Northwestern won the Big Ten West in 2020. That won’t happen in 2021.
By all logic, the Wildcats shouldn’t be much more than a warm-up act for the No. 6 Michigan football team on Saturday. While the 6-0 Wolverines have cruised to their strongest start since 2016, Northwestern has floundered, dropping an embarrassing loss at Duke in September and suffering a 56-7 beatdown against Nebraska earlier this month. On average, the Wildcats have scored just 21.4 points per game while conceding an average of 27.4.
Still, even when things seem pretty cut and dry, upsets happen. That’s why they play the games. Here’s what to watch for in this one:
The McNamara-McCarthy balance
Junior Cade McNamara remains the starter at quarterback, and deservedly so. Though far from perfect, he’s been remarkably solid as a game manager and shown consistent pocket presence throughout the season. It’s why he’s thrown only one interception and taken only a single sack all year.
Still, that takes nothing away from J.J. McCarthy. While the former 5-star true freshman hasn’t thrown the ball in many meaningful moments, his mobility has added another element to the offense in the read option game — an area where McNamara has notably struggled. If there is an argument for McCarthy to see more snaps, it’s that extra layer he brings to the run game.
But at this point, defenses have surely seen the film. Now, when McCarthy enters the game, virtually everyone in the stadium knows that read option is coming (except, it seemed two weeks ago, Nebraska’s defenders). So far, Michigan has managed to prevent its occasional two-quarterback system from becoming a gimmick, and that’s a credit to coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’s scheming.
But for it to stay that way, the Wolverines will have to get McCarthy more involved in the passing game — and not just in garbage time.
Banged-up offensive line
Up to this point, offensive line play has been a surprising strength for Michigan’s offense. Anchored on the interior by sixth-year senior Andrew Vastardis at center and sophomore Zak Zinter at right guard, the line has helped pave the way for the Wolverines sixth-ranked rushing offense while also ensuring McNamara has plenty of time to work with in the pocket. It’s no wonder the unit was placed on the midseason watchlist for the Joe Moore Award, granted annually to the country’s best offensive line.
Against Nebraska, though, injuries started to arise that could test the unit’s resilience moving forward. Zinter limped off the field late in the second quarter and junior Trevor Keegan also worked through an apparent shoulder injury. Though Harbaugh has said he doesn’t expect any of those injuries to last long term, nagging issues could pose problems for Michigan moving forward.
That said, Northwestern shouldn’t pose much of a threat for even a depleted Wolverines front — the Wildcats rank 124th nationally in run defense. If they manage to get penetration, that spells trouble for Michiagn’s offense.
Over/under 2.5 sacks
Even relative to the rest of the team, Northwestern’s offensive line is not a strength. It allows an average of two sacks per game — that’s a sack on over 5.4% of dropbacks — on a team that also tallies just 163.8 yards per game, the 60th-best figure in FBS.
Senior Aidan Hutchinson, meanwhile, is a problem for opposing defenses. In 57 pass-rush snaps, he’s tallied 30 QB pressures and 5.5 sacks, earning him the top spot on Pro Football Focus’s ranking of college edge defenders. He’s not the only threat coming off the edge for Michigan, either — when Hutchinson has been double-teamed, junior David Ojabo has picked up 4.5 sacks of his own.
Bottom line: The Wolverines are 6-0, and the Wildcats are 3-3. Saturday’s game will probably play out as expected.