Riding two straight shutouts, the Michigan football team is on a roll. No. 13 Northwestern comes to Ann Arbor this week, though, and it might take a third straight shutout to beat the Wildcats.
Northwestern and the 18th-ranked Wolverines (1-0 Big Ten, 4-1 overall) boast the top two defenses in the Big Ten and two of the best in the nation. While Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh pointed out that the defenses won’t go head-to-head, all eyes will be on that side of the ball Saturday.
The Daily broke down Michigan’s upcoming meeting with the Wildcats.
Michigan pass offense vs. Northwestern pass defense
The Wildcats should pose a difficult test for fifth-year senior Jake Rudock’s game-managing abilities. Rudock has been about average in his first five games as a Wolverine, turning the ball over a little too much but generally holding the offense steady against subpar defenses.
The only time Rudock has faced a defense comparable to Northwestern’s was against Utah in the season opener, when he threw three interceptions, including a pick-six.
Against the Wildcats’ stiff rush defense, Rudock will likely have to throw more than in past games, meaning accuracy will be at a premium. He is currently completing 60 percent of his passes but has not yet needed to be the focal point of the offense. He may need to be on Saturday.
Some miscues have been surmountable against teams like Oregon State and Maryland, but against Northwestern, he’ll need to avoid mistakes at all costs. The Wildcats boast the No. 7 pass defense in the country, giving up just 130 yards per game, and held Stanford to just two field goals in Week 1.
All the Cardinal have done since is hang 41 on Southern California, 42 on Oregon State and 55 on Arizona.
Northwestern is the best defense Rudock has faced all season, and unless he makes a large leap in a hurry, it doesn’t look like a good matchup for the Wolverines.
Michigan rush offense vs. Northwestern rush defense
This pairing should be closer, and it will also be the centerpiece of the game. Michigan wants to pound the ball. Northwestern wants to stuff the run. It’s a match made in power-ball heaven.
The Wolverines are averaging 201 yards per game, but they face a more-than-worthy opponent in the Wildcats’ 26th-ranked rush defense.
One key factor will be the status of junior running back De’Veon Smith, who missed the Maryland game with an ankle injury. If Smith is at full strength, his tackle-breaking abilities are of paramount importance against the stingy Northwestern line. If he can’t play, or is limited, look to see redshirt junior Drake Johnson, who isn’t the bruising type of back Harbaugh prefers to use.
Johnson spreads the field more with his agility and pass-catching abilities, but he’s also easier to tackle than Smith if you can catch up to him.
In either case, the Wildcats will be ready and willing to face the run. Don’t expect Michigan to abandon its power style unless it trails late, though, no matter how much gridlock its running backs face.
Northwestern pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
According to the rankings, the Wolverines have the No. 3 pass defense in the country. But don’t tell that to the Michigan secondary, which believes it can be the nation’s best.
Currently, opponents are averaging just 112.6 yards per game through the air, and the Wolverines have held their last two opponents well under 100 passing yards.
Junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis has broken up seven passes this season and has been a shutdown corner in every sense of the word. He intercepted his first pass of the season last week, and against the Wildcats’ inexperienced quarterback Clayton Thorson, Lewis and the secondary will be salivating for more.
Thorson has gone over 152 yards in just one game this season, and three of his four touchdown passes came against Ball State. He does, however, have four more touchdowns on the ground, meaning Michigan will need to contain him throughout the game.
If the Wolverines can force Thorson to throw, the secondary is more than capable of winning the air battle.
Northwestern rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
So far, only Utah has given Michigan any trouble on the ground. Travis Wilson and Devontae Booker rang up 120 rushing yards on the Wolverines in the first game of the season, and the Wolverines have been sturdy since, holding every other opponent under 100 yards.
The defense took a hit when Mario Ojemudia was lost for the season with an Achilles injury against the Terrapins, but otherwise, this is one of the scariest units in the country.
Between redshirt junior defensive ends Chris Wormley and Willie Henry, and redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, Michigan has enough weapons to be fresh all game. For the Wildcats, that should be a scary thought.
Through five games, the Wolverines have 40 tackles for loss, totaling 149 yards. If that keeps up, it will be tough for Northwestern to sustain any kind of drive.
Now that we have the defensive dominance out of the way, it’s time for the matchup that very well could determine the game. It would hardly surprise anyone if this turned into a battle of field position, with both sides trading punts and collecting field goals.
If it devolves into that, fifth-year senior punter Blake O’Neill gives the Wolverines a key weapon in the punting game. O’Neill has booted punts as long as 59 yards this year and is averaging a respectable 40.7 yards. He has pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line 11 times already, and in a game that may be decided by inches, that could prove decisive.
Redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers has also come close to breaking loose on a couple of punts this season, so expect the Wildcats to be well prepared for him.
Northwestern’s Solomon Vault returned a kick 98 yards for a touchdown against Duke and is averaging 31.6 yards per return.
As for the placekickers, the Wildcats’ Jack Mitchell is 10-for-12 on the season with a long of 49, while Michigan’s Kenny Allen is 6-for-8 with a long of 40.
Even in just the second week of Big Ten play, there’s plenty on the line for these teams on Saturday. Michigan has seen a drastic rise in its stock over the last two weeks, and a win would only further that.
But if the Wolverines get caught looking ahead to No. 4 Michigan State next week, Northwestern will be ready to pounce. The Wildcats have had an edge this season, and three straight overtime losses at the Wolverines’ hands will fuel their motivation.
The pick: Michigan 13, Northwestern 9