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Team says all is not lost as final quarter of schedule begins at Northwestern

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Matt Slovin, Managing Editor
Published November 14, 2013

The Michigan football team is heading down the homestretch and, though its top goal is now a statistical impossibility, it says there is still much to play for.

The Wolverines will not be winning the Big Ten title, which is always the expectation at Michigan, but winning 10 games is still on the table. In order for that to remain possible, Michigan will need to win on the road — something it has struggled to do in recent years — at Northwestern.

Despite an 0-5 Big Ten record that’s disappointing considering the early season expectations, the Wildcats enter Saturday’s game as three-point favorites over the reeling Wolverines. This year marks the first time that Northwestern has ever been favored over Michigan.

Like Nebraska, which beat the Wolverines 17-13 last week in Ann Arbor, the Wildcats like to run the option. Michigan had a difficult time defending it against the Cornhuskers, and versatile Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter will make life difficult.

Star running back Venric Mark is out for the remainder of the season with a left ankle fracture, giving the Wildcats one less threat out of the backfield. But if the Wolverines aren’t able to stop the option, there’s no reason to expect a different result Saturday, especially considering the offense’s massive struggles.

On the other side of the ball, don’t expect an entirely different game plan from Michigan after coach Brady Hoke defended offensive coordinator Al Borges’s play calling all week. Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory said his team was able to predict what plays the Wolverine offense was going to run based on its formations, but Hoke was quick to dismiss that notion.

“He’s wrong,” Hoke said. “We know what other guys are doing, too. Everybody has that. There’s certain things people are going to do certain ways. Now, when you win a football game, I think sometimes it’s easy to say that.”

Fans booed the team at several points of the Nebraska loss and because games at Northwestern often have a pro-Wolverines environment, expect more of the same if Borges continues to try and run the ball despite negative yardage on the ground in the past two games.

“Maybe they should try to find a job as an offensive coordinator,” said redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner of the angry fans. “Maybe they should be offensive coordinators somewhere.”

In addition to aiding the non-existent running game, the offensive line needs to figure out how to give Gardner more time in the pocket. He has been sacked seven times in each of the past two games. Gardner hinted this week that short routes for the receivers might be the only way around the inadequate pass protection. While sophomore Devin Funchess and fifth-year senior Jeremy Gallon have been targeted successfully deep in some key spots this season, the time simply isn’t there for Gardner to wait around on deep routes.

When Michigan takes the field for the first time with a Big Ten title out of the picture, Hoke said there’s no reason to expect anything less than 100-percent effort out of his team.

“Well, number one, you’re a competitor,” Hoke said. “You want to go out and fight. We always play for our seniors, and we’re always going to work hard for those guys. The other thing is, you have a chance to win 10 football games. That opportunity is always out there. That’s always been a benchmark.”