Both the No. 18 Michigan football team and No. 13 Northwestern enter Saturday’s matchup with plenty to smile about. The Wildcats (1-0 Big Ten, 5-0 overall) have already matched their 2014 win total, and the Wolverines (1-0, 4-1) can do the same with a win Saturday.
Still, with impressive defenses, struggling offenses and a small sample size of ability, plenty of questions remain in the matchup. The Daily breaks down what to watch for Saturday.
1. Will anyone score?
It’s statistically impossible for a game to finish without a score under today’s format, and Michigan hasn’t played such a game since 1938, but the sentiment is there. The two teams are the best in the nation in scoring defense — Northwestern is first, allowing seven points per game, and the Wolverines are right behind at 7.6. With plenty of returning contributors on defense and two hard-nosed coaches leading from the sidelines, both teams have the ability to shut down the most prolific offenses.
They won’t have to on Saturday, though, as neither team has an offense to match their ‘D.’ Both teams have first-year quarterbacks — graduate transfer Jake Rudock for Michigan and freshman Clayton Thorson for the Wildcats — and have depended on their rushing attacks to score. Even then, the Wolverines are just 74th in the nation with 27.8 points per game, and Northwestern is 89th with 25.4. With the bulk of those points coming against mid-major or weaker teams, don’t expect these teams to surpass the game’s over/under, set at 35 combined points.
2. Can Rudock replicate last year’s rampage?
Though Rudock hasn’t put up dazzling numbers as a Wolverine, he has against Northwestern. In Iowa’s 48-7 win over the Wildcats last fall, Rudock averaged 19.9 yards per completion for 239 yards before being pulled in the second half.
Expect plenty of action for Michigan’s four running backs Saturday, but don’t be surprised if Rudock — still learning much of the playbook after missing spring practices — airs it out Saturday. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said in a radio interview Thursday that Wednesday was Rudock’s best practice to date, and as his relationship with receivers grows, so does his potential for big plays.
3. Who levels up with Mario gone?
Senior linebacker Mario Ojemudia — who had been playing more like Bowser before injuring his Achilles on Saturday against Maryland — is one of the only major injuries Michigan has suffered since the season began. Despite the general health of the team, the loss of the 6-foot-2, 252-pound defensive end leaves a sizable hole in the defense. Ojemudia had recorded 19 tackles, including six for loss in five games in 2015.
Senior defensive end Royce Jenkins-Stone is listed as Ojemudia’s primary replacement, though Harbaugh indicated Monday that sophomore Lawrence Marshall would also see increased repetitions. More importantly, however, is whether the defense as a whole can replace the range and playmaking ability Ojemudia possessed. With one of the nation’s deepest defensive fronts going up against a predictable offense, there are plenty of potential options, but senior defensive end Chris Wormley is the likely candidate to get the lion’s share of blitzes as he looks to expand on his seven tackles for loss, good for sixth in the Big Ten.
4. Whose special teams are more special?
In a game that is sure to feature plenty of adept defense and inept offense, special teams will likely play a larger role in a low-scoring affair. Michigan did a nice job controlling reigning All-Big Ten kicker Brad Craddock and likely All-American returner Will Likely in Maryland last week, but the Wildcats feature the nation’s No. 3 kickoff return and No. 38 punt return units. Kicker Jack Mitchell is also fourth in the nation with 10 made field goals.
Michigan doesn’t boast the sexy numbers, but fifth-year senior punter Blake O’Neill, senior kicker Kenny Allen and sophomore return man Jabrill Peppers have been more than consistent enough to give the Wolverines superior net field position in all five of their games this season. As always, the winner of the game will score the most points, but both teams can do themselves a big favor on special teams.