Mike Spath points out that doing an interview for the official site is a pretty good indicator he'll be back.
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.
I was inspired by the most recent MGoBlog roundtable at WTKA to look into the 1925 football season, specifically the Northwestern game played at Soldier Field in what must have been horrible conditions. The story is well-told by Northwestern Wildcat Football.
The weather was so bad that only 20,000 showed up at the game, well short of the number of tickets sold. Northwestern actually punted on their first play from scrimmage, and Benny Friedman fumbled the kick. The ball was recovered by an NU player, who started running towards the end zone. But he was so caked with mud that he was tackled by NU's captain, Tim Lowry, on the 2 yard line. NU couldn't score a touchdown and so had to kick a field goal. Those were the only 3 points scored against Michigan that year.
The only other score of the game was a safety that NU took intentionally to avoid disaster. At the time, the team that took a safety got the ball back on their 30 yard line. The aftermath, as described by the book:
The rest of the game was a series of punts... Northwestern put all 11 of its players on the defensive line... Northwestern pulled off one of the biggest upsets in history. Yost was furious and played a major role later in getting the rules of football changes, so that a team that has suffered a safety must free kick the ball to its opponent. .....
After the game the Wildcat fans waged riots across Chicago, Evanston and on campus. Ecstatic students returned from Soldier Field and doused an abanadoned fraternity house with oil, setting the buildingon fire. By the time firemen arrived, students had thronged the fire and were chanting and singing wildly. The firemen turned their hoses on the rioters in an effort to calm them. The students overpowered the stunned firemen, took their axes and destroyed the fire hoses. Students also attempted to burn down what remained of Northwestern Field, but were turned back by waves of police. The mob moved into downtown Evanston and built a bonfire so large that the heat melted the overhead wires for the city's trolley system, sending the trolley supports crashing. The Evanston chief of police had to send in men armed with tear gas to disperse the fans.
Two or three more games. Two or three more games.
Worst: That's No Moon
It was just a terrible game. And it just sucked all around for both teams, particularly on offenses. Devin Gardner had the worst passing performance this year against the Wildcats, and that includes an under-fire Christian Hackenberg, the yipp-tacular combined efforts of Wisconsin QBs, and whomever was the 8th-string walk-on Poli Sci QB who took the last three snaps of NW's preseason scrimmage. He threw 2 really bad INTs, had a couple more passes that should have been picked (including one that should have been taken to the house to end the first half), and never looked comfortable with any of his receivers. I cannot stress how bad of a performance this was; I will always defend Devin Gardner in aggregate, but in this game Michigan could have replaced him with a trebuchet made out of Gatorade bottles, athletic tape, Ro*Tel cheese, and Haas avocados and gotten a more complete performance out of a field general. I hope something comes out during this off week that he's injured, that he lost a contact in the first quarter and didn't have a free pair, that an international cabal is holding someone he cares hostage, something to explain how he went 11/24 for 109 yards and 2 interceptions, resulting in a QBR rating of 5.2. To put that into perspective, Joel Stave's 8/19-115 yards-1 TD/3 INT performance against NW was a 10.1.
Devin Funchess dropped at least 3 extremely catchable balls by my count while seemed disinterested in the whole proceedings, to the point that even the announcers were pointing it out. Wile had a kick blocked to end the half, Michigan was stopped on 4th-and-1 because Smith couldn't follow a block, and Funchess "fumbled" a ball after Miller bounced it off his chest as he motioned before the play. And while De'Veon Smith had himself a nice game running the ball (121 yards/6.7 ypc/1TD), the team as a whole only recorded 100000000b total yards, which were 17 yards less than Trevor Siemian had throwing the ball. At halftime, Michigan had 4 punts and 6 FDs, and I was surprised they even had that many.
NW kept pace with the suck, though, by recording 12 yards rushing the ball, flubbing multiple punts and a FG attempt, throwing a pair of picks, fumbling the ball away on a punt return with no Michigan player within 5 yards, and failing on a couple of 4th-down conversions. The Wildcats were able to move the ball in fits and spurts, usually with short passes to Kyle Prater and, later, Toby Jones, but this was still an offense that had barely cracked 100 yards total before their last two drives. I don't even blame them for going for the win at the end of the game, as the last two drives were the only consistent offensive performances of the day by either sides, so might as well see if you can ride the wave of semi-competency for a couple more yards and a win.
