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Michigan looking to keep potent Northwestern offense in check

Marissa McClain/Daily
Linebacker Kenny Demens and the Wolverines will try to pull ahead of Nebraska on Saturday. The Huskers play Penn State. Buy this photo

By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 8, 2012

You can’t mention Venric Mark’s name to the Michigan football team without getting a compliment in return.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke called the Northwestern running back “extremely shifty” and “quick.” Fifth-year senior cornerback J.T. Floyd called him “talented,” and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison noted “when he breaks, he breaks.”

Mark has emerged as the most dynamic player for the Wildcats this season and one of the top threats in the entire Big Ten, too. The junior is third in the conference in rushing with 1,077 yards on the season, and he’s tops among running backs with a yards-per-carry average of 6.5.

For Michigan (4-1 Big Ten, 6-3 overall) to keep pace with Nebraska in the Legends Division and beat Northwestern (3-2, 7-2) on Saturday, the defense will have to neutralize Mark as best it can.

“He’s a speedy guy,” Floyd said. “He’s a guy that you have to be gap sound as far as up front, and when he gets to the edges, Coach Mattison always talks about keep the ball inside and in front, and make sure we rally, get 11 hats to the ball. That’s the way to be successful.”

But Mark has an equally explosive running mate in the Northwestern backfield in quarterback Kain Colter. The Wildcats have used Colter in several different ways this season, lining him up all over the field on offense and inserting pocket passer Trevor Siemian when Colter isn’t the one taking the snap.

Colter seems likely to stick exclusively at quarterback against the Wolverines, though, considering Siemian had just one passing attempt in Northwestern’s most recent game against Iowa two weeks ago.

No matter where Colter’s playing, the combination of he and Mark in the Wildcats’ spread offense has given the Michigan coaching staff reason for worry — Mattison called Saturday’s game a “classic example” of his defense needing to prevent big plays for it to be successful.

“The way you have to win is every guy’s got to play his position,” Mattison said. “It’s like playing old wishbone football. You better make sure you’re assignment-conscious, because if you don’t, if you fall asleep and you take what you’re not supposed to take, he’ll make you pay.”

Despite the problems posed by Northwestern’s talented offense, Michigan has to feel good about the matchup. Hoke hasn’t been pleased with his team’s run defense the last two weeks against Nebraska and Minnesota, but the unit is miles ahead of where it was at the beginning of the season.

With the Wolverine pass defense still checking in at No. 1 in the country in yards allowed per game — albeit the statistic is slightly misleading, given Michigan hasn’t been tested as much as other teams — the team now knows it can rely on its defense when necessary.

And though Hoke specifically mentioned Northwestern’s big-play potential as an area of concern, his two teams so far at Michigan have been excellent in preventing long gains. This season, the Wolverines have allowed just 17 plays of 20 yards or more, good for second in the nation.

“I think (it’s) the emphasis that Coach Mattison and the defensive staff put on it, about taking care of your responsibility,” Hoke said. “Playing good discipline with your eyes is a big part of it. That’s something that we have to continue to do, and hopefully we do this weekend.”

But for all the talk about Northwestern’s weapons, all eyes in Michigan Stadium will be trained on who trots out at quarterback for Michigan on Saturday.

Senior Denard Robinson sat out the first game of his career last week against the Golden Gophers due to an injured nerve in his elbow, leaving junior Devin Gardner to switch back from wide receiver and play the whole game at quarterback in Minneapolis.

Hoke refused to address Robinson’ status (and that of fellow injured quarterback Russell Bellomy) this week, other than to say that the Deerfield Beach, Fla. native is “day-to-day.”

Should Robinson be unavailable for the second straight week, the Wolverines know that Gardner is a workable option after his solid performance against Minnesota. Fifth-year senior wide receiver Roy Roundtree insisted that there’s no reason to expect much change with Gardner taking the snaps.

“You got Denard back there, it changes up little things, but Devin and Denard are similar,” Roundtree said. “Like I said, Devin did a good job of taking leadership of the offense. He’s been playing wide receiver all year, (but) I just feel like he’s really comfortable playing quarterback.”