patterson.

Even on the road against Notre Dame, the Wolverine signal-caller displayed poise under immense pressure, finishing the night 20-of-30 for 227 yards — albeit with two turnovers.

Since then?

Fitzgerald might not like what happens if he puts nine defenders at the line of scrimmage.

From there, the run game can salt the game away.

Michigan 31, Northwestern 6