Worst: Number 98 and DVR
I talked about this above, but I want to stress something about this particular performance by Gardner.
For various reasons (read: 1-year-old kid and new, time-consuming job), I've been watching the bulk of this year's B1G conference games on DVR. On one hand, this has been a godsend in terms of speeding through games; I can skip through the commercials, the trite analysis from guys in the booth being fed a narrative in their ears, the interminable replays that seem to always end with the refs sticking with the ruling on the field because the only angle they seem to have is a reflection off of a lineman's helmet. Since I have the general play-by-play from the game via ESPN and no need to analyze each 2-yard run for blocking assignments, I'm free to focus on only the meaningful drives and rewatch the memorable moments. It doesn't mean I don't "watch" the other parts of the game, but I can zip through the 3-and-outs that feature the same predictable runs and poorly-thrown balls without worrying about anything important happening.
Now, the negative of seeing the games hours later is that I'm watching it a bit more dispassionately; I know the outcome, so like in wrestling when you know the finish, you aren't as drawn in by the close finishes. It also means that I know Gardner isn't going to "turn it around" after a couple of bad passes, that he isn't going to start hitting his receivers in stride or stop locking onto them as soon as they break the huddle. Instead, I have to settle in for 3+ hours of poor mechanics, off-center throws, and a guy who looks lost out there trying to not bungle away a game that Northwestern keeps trying to hand over.
I do think he'll be better in two weeks, simply because he couldn't be much worse. Funchess looked lost out there as well, and for all of Norfleet's shortcomings he is still a missing weapon that Gardner has built up some rapport with over the years. And there were a couple of nice throws, usually to Darboh, and maybe with a couple of weeks to recover he'll be more inclined to run in situations when the defense is begging him to take the cheap yards they are handing out. But it isn't news to say Gardner's broken, and this game reaffirmed just how bad it is.
And of course, the worst part is that he's probably still the best QB option on this team. Morris has looked lost every time he's been given the ball, and next year he'll be a true junior (!!) with 2 starts to his name and (most likely) his third offensive coordinator in as many years. Maybe Speight will be better than advertised or Malzone will pull a Henne and be a freshman starter, but right now the QB position at Michigan looks dire both this year and in the foreseeable future. In fact, I suspect I'll be looking back at this year's QB performance with forlorn admiration midway through the 2015 season. It's crazy to remember how dynamic and exciting Gardner seemed when he started his first game against Minnesota 2 years ago, and how little of a shell of that player remains.
Credit should be given to the Michigan offensive line, which kept Gardner mostly clean (no sacks recorded) and opened up some good rushing lanes for the backs (mostly Smith), to the tune of 155 yards at 4.6 ypc. As expected, Drake Johnson couldn't replicate last week's career game, but the rushing attack minimized TFLs and helped grind down the clock on what turned out to be the game-winning FG. In fact, if it feels like the running game is significantly better than last year, you aren't alone: compared to last year's abysmal 3.3 ypc, this year's 4.5 ypc is basically OSU mixed with NOX, even more impressive given how little Devin Gardner has been used in the running game so far. It probably wouldn't fit Brady Hoke's definition of "tough guy" football, but Michigan has a semi-competent rushing attack that has been good about not getting caught behind the sticks too much.
Unfortunately, Michigan's passing offense has taken a dramatic step back, to the tune of 6.3 ypa (last year it was 8.2), and with 2-3 games to go Michigan doesn't even have half as many passing yards as last year's squad. I know losing Gallon hurt the team's spacing and put more pressure on Funchess and some of the younger players to create space, but this fall from semi-competence to debacle is stupefying given the personnel and experience out there. Yes, Gardner has been off most of the year, but as I mentioned last week it doesn't seem like anyone can get open or generate many yards after the catch, which creates this vicious feedback loop where Gardner has to make tough throws in short timeframes on these long, meandering drives, which ratchets up the stress on everyone involved and seems to numb Gardner's natural instincts. This passing offense should be better, and next year when Funchess is likely gone and Michigan is trotting out Darboh, Chesson, and a combination of Canteen, Harris, and freshmen du jour, it's not going to be fun in the slightest.
