In a surprising turn of events, No. 18 Michigan and No. 13 Northwestern match up in one of the bigger college football games of the week. The Wolverines and Wildcats have used top defenses to roll to 4-1 and 5-0 starts, respectively.
Both teams won their Big Ten openers last week in dominant and almost identical fashion. Michigan won at Maryland, 28-0, while Northwestern rolled Minnesota in Evanston, 27-0. This week, their defenses battle each other with high stakes on the line. The winner stays atop its division in the Big Ten race.
The Daily caught up with Inside NU writer Josh Rosenblat to preview this weekend’s matchup from the Wildcats’ perspective:
The Michigan Daily: What’s the mood around Northwestern’s campus with the Wildcats playing as well as they are? And how much anticipation has there been of the game this weekend?
Josh Rosenblat: Evanston is about as engaged as it can be in Northwestern’s football team right now. Although the quarter system is starting to hurl midterms at students, there will be a large group traveling up to Ann Arbor this weekend, which is pretty impressive and out of the norm. Obviously, having No. 13 next to your school’s name can capture the attention of some otherwise indifferent students.
TMD: Michigan has dealt Northwestern some tough losses the past few years. Has there been any talk around Northwestern’s team about getting revenge?
JR: I don’t think “revenge” is really the right word for it. The program’s whole mantra this season is that it’s a new team. It’s an attempt to shake off the adversity the program has faced over the past few seasons. But that doesn’t mean the four-game losing streak to Michigan isn’t on their minds. For example, here’s how head coach Pat Fitzgerald answered a question about last season’s 10-9 loss to Michigan in Evanston: “They kicked our ass. You can put on the tape. They kicked our ass … We need to bring our big-boy pads.”
TMD: Northwestern and Michigan rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the country in scoring defense. What have been the keys to Northwestern’s defense?
JR: Scheme-wise, Northwestern really hasn’t been doing anything fundamentally different. They play a fairly basic 4-3 scheme. What has changed, though, is the team speed on defense. Jim Harbaugh praised sophomore middle linebacker Anthony Walker in his weekly press conference for good reason. The heartbeat of Northwestern’s defense, Walker is a sideline-to-sideline player with the speed to make plays all over the field. On the defensive line, senior 6-foot-6 defensive end Dean Lowry is a bona fide star. He disrupts offenses is so many ways. The biggest strength, though, lies in the defensive backfield. A veteran group, the defensive backs have shut down opponents’ passing attacks so far in 2015. Cornerbacks Matt Harris and Nick VanHoose have been impressive as Northwestern leads the nation in yards given up per completion.
TMD: Northwestern’s freshman quarterback, Clayton Thorson, will be playing in a hostile road environment at Michigan Stadium on Saturday. How do you expect him to handle it?
JR: I really don’t expect it to be much of an issue. Northwestern’s offense has been run-based this season and offensive coordinator Mick McCall hasn’t asked too much of the freshman starter. But if Northwestern is to get down early, the pressure could start to mount, and he hasn’t had to bring the Wildcats back from a significant deficit this season. I think that pressure will be more of a factor than the atmosphere at the Big House.
TMD: What about Northwestern do you think will give Michigan the most problems?
JR: The defensive line. Although Michigan’s offensive line is improved from a season ago, it is still pretty leaky. Northwestern’s front four have been able to get pressure every week and have a plethora of options in terms of rushing the quarterback. Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington provide outside speed, while the defensive tackle rotation of CJ Robbins, Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson have been stout against the run. If Northwestern is able to win the battle in the trenches (as it has done pretty handily against Stanford, Duke and Minnesota), Michigan could have a tough time moving the ball.
TMD: Do you have a prediction for the game?
JR: Last year’s 10-9 finish felt more like a comedy of errors rather than a defensive struggle. But this season, I think a low-scoring affair will be more indicative of the strength of both teams’ defenses. I’ve got Michigan taking it 13-10.