"The University of Illinois is also in turmoil. The university sports an Interim Chancellor, an Interim Athletic Director, and an Interim Football Coach; the game will be played at Soldier Field, making this an Illini Interim Home Game."
Today J. B. Pritzker announced a $100,000,000 donation to Northwestern's Law School. Previously this year, Northwestern received 3 other $100,000,000 donations. They have raised a total of 2 and a quarter billion in gifts since 2014. Among other things, Northwestern is spending upwards of $200,000,000 for their sports complex. While Big 10 TV money is helping, it is obvious that they are receiving significant funds towards the entire campus. As a point of comparison, Ross gave $200,000,000 to Michigan's business school.
After the first game of the season I made a somewhat negative comment on this here blog and someone responded with, "what did you expect?" That exchange stuck with me. What does it mean to have an expectation? Google can't even figure it out. The first definition is, "a strong belief that something will happen." The second definition is, "a belief that..." So did I strongly believe we would go 10-2 at the beginning of the year, or was that just a belief that it could happen? I don't like to expect 8 win seasons. Why should I root for a team that I expect so little of? (I already have the Lions for that.) This is my team and my school. I want the best for them. If they fail to live up to expectations, we'll just work that much harder and try again. But we should never settle for mediocrity, nor should we expect it.
I've been asking myself, are my expectations realistic, or are they more "best-case scenarios," or my hopes for the season. I was conditioned by my first 36 years of life to expect 9+ wins per season, the occasional Big Ten championship, and to see a team that while maybe didn't win every game, at least was competitive in every game. After all, the ball can take some funny bounces and there is an RPS-aspect to every game. But the Michigan football team was well coached and controlled what they could - putting 11 men on the field, limiting penalties, making tackles, executing blocks, etc. The last seven years sorely tested the expectations I had built up over three decades.
Initially, the team failed to live up to my expectation as a 5th year senior quarterback coached by a QB guru, threw 3 interceptions in one game after throwing only 5 all last season. In the next two games, the team met my expectations by handling inferior opponents at home. In the fourth game against a ranked opponent that had demonstrated competence playing against serious competition, Michigan far exceeded even my lofty expectations, winning 31-0. I expected Maryland to score on us. I expected a close game, heck, they beat us in Ann Arbor last season, and this Michigan team hasn't traveled very well the past few seasons. But this season isn't last season, and that was proven yet again yesterday. Michigan far exceeded my expectations by blowing out the #13 team in the country and recording their third consecutive shutout. My son is 10 years old. The last time Michigan recorded 3 consecutive shutouts, I was 10 years old. A time when my expectations for Michigan football were being formed.
Burst of Impetus
* Is it possible to win a game in the first 13 seconds of action? With this Michigan defense, I'm going to say yes, yes it is. The opening kick return for a touchdown by Jehu Chesson set the tone for the rest of the day. Late in the 2nd quarter, Northwestern had an 8 play drive, granted they only gained 20 yards, but 8 plays is a lot against our defense. On the next drive they eked out a first down and started looking a little comfortable on offense. Then, Jourdan Lewis basically pick-pocketed the NU receiver and returned the ball for a touchdown. Had NU been able to score at the end of the half and score to start the 3rd quarter, maybe you could convince yourself they had a chance. Heck, the past 3 years, we've seen Michigan have trouble with the first and last 5 minutes of a half. But this season is not last season. Do you know what these two plays have in common? It's play-makers making plays. After writing 57 diaries about boxscores, far too often I've seen games decided not by the overall statistics, but by a few plays here and there. The Utah game to start the season is a prime example of this. They got the pick-6 in a 7 point game. Against NU, we got the pick-6 and the kickoff return, but we also dominated in every aspect of the game. When you can do both - make the big plays and dominate the down-to-down action - you've got the makings of a special team.
The Two Jakes
* For the first time this season, Jake Rudock met my arbitrary efficiency metrics with 74% completion percentage, 7.8 yards per attempt, and no turnovers. See, all we need is an efficient QB and we can beat top 20 teams by 38 points. I don't need greatness at the QB position, efficiency is sufficient.