One final note - after the Michigan game I stuck around to catch part of the OSU-MSU game. A piece of me dies watching Urban Meyer trot out a first-year QB and RB combo and just dismantle a pretty good MSU defense. It's just so damn easy because it makes sense to force defenses to play left-handed, and yet for some reason Michigan seems to think they can tire out good defenses by just keep taking that right cross until the defense gets tired. Or, in picture form, this:
Best: The Defense (minus 2 drives)
The line was beaten up a bit by a bruising MSU rushing attack that apparently was on a mission to defend the sensibilities of an easily-offended nitwit and to teach the Wolverines a lesson about proper groundskeeping protocols, but the front 7 really showed up in this game. Frank Clark had a billion pass breakups at the line, including one that led to Goden's INT, and 1.5 sacks, and looked like an NFL draft pick out there. His bull rush on the 2-point conversion just bulldozed the tackle as well as Jackson, and watching Siemian just fall down because he expected not to be running up the butt of his line was the perfect end to a great day by Clark. Ojemudia chipped in with 2 sacks himself, though 1 was basically the definition of a "coverage" sack, and Henry was out there again creating havoc at the line. Glasgow carried on the St. Kovacs tradition with another competent performance, and again, 12 total yards rushing after NW had established that as the only competent component of their offense in previous games is damn impressive.
I thought Bolden and Ryan played reasonably well against the run, and while coverage wasn't great all day nothing broke big anywhere, which is basically a victory right now. Taylor was picked on early and late by Prater, and there were a couple of throws by Siemian that must have occurred when Brian was watching because the windows were basically portholes he threaded.
Even the last couple of drives when NW got it going were just a series of short passes and runs strung together; I would call them "disconcerting" but this defense has brain farts like this enough, and the season is so mercifully close to ending, that I've just come to accept them. Michigan's continued fear of being beat over the top creates a world in which Prater and Jones were given 7-yard cushions on 1st-and-10 in the second half, but at the same time your corners are expected to stay with these guys and, at least in this game, it didn't seem like Taylor could stay in contact consistently with his man.
Fitzgerald helped a bit kicking the FG deep in Michigan territory, but I'm kinda picking at nits here. This isn't a dominant unit and the top-10 rankings seem like hand-waving MATH more than actual, objective performance on the field, but a competent offense would have put this game out of reach early and this defensive effort would have looked even more dominant as a result. This is probably the best overall performance by the unit all season (maybe MNTM, but this is a Power 5-ish team here, on the road), so if the coaches are one the way out this at least feels like the best effort they could have expected. And given how meh Maryland has looked against good defenses this year, maybe the defenders will put forth one final encore before OSU eats their lunch in Columbus.
Worst: Road Warriors
So, yeah, this team is suffering from the rare condition that doesn't allow them to look remotely competent on the road. The last time Michigan looked like it could win convincingly outside of the Big House [EDIT: I don't know why I said ND last year; it was ND in 2010. Drink that up for a moment], and I'd say the best performance this year was in the loss to Rutgers, otherwise known as the game where Gary Nova threw for 400 F*CKING YARDS! It isn't news to say performance like this are an indictment of Brady Hoke's coaching, but it shocks me that the offense looks incredibly feeble going up against a NW defense that was lit up for 48 points by Iowa last week. I get that Evanston has been a bit of a house of horrors in recent years despite Michigan winning a couple of them, but anyone who thinks that Brady Hoke can win out to save his job just needs to look at games like this to see that that ship should have already sailed. He isn't going to the Horseshoe or even East Lansing and playing games like this; there were more Michigan fans in the stands that Wildcats, and yet Michigan played they were in Death Valley. His teams barely scrape by on the road, and the fact we are still talking about them struggling in these games 4 years into his tenure is unacceptable.
Best/Worst: No Horrible Coaching This Week?
Maybe my expectations have been permanently recalibrated, but I didn't see any particularly egregious examples of bad game management/coaching in this game by Michigan. Yeah, there were some questionable defensive calls on that last drive, but they weren't "boneheaded" as much as just bad playcalls that, sadly, lots of college coaches make. The offense didn't execute well, but there were a number of plays that should have broken big and were the right ones to make given the situation - in particular, I remember a 2nd-half pass to Funchess that would have gone for an easy score had Gardner not thrown it late.
