The Michigan football team is coming off a beatdown win in its Big Ten opener over Nebraska, 56-10 — its third straight blowout victory.
Coaches and players were asked about what’s next for the 14th-ranked Wolverines (1-0 Big Ten, 3-1 overall), but neither “Northwestern” nor “Wildcats” were thrown around Schembechler Hall this week.
Instead, questions about player development and post-game reactions overwhelmed the time spent with the media. Except for the last answer, one we will hear all week.
“To me, (Northwestern has) always been tough because they’ve always been well coached,” said defensive line coach Greg Mattison. “They get intelligent, young men who are also football players — their track record speaks for itself. Whenever you get off that bus or that plane, you better be on your A-game.”
For a reeling Northwestern (1-0, 1-2), and a Michigan team that doesn’t love hitting the road — it’s 3-4 in its last seven road conference games — it’s a toss-up between trap game and another Wolverines blowout.
The Daily breaks down what to watch for in Saturday’s matchup in Evanston.
Test of endurance for Michigan’s pass defense …
Northwestern and the college football world faced horrible news when running back Jeremy Larkin retired from football after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis. Larkin was an integral part of the Wildcats’ offense, contributing 346 rushing yards off of 72 carries, as well as 19 receptions for 127 yards and five touchdowns this season.
In Larkin’s absence is a group of inexperienced running backs, and certainly a much greater reliance on the passing of quarterback Clayton Thorson. Thorson — eight months removed from an ACL tear — has 753 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions through three games. He already has 29 more passing attempts than Shea Patterson in one fewer game.
In a shootout against Akron, Thorson threw the ball 52 times. His attempts could rival that this Saturday, especially because of coach Pat Fitzgerald’s aversion to run-pass options (he referred to them as “communism”) and if Northwestern is playing from behind. The Wolverines haven’t seen a quarterback get off more than 34 passes so far this year, and the No. 3 passing defense will find itself flying around the field a bit more. The wealth is concentrated, however — Larkin, as well as receivers Flynn Nagel, Cameron Green and tight end Ben Skowronek have made up 78 percent of the Wildcats’ receptions so far.
It won’t only be up to the secondary, though. Northwestern’s starting offensive line will be healthy for the first time since their opener. The dominance of Michigan’s defensive front against the Cornhuskers was a thing of beauty, but will be difficult to replicate. The front seven hardly ever have faced a challenge too tall, though, and will have to prove it rushing at a largely immobile quarterback.
… And the defense’s discipline
Another week, another game without Khaleke Hudson playing in the first half. The junior VIPER was flagged for targeting for the second consecutive game against Nebraska and will sit the first 30 minutes against the Wildcats. Hudson was noticeably frustrated after the penalty, tossing his helmet in the tunnel as he left the game.
Targeting, while correctly called against Nebraska, has been controversial across college football, and the Wolverines are no exception.
“I'm having a hard time with it,” said oft-unfazed defensive coordinator Don Brown on 97.1 The Ticket on Wednesday. “I'm glad I'm at the end of (coaching), to be quite honest with you. Because it's a very difficult fine line.”
Despite a thorough whooping over the Cornhuskers, the defense collected six of the team’s eight penalties, continuing their rank as a top-15 team in committed penalties. It’s easy to disregard when surrendering just 14.3 points per game, but as tougher competition looms, it is looking more and more like a persistent issue that isn’t being corrected.
A hostile, road environment is a perfect venue to face these problems head on — though not head on, literally.
Breakout potential for Patterson
Shea Patterson has been everything that the Wolverines needed given last year’s debacle. His numbers don’t jump off the page — 709 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions with a 70.1 completion percentage — but he’s checked off all the necessary boxes.
Against Northwestern, it’s possible that Patterson will have his best opportunity to shine in a Michigan uniform so far. Patterson is as efficient of a quarterback as the Wildcats will have faced, and defending efficient signal-callers is not their strong suit. Duke’s Daniel Jones toasted Northwestern’s secondary with his efficiency, completing 16 of 22 attempts for 192 yards and three touchdowns in a 21-7 victory.
And if Thorson finds a rhythm with a significant throwing volume, Patterson could be in store for a shootout. Unless, of course, the running game finds success early — but Northwestern boasts a stingy run defense with a talented linebacking corps led by Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall.
Provided how Jim Harbaugh runs his offense, Patterson could find himself again just as a viable game manager. But if there’s a time to showcase his arm talent, this Saturday wouldn’t be a bad one.
Bottom line and prediction
Northwestern simply doesn’t have the talent that Michigan does. And home-field advantage apparently doesn’t happen in Evanston either, as evidenced by the Wildcats’ 39-34 loss to Akron in their last game. But if Thorson can get things going on offense, it could be a closer contest than expected.
They say never count out the tough Wildcats, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
Prediction: Michigan 38, Northwestern 20