* Jake Butt caught 3 passes for 40 yards with a long of 32. He was overshadowed by...
A.J. Williams, Receiving Threat
* A.J. led the receivers with 4 catches for 48 yards. Exhibit A in the case for Harbaugh's coach of the year nomination is this stat line. He takes guys that Brady Hoke struggled to put in positions to succeed and makes them significant contributors to the team. Other examples include Braden, Clark, Poggi, Houma, and Strobel. And the list just goes on and on. And he knows how special teams are supposed to work.
* Rudock spread the wealth again among 7 receivers. 7 passes went to TEs, 7 went to WRs, and three went to Smith.
* 9 players and one TEAM made carries in the game. Surprisingly, it was Derrick Green who led the team in carries with 12 followed by Smith with 8 AND Karan Higdon with 8.
* De'Veon is clearly the lead back, but I'm starting to think it doesn't matter who gets the next carries. Joe Kerridge got a 34 yard carry. Five player had long runs of 10 or more yards.
Tacos, Peppers and Captain Morgan
* I'll give Northwestern some credit; they did make our back 7 relevant. Safety Jarrod Wilson led the team with 7 tackles followed by linebackers Morgan and Bolden with 6 each.
* Michigan recorded 8 TFLs with Willie Henry leading the way with 2.5.
* A couple weeks ago, I noted that Michigan had 6 BrUps, a huge number. Well, against Northwestern, Michigan had 5 QHs, an equally huge number. I've been doing this for awhile and I don't recall ever seeing that many QHs.
* Peppers led the way with 3 of Michigan's 5 BrUps. Like I said before, play-makers making plays.
* Michigan ran 69 plays to NU's 58. There were 27 special teams plays. 17.5% of the plays were from special teams, or roughly 1 in 6.
* Michigan punted five times. Northwestern returned zero for zero yards.
* Michigan also kicked off seven times. Northwestern returned four of those for a total of 75 yards. Jehu Chesson returned NU's only kickoff for 96 yards and a TD. I'd say that's a win for us.
* Michigan gained 21 first downs to NU's 13.
* Net yards rushing was 201 for Michigan and only 38 for NU.
* Both teams came into the game allowing roughly 20% on third down conversions. Michigan went 7 of 14 while holding NU to 2 of 13.
* Michigan had the ball for 37:05 to NU's 22:55. Like DJ Durkin said after the game, a shutout really is a team statistic. The other team can't score if they don't have the ball, and they can't get in field goal position if the special teams are working and the offense isn't turning the ball over.
WHAT ARE THOOOSE?
* Those are robots and nutrients. You look confused, so let me explain. I didn't think I'd have one of theeese, or more properly, one of thooose, this week, until I turned on the MSU-Rutgers game. During every televised game, in an attempt to maintain the facade that college sports are integral to the academic mission (have I gotten that cynical?) the television network will show commercials for the two competing institutions. During the Michigan game, they showed Prof. Jessy Grizzle's robot. I know and like Prof. Grizzle, and I'm sure his robot is really cool, but it seems like they've been highlighting his research for several years now. Surely, there must be other interesting things going on in Ann Arbor?
* Fast forward to the Spartan game. The MSU commercial promoted a faculty member from their environmental engineering department and his work separating nutrients from cow manure. It was 30 seconds of cows and cows' manure footage. Great big machines were shoving rivers of cow manure towards a nutrient separation system that separated the 90% of manure that is water from the nutrients. The commercial ended with the professor suggestively taking a drink of yummy, recycled, nutrient separated cow manure water. I don't understand how they think that the average high school student watching at home is going to see that and get excited about applying to MSU. It's like they know they are Moo U and they have decided to double down and own their ag-based, academic mission. I have numerous friends and family members who root for sparty. If it was any other week, I probably would have skipped this section of the diary, but you know, there's a somewhat important game coming up on Saturday. Regardless of the outcome, my expectation is that we'll go back to our high technology jobs working with robots, while they will go back to separating nutrients from manure. Have I sufficiently beaten this to death? Yeah, I suppose so.
