Well, a lot has changed since the last time Michigan played at the Big House.
The Wolverines (4-1 Big Ten, 6-3 overall) return home following an eventful two-game stint on the road — a 23-9 loss against Nebraska and a 35-13 victory over Minnesota. In the loss to the Cornhuskers, Michigan lost both its starting quarterback Denard Robinson to an elbow injury and severely hurt its chances to get to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Saturday, a talented Northwestern team (3-2, 7-2) comes into town. Michigan no longer controls its own destiny to get to the championship, but the only thing it can do to keep the chance alive is keep winning.
Michigan rush offense vs. Northwestern rush defense
Michigan’s running backs have underperformed this season, and it’s no secret. But if Robinson plays Saturday, the Wolverine rushing attack is still among the most dynamic in the country. Michigan coach Brady Hoke has stayed mum this week regarding the health of Robinson’s throwing elbow, and his status is totally up in the air.
If Robinson is not available, junior quarterback Devin Gardner will start in his place, as he did at Minnesota last weekend. Gardner doesn’t run the read option as much as Robinson, and he’ll find himself under center more often, with fewer designed runs. That puts a greater burden on junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and sophomore running back Thomas Rawls, as well as the offensive line, to produce in the ground game.
Northwestern’s linebacking corps is solid. Northwestern has the worst pass defense in the Big Ten and teams have been throwing at will against them. The Wildcat front seven has been very adept at stopping the run so far this season.
Michigan pass offense vs. Northwestern pass defense
Northwestern has surrendered 272 passing yards per game this season, which is the worst total in the conference. Still, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges tends to stick to his guns, and the Wolverine offense will still have a run-first mentality.
But Robinson and Gardner have the ability to find a groove in the passing game. Last week, after a rough first quarter that included an interception, Gardner settled down and took control of the tempo. He finished the game 12-of-18 passing with a pair of touchdowns.
Northwestern’s pass rush isn’t special, and the coverage tends to be shoddy at times, so both Robinson and Gardner should be able to hit their targets.
Northwestern rush offense vs Michigan rush defense
Northwestern’s offense employs a run-heavy spread, but its operation is dependent on whoever the hot hand is at quarterback. The Wildcats have tried out both junior Kain Colter and sophomore Trevor Siemian. Colter has started lately, which makes sense because the offense is a bit more dynamic with his dual-threat capabilities.
In Northwestern’s last game, against Iowa, Colter kept the ball on the ground 26 times and picked up 171 yards, and he only threw the ball nine times. And the fact that he could also hand the ball to junior running back Venric Mark, who has compiled over 1,000 yards this season, makes matters tricker.
Michigan’s front seven will be busy on Saturday, and Hoke will likely clog the box as much as possible. The Wolverine rush defense has been average through the course of the season, but it has improved in recent weeks against Michigan State, Nebraska and Minnesota.
Expect the Wildcats keep it on the ground throughout the game.
Northwestern pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
Though Northwestern prefers finding space on the ground, the Michigan secondary needs to be wary of the big play over the top. When the opportunity presents itself, Colter isn’t afraid to launch the ball deep should a receiver find room behind the safeties. Against Iowa, one of his six completions was a 47-yard touchdown strike to Christian Jones.
Still, the Wildcat receiving corps is relatively weak, and Michigan’s defensive backs should be able to reel them in easily. The Wolverines have given up the fewest passing yards per game (145) and the fewest touchdowns (six) in the Big Ten.
Michigan placekicker Brendan Gibbons was named a semifinalist for the 2012 Lou Groza Collegiate Placekicker Award, given annually to the best kicker in the country, on Nov. 5. He is 15 for 17 on the year, and he knocked through a career-long 52-yarder at Nebraska two weeks ago.
But Northwestern placekicker Jeff Budzien has been equally impressive, good on 11 of his 12 attempts this season.
Overall, the Wolverines’ special-teams play has been messy recently, as punter Will Hagerup has been shanking punts and the coverage unit has been porous. Michigan will have its hands full with Mark, who has a pair of punt returns for touchdowns this season.
There’s nothing quite like home. Michigan returns to the Big House for the first time in 21 days, and fans will be excited to see the Wolverines back in action. Ryan Field, in Evanston, holds about 50,000 fans. This weekend, over twice as many people will sit in Michigan Stadium, screaming at the Wildcats.
Pat Fitzgerald is a great coach, and he will do everything in his power to get his players ready. But they might not be ready for an atmosphere like this.
FINAL SCORE (with Robinson): Michigan, 35-10
FINAL SCORE (without Robinson): Michigan, 24-13