It’s been four seasons since the Michigan football team has visited Evanston, the home of Northwestern. Plenty has changed since the Wolverines downed the Wildcats on Sept. 29, 2007.
Lloyd Carr was replaced by Rich Rodriguez, who was, in turn, replaced by Brady Hoke. Michigan’s quarterback isn’t the flat-footed, rocket-armed Chad Henne, but the electrifying Denard Robinson.
As for Northwestern’s home, Ryan Field, still seats just 40,000 paying customers — less than half of Michigan Stadium’s capacity. Pat Fitzgerald is still the coach. And quarterback is still a major question mark — only this time it’s only for injury reasons.
Michigan pass offense vs. Northwestern pass defense
The Wildcats (0-1 Big Ten, 2-2 overall) are preparing to face Robinson for the first time. That, by itself, is a monumental challenge. But after Michigan’s 58-0 dismantling of Minnesota last week, Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz — a 1969 linebacker for Bo Schembechler’s first team — must have had his head spinning all week.
Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges effectively made the Wolverines impossible to scout. Against the Golden Gophers, Borges installed a new-look diamond set, with both Robinson and sophomore quarterback Devin Gardner in the backfield with a pair of running backs.
Four run options and two passing options — or three, if you include junior running back Vincent Smith, who threw for a touchdown last Saturday. That’s dangerous.
And aside from the uncertainty of facing Borges’s schemes and trying to contain Robinson, the Wildcats have to contend with an improving Robinson. After dismal passing performances for much of the early season, he was 15-of-19 passing for 169 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota.
Consider Northwestern’s pass defense a work in progress, ranked 10th in Big Ten, allowing 245 passing yards per game.
Michigan rush offense vs. Northwestern rush defense
While corralling Robinson will always be an issue, Northwestern linebacker David Nwabuisi and the Wildcat defense have been consistently disruptive in the backfield this season.
Northwestern has blown through the line to the tune of 19 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. But that aggressive push also leaves the secondary exposed. And with Denard Robinson’s ability to get to the second level, it could get ugly for the Wildcats.
Through four games, Northwestern ranks 11th in the conference in rush defense, allowing 174.75 yards on the ground per contest. It could be a track meet for the Wolverines.
Michigan is first in rush offense at 272.60 yards per game. And it’s not just Robinson. After admitting his reluctance to do so, Borges has set up a running-back-by-committee system featuring Smith and redshirt sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint behind Robinson.
Northwestern pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
The Wildcats are Dan Persa strong.
That’s about all they need, fortunately, because Persa is just about all they have.
Persa, a senior quarterback, missed the first three game of the season recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, but returned for the majority of Northwestern’s rivalry game against Illinois. And he looked strong as ever, 10-of-14 passing for 123 yards and four touchdowns in Northwestern’s 38-35 loss.
But Persa left the game with 13:38 left in the fourth quarter after getting sacked and hit on the back of his right foot — the same foot with the injured Achilles.
Michigan’s secondary has been relatively untested this season, the exception being against Notre Dame, when quarterback Tommy Rees passed for 315 yards.
If Persa plays the entire game, the secondary will be the focal point on defense. If backup quarterback Kain Colter plays, the focus will turn to whether the defense can stop the Wildcats’ leading rusher.
Northwestern rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
This week wasn’t kind to Northwestern. The team had to cope with the loss to Illinois and Persa’s re-aggravated Achilles on Saturday.
Then on Monday, the news emerged that running back Mike Trumpy, the team’s second-leading rusher behind Colter, would miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL suffered against the Fighting Illini.
That leaves the Wildcats with their leading rusher on the bench behind Persa. And the next available runner, freshman running back Treyvon Green, at 142 total yards on the season — less than half of Colter’s 306 yards.
Facing a hobbled quarterback and unproven tailback, the Michigan defensive line is licking its chops.
Key in on redshirt freshman linebacker Jake Ryan, who has burst into the backfield and gathered four tackles for a loss this season. If Ryan and the linebacker corps keep the trend going — with help from junior safety Jordan Kovacs’s affinity for the blitz off the end — the Wildcats will have a few more bumps and bruises by the time Saturday night comes to a close.
Brendan Gibbons is riding a high. The Michigan kicker hit just one field goal last year, but after a perfect day against Minnesota, he sits at 4-for-5 this season.
But the sighs of relief aren’t coming just from him, but the entire Michigan team and fanbase, which endured a brutal 4-for-14 season of field goal kicking in 2010.
Northwestern doesn’t exactly have a kicking game to be proud of. Wildcat kicker Jeff Budzien is 1-for-3 on field goals. With this game at night time on the outskirts of the Windy City, both teams hope the game doesn’t come down to the kickers.
Considering that Michigan returned suspended punter Will Hagerup to the roster last week, the edge swings in the Wolverines’ favor.
It’s a shame that how “opportunistic” a team is can’t be measured in a single statistic. But if it were, Michigan would lead the nation. While Northwestern has forced just one fumble, Michigan has forced seven — and most of them occurred when they needed a stop.
The turnover margins are nearly identical: plus-seven for the Wolverines, plus-six for the Wildcats.
Picture the scene: Ryan Field, the stadium packed to the brim as the chilly wind blows in off Lake Michigan. Advantage Northwestern.
But then understand that Northwestern is adjacent to Chicago, perhaps the biggest hub of Michigan alumni in the country. Add in that Ryan Field rarely sells out — students gain entrance for free — and there could be quite the Michigan contingent in attendance.
Home-field advantage will be minimal. Michigan is unbeaten and bringing the house.
Final Score: Michigan 35, Northwestern, 17