For the first time in my lifetime, Michigan has posted three shutouts in a row. Back in 1980, we shut out Indiana, Wisconsin, and Purdue back to back to back. We also beat both MSU and OSU that season, and finished ranked 4th overall by the coaches and the media with a 10-2 record and a Rose Bowl victory over Washington. Both losses were early in the season, in weeks 2 and 3 to (hell with) Notre Dame and South Carolina, respectively.
Michigan 31-0 BYU
Michigan 28-0 Maryland
Michigan 38-0 Northwestern
What a game! What a defense! Go Blue!
I'm going to bed..enjoy a wallpaper, my MGoBrethren. No mobile version yet. I'll try to get that done tomorrow. I'll try to do a diary write-up with background, etc. on this wallpaper, but it's pretty self-explanatory. Sorry for the drop-off in quality this week, I am battling the flu. Go Blue! Beat Northwestern!
Desktop (16:9) 1920x1080:
Disclaimer: My previews of Big 10 teams are based on viewing of 2014 games of said teams plus extensive reading of local and national previews of that team. I might be wrong in my assessment any one team or any specific unit of that team. But that's clearly doubtful. (!!) No, on a serious note I enjoy people who comment who live locally to these teams or is an opposing fan - helps us get a better perspective so if you are one feel free to add to the discussion.
I also write this with the assumption Jake Rudock is the starting QB as the matrix of possibilities is too great trying to predict things with Shane Morris as a start.
After making what seemed like a "breakthrough" in 2012 with a 10 win season Northwestern began receiving the type of hype you are seeing with Minnesota this year as a top tier 2 team in the conference. I've already outlined why I believe Minnesota hype will come back down to earth this year and it sure did for Northwestern. Some of it was just bad injury luck but programs of this ilk rarely have the depth to go a whole season without a serious setback. After back to back 5 win seasons Minnesota has basically replaced Northwestern as the chic program to pick as a challenger for the Nebraskas and Wisconsin in the West. As for Northwestern, 2012 feels more like an outlier and if Northwestern doesn't get to 7 wins this year that will be 3 years in a row without a winning season.
Northwestern has ranked between 66th and 76th in the F/+ rankings in five of the last six seasons.
Vegas has set Northwestern's win line at 6.5 games and judging from their tough schedule this sounds fair. Tough games with brainy schools Stanford (home) and a suddenly solid Duke (away) are mixed with FCS Eastern Illinois and quite bad Ball State. 2-2 seems likely. (Duke is likewise breaking in a new QB but is well coached, and is at home) Northwestern is probably sick of playing Michigan as UM has (at times undeservedly) snatched some last second victories away but it doesnt get easier for the Wildcats in 2016-2017 as their crossovers switch from UM/PSU to OSU/MSU. If they only go 2-2 in non conf they'd need to go 5-3 in the conf to go 7-5 and surpass Vegas 6.5 games. That seems daunting with the schedule they have. I might actually take the under on Northwestern this year.
The Wildcats should have a solid defense but at least in terms of preseason projections their offense lacks an established QB and a lot of threats in the receiving core; running back should be good and could be quite good if all goes well. OL is questionable. That said their defense should keep them in a lot of close games and its up to the offense to do something.
In many ways Northwestern was in a similar spot to Michigan entering 2014. Coming off success a few years earlier but some stubbed toes in 2013, many thought Northwestern was a bit of a dark horse coming into 2014, and if things fell right could challenge in their division. Two bad losses early killed that thought but by week 5 wins over Wisconsin and Penn State had restored the faith a bit and brought a 3-2 record. It went downhill from there as Northwestern closed out the year 2-5, although their week to week performance was wickedly variant. A team who in a span of 3 weeks could lose 48-7 to Iowa, then punish TV viewers with a 10-9 slog vs UM, and then beat a decent Notre Dame 43-40 in South Bend. It was one strange year.
