Despite a 6-0 record, the jury is still out on Michigan. Washington was not the major non-conference clash it was expected to be, Wisconsin is on the downswing right as it prepares to trade Michigan for Ohio State in the cross-division schedule, and Nebraska is improving but is still Nebraska. Given the Wolverines’ recent history, there is no surprise that many remain skeptical across the nation.
Most of those uncertainties will not be resolved this weekend. Michigan hosts a mediocre Northwestern team that ranks just 77th per S&P+, one spot better than Week 1 victim Western Michigan. The Wildcats did take down Rutgers last week, but were dominated in Lincoln and have yet to face a team as good as the Wolverines (no disrespect intended...).
While this has the makings of a trap game, it is hard to see how the 108th-ranked offense is going to put up many points on the Wolverine defense, which comes in at ninth-best in the country. Jim Harbaugh surely used the bye week to prepare his team for the upcoming gauntlet within the Big Ten East to close out the season, but there is no way he will let this group overlook anyone.
Northwestern Wildcats (3-3, 1-2) vs. No. 6 Michigan Wolverines (6-0, 3-0)
Especially coming out of the bye, the quarterback conundrum will continue to be at the forefront of discussions this Saturday. Cade McNamara finally threw an interception — at a very inopportune time — and he had some misses that the offense might have paid for on another night. Meanwhile, J.J. McCarthy saw his number of snaps increase, though he has yet to run a full series or even throw the ball in non-garbage time.
It will not matter who takes the snaps in Evanston, but that might be the last time this sentiment remains true. If there was ever a time to make a quarterback change, or at least implement more of a platoon, Northwestern after a bye would be it. This sort of maneuver is a little out of character for Harbaugh, but he does seem to have turned over a new leaf.
Likewise, the defense should be able to get by with even an average performance. The secondary showed some of its old flaws against Nebraska, but this is not the type of game where it should be significantly exploited, even though Northwestern will throw the ball a bit. Instead, the defensive line has another chance to cause some havoc and take over the game up front. The Wildcats rank 114th with just 2.58 yards per carry in conference games this season.
Expect Michigan to try to lean heavily on the run game like it did last time out. The Wolverines also sit near the bottom in yards per carry against Big Ten opponents, but both Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins found success against the Cornhuskers and hit some important big runs in the fourth quarter. No matter who ends up at quarterback, the identity of this team will still be running the ball, and that will be on display this weekend. Northwestern ranks 108th in total rush yards allowed but 27th in passing defense.
Ryan Hilinski transferred from South Carolina and took over the quarterback job due to injury in Week 3. In three starts since then he has been competent, but not anything special, throwing three touchdowns and no picks but with just a 57.6 percent completion rate and 6.51 yards per attempt. This is not a quarterback to fear and hopefully the defense can take advantage against a struggling offensive unit.