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Breakdown: Michigan bringing the house, explosive offense to Evanston

Marissa McClain/Daily
Junior quarterback Denard Robinson and junior running back Vincent Smith could wreak havoc on the Northwestern defense, which is No. 11 in the Big Ten. Buy this photo

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 6, 2011

It’s been four seasons since the Michigan football team has visited Evanston, the home of Northwestern. Plenty has changed since the Wolverines downed the Wildcats on Sept. 29, 2007.

Lloyd Carr was replaced by Rich Rodriguez, who was, in turn, replaced by Brady Hoke. Michigan’s quarterback isn’t the flat-footed, rocket-armed Chad Henne, but the electrifying Denard Robinson.

As for Northwestern's home, Ryan Field, still seats just 40,000 paying customers — less than half of Michigan Stadium’s capacity. Pat Fitzgerald is still the coach. And quarterback is still a major question mark — only this time it’s only for injury reasons.

Michigan pass offense vs. Northwestern pass defense

The Wildcats (0-1 Big Ten, 2-2 overall) are preparing to face Robinson for the first time. That, by itself, is a monumental challenge. But after Michigan’s 58-0 dismantling of Minnesota last week, Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz — a 1969 linebacker for Bo Schembechler’s first team — must have had his head spinning all week.

Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges effectively made the Wolverines impossible to scout. Against the Golden Gophers, Borges installed a new-look diamond set, with both Robinson and sophomore quarterback Devin Gardner in the backfield with a pair of running backs.

Four run options and two passing options — or three, if you include junior running back Vincent Smith, who threw for a touchdown last Saturday. That’s dangerous.

And aside from the uncertainty of facing Borges’s schemes and trying to contain Robinson, the Wildcats have to contend with an improving Robinson. After dismal passing performances for much of the early season, he was 15-of-19 passing for 169 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota.

Consider Northwestern’s pass defense a work in progress, ranked 10th in Big Ten, allowing 245 passing yards per game.

Edge: Michigan

Michigan rush offense vs. Northwestern rush defense

While corralling Robinson will always be an issue, Northwestern linebacker David Nwabuisi and the Wildcat defense have been consistently disruptive in the backfield this season.

Northwestern has blown through the line to the tune of 19 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. But that aggressive push also leaves the secondary exposed. And with Denard Robinson’s ability to get to the second level, it could get ugly for the Wildcats.

Through four games, Northwestern ranks 11th in the conference in rush defense, allowing 174.75 yards on the ground per contest. It could be a track meet for the Wolverines.

Michigan is first in rush offense at 272.60 yards per game. And it’s not just Robinson. After admitting his reluctance to do so, Borges has set up a running-back-by-committee system featuring Smith and redshirt sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint behind Robinson.

Edge: Michigan

Northwestern pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense

The Wildcats are Dan Persa strong.

That’s about all they need, fortunately, because Persa is just about all they have.

Persa, a senior quarterback, missed the first three game of the season recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, but returned for the majority of Northwestern's rivalry game against Illinois. And he looked strong as ever, 10-of-14 passing for 123 yards and four touchdowns in Northwestern’s 38-35 loss.

But Persa left the game with 13:38 left in the fourth quarter after getting sacked and hit on the back of his right foot — the same foot with the injured Achilles.

Michigan’s secondary has been relatively untested this season, the exception being against Notre Dame, when quarterback Tommy Rees passed for 315 yards.

If Persa plays the entire game, the secondary will be the focal point on defense. If backup quarterback Kain Colter plays, the focus will turn to whether the defense can stop the Wildcats’ leading rusher.

Edge: Northwestern

Northwestern rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense

This week wasn’t kind to Northwestern. The team had to cope with the loss to Illinois and Persa’s re-aggravated Achilles on Saturday.

Then on Monday, the news emerged that running back Mike Trumpy, the team’s second-leading rusher behind Colter, would miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL suffered against the Fighting Illini.

That leaves the Wildcats with their leading rusher on the bench behind Persa.