Im terms of unit strengths/weaknesses - Northwestern had a horrid OL as measured by FootballOutsiders (83rd), which sunk down its FEI/S&P+ offense in the 80s to 100 range. The defense was decent with FEI/S&P rankings in the 30s to 50s which was a bit behind UM. At the total offense/defense unit level, Northwestern was a (barely) slightly worse version of Michigan. But at least had a bevy of serious injuries and an almost lack of 4/5 stars anywhere in the program to blame it on.
Northwestern was really boring to watch on offense last year:
Northwestern recorded only 34 plays of 20 yards or longer last season, fewer than all but three FBS teams.
Explosiveness is hard to quantify, but the IsoPPP (isolated points per play) stat does a pretty good job. In 2014, Northwestern's IsoPPP was .68, which was 128th in the nation. (i.e. last in FBS)
At the individual level, QB Trevor Siemian was what you typically get with a Big 10 QB the past decade. Nothing special - and often just bad. While he threw for 2200 yards his yards per attempt were a pathetic 5.6 (for comparison in 2013 he threw for 7.2 ypa!). And even with that short passing game his completion % couldn't bust 60%. 7 TDs, 11 INTs - it wasn't good. Freshman running back Justin Jackson was a revelation later in the year and he piled up nearly 1200 yards with a 4.8 ypc average. Michigan fans won't remember his name because UM's run defense stuffed him to the tune of 35 yards but aside from that game he had between 100ish and 150ish a game in all of Northwestern's final 8 games. Considering the dour OL that was especially impressive.
At WR - an ACL injury to Northwestern's top catching threat - led to relatively meh production from Kyle Prater (now in the NFL) and junior Dan Vitale. Both had "2014 Darboh like" seasons; ok as complementary receivers but considering they were the top line guys it wasn't good.
Speaking of injuries, they forced some young players into key roles on the defense last year which didn't help 2014 but should help in 2015.
The 2014 defense was good at two things: preventing big plays on the ground (40th in Rushing IsoPPP+) and preventing completions through the air (43rd in Passing Success Rate+, 32nd in completion rate allowed).
Considering the lack of pash rush the 43rd ranked Passing Success Rate seems quite impressive.
Special teams were not great either as the Wildcats were 124th and 114th in punt and kickoff efficiency respectively.
Northwestern returns 15 starters so that is (almost) always an asset. However the bulk (10) are on defense so the offense will have major questions.
Jackson returns for his sophomore year and should be the star of this offense if his last 2/3rds of his freshman year are any indication. A year in S&C, a year to understand playbooks better and the ability for young RBs to really impact the game all contribute to this view.
The WRs were meh in 2014 but the return of Christian Jones - Northwestern's lead WR in 2012 and 2013 - from an ACL suffered last August should boost this group big time.
Like Minnesota, Northwestern should return a pretty darn good secondary. 3 of 4 starters return with Matthew Harris and Nick VanHoose a veteran duo at cornerback; Harris could be drafted. Defense end is also very veteran while the DTs and OLBs are somewhat lacking.
The schedule is not easy as along with Stanford and Duke the Wildcats have road trips to Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska while playing a neutral game at Soldier field vs Illinois. The Wildcats host PSU, Iowa, Minnesota, and Purdue - none of these are gimmees (Purdue's offense could be good this year if Appleby is the real deal). On the other hand Northwestern avoids the two top 10 teams in the conference in MSU and OSU. I'd expect Northwestern to be playing a lot of games that hinge on the last drive.
As always, Bill Connelly's SB Nation preview is worth the read.
Here are a bunch of position by position analysis if you are that deep into Northwestern.
Questions abound and until a QB is named (or a dual system) we won't really know what to expect.
At QB senior Zack Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti, and RS freshman Clayton Thorsons are in competition. Alviti is more of a (limited) running QB while Thorson is more of the passer - he actually had an impressive recruiting profile out of HS - but still a newbie at the NCAA level. Some speculation that Thorson is the leader. While listed as a pro style out of HS the Wildcat previews have him more of a dual threat. Oliver had 57 attempts last year, completing just over 50% while throwing for 6.4 ypa. Unless he improves on that production, Northwestern fans probably hope one of those younger guys beat him out.
The OL must improve (returns 3 starters) and if it does Justin Jackson could emerge as one of the best RBs in the league. The WR corps should be boosted by the return of Jones.
If you're going to lose three multi-year starters (combined: 101 career starts), you might as well lose them from a disappointing line. The Northwestern line was decent in two important categories -- stuff rate (avoiding run stops behind the line) and passing downs protection -- but didn't get a push in short-yardage situations. And it created fewer open-field opportunities for its runners than almost any line in the country.
A mostly veteran group here with some young bucks ready to play due to being forced into action last year. The defensive tackles seem to be an open area of concern however and the linebackers lost stalwart Chi Chi Ariguzo.
Ten of the 12 players with at least 2.5 tackles for loss return, as do four of the six with at least four passes defensed.
(take these matchups with more of a grain of salt than usual because once you get past the month of September teams grow and evolve - well at least well coached teams.)
UM rush off v Northwestern rush def - Adv: Even. Both teams have questions and until the season begins its too early to really determine who has what. Hopefully by mid October UM has a viable rushing offense with lineman who create holes that running backs not named Drake Johnson can find. Northwestern's questions at DT offer similar questions for their rush defense.
UM pass off v Northwestern pass def - Adv: Even. This is only even due to Rudock. Northwestern's back 4 should be quality - espt at corner - but their pass rush might let them down. UM's receivers are of course lacking in production as a whole and are more about potential until we play actual games. Will it just be a group of complentary receivers complenting each other or will someone emerge by this time of the year? Expect a lot of Jake Butt (again).
Northwestern rush off v UM rush def - Adv: UM. This is only based on UM's performance last year and Northwestern's OL issues. Of the 2 teams Northwestern actually has the most proven back - which is sort of sad considering the multitude of high level prospects that filter through UM and the fact Minnesota's guy is a true sophomore. Aside from the UM game, Northwestern was able to run on the remaining 7 of final 8 opponents but without a great OL I do expect UM to have the (slight) advantage.
Northwestern pass off v UM pass def - Adv: UM. Northwestern needs to find an answer at QB. Maybe they have one by week 6 - it is a great unknown. Best case is Thorson grabs the jobs and begins to figure things out by this point in the year. The issue with UM is corner depth - this about the time of year your CBs begin to get dinged up and once you get past presumed starters Lyons and Lewis you begin to ask a lot of questions with the next group. Healthy savvy CB starters would be a boon if that's the case. (safeties have more depth) Northwestern doesn't have anyone who really scares you at WR but Jones should be solid. Michigan's "weakness" has more potential answers than Northwestern's "weakness" at this point in time.
Like Oregon State I think the type of team Northwestern brings fits solidly into the type of team UM is built to stop. Teams with good QBs scare me much more than those with "IDK", esp with UM's still "sorting it out" passing defense.
The defense should have a solid day and if they can do anything similar to what they did vs freshman RB Jackson last year it should be a comfortable win. While I'd expect Jackson to improve on his production and get nearer to 100 yards, rush defense should remain a UM strength especially up the gut. So "future Northwestern QB(s)" will need to find a way to get some yards thru the air without a lot of potent weapons.
This is a home game, enough weeks into the season for the offense to (fingers crossed) have a viable rush offense and that shold parlay in Rudock being more effective as the offense can be more 2 dimensional. Of course that is a lot of theories and we need to see them become fact by mid October.
Northwestern will be coming off a smash mouth type of game vs Minnesota while UM will be returning home after a night game vs a (IMO) not too impressive Maryland squad. However with MSU on the calendar a week after this game some Wolverines may be looking ahead.
This is the type of game a Harbaugh led team - even in year 1 - should do well in. Not to mention even Hoke's teams found magical ways to beat the unlucky Wildcats.