Clock management was fine for what it was, and even the blocked FG at the end of the half was the right call if just depressing. In a perfect world Michigan could have been a bit more aggressive with three 1st-half possessions in NW territory, but with has bad as the offense looked and as good as the defense was playing, it made sense to keep the variance low and just try to grind out a win. It was ugly, but compared to previous weeks it was competently so.
Worst: The Team vs. this team
While I am on the record for not being the biggest fan of the Cult of Bo around these parts, I do recognize the selfless nature called upon in his "The Team, The Team, the Team" mantra. The point being made is that what matters is the team, not the individuals, and that playing as a cohesive unit with a singular purpose will lead to success. It's a bit simplistic, but as a rallying cry it makes sense for a football team.
As a Michigan fan, I've always cheered for the laundry in a sense; I obviously like and know the intricate details of most teams, but I'm a fan of "Michigan" more than I am of an particular squad. I want Michigan to win every game, with all the irrational fandom that entails. So when Michigan squeaked out this game against Northwestern and are basically in a one-game playoff to make a lower-tier bowl game, I was excited because I want Michigan to win games and go to bowls. Beyond the palace intrigue of Brady Hoke's continued employment (I'm of the belief that he's been gone since the day Brandon stepped down, and only in a world where he had beaten MSU and OSU could he have gotten a reprieve) and how wins affect the odds of him being retained, the Team winning more games and finishing on a high note is all I want.
That said, this particular team is really hard to root on to a bowl game. Now, this in no way is a reflection on the players or coaches; by all accounts this team is full of nice people who are trying their best, and in some ways they are one of the more endearing clubs simply because they've survived so much controversy and insanity. But as a football team, they are just so bad at some many parts of the sport that them making some crappy bowl embodies a lot of what is wrong with college football. It's a team that probably won't beat anyone better than "meh" all year going to a cash-loser bowl game at Yankee Stadium or Ford Field because of "ratings" and because guys in sports coats say they should and will give each player used copies of GTA IV and Fat Heads of Bernie Williams for their dorm rooms as a "goody" bag. Sure, I get all of the benefits of another game (more practices, a reward for the hard work the players, seniors going out on top, marginal improvement in recruiting), but it just feels, well, wrong for a team this flawed and mediocre to be playing another game. This season has been a disappointment to the nth degree, and finishing 7-6 without a credible win on the docket feels like a cheat, a way to game the system because nobody was paying attention.
I guess my point is that as a Michigan fan I want to see them go 7-6 or (heaven forbid) 8-5, but it just doesn't feel right based on this team's performance on the field all year. This is more an indictment of college football than Michigan in general, but it's still disconcerting.
Best: Bye, Bye, Bye!
So another week to relax and, sigh, get ready for the biggest game of the year against Maryland. Michigan absolutely has to win against the Terrapins, which again, sigh, because they aren't going to go to Columbus and "shock the world". Win next week and I'll be getting my Metro North tickets to Yankee Stadium; lose and I'll start download FlightTracker on my phone.
With apologies to Charles Dickens and BronxBlue, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Michigan won a football game. Michigan almost lost a football game in heartbreaking fashion, but Michigan was playing Northwestern. So when Northwestern's quarterback slipped and fell to effectively end the game, we all exhaled, smiled, and thought, of course that happened because it's Northwestern.
Michigan's defense held Northwestern to 95 yards total for their first 13 drives. 95 yards in 51 plays; that's less than 2 yards per play. (I is good at math.) One drive lasted 9 plays. One drive lasted 7 plays. No other drives lasted more than 6 plays. So, of course, on Northwestern's last two drives, they go 95 yards in 19 plays and 74 yards in 14 plays. 169 yards in 33 plays. That's better than 5 yards per play after demonstrating complete futility all game long. Of course that happened, because this was the Michigan-Northwestern game.
Michigan's offense gained 147 net yards rushing and only gave up 3 TFLs. Michigan's offense averaged 4.2 yards per rush to Northwestern's -0.3 yards per rush. That's usually a recipe for success, unless it's Michigan versus Northwestern, and then the normal rules of the universe don't apply.
Northwestern had more first downs than Michigan, 18 to 13, and ran 84 plays to our 59. Gaining more first downs and dominating ball possession are usually recipes for success, unless it's Michigan versus Northwestern.
Northwestern was only flagged for 10 yards in penalties to our 50. Northwestern had 82 yards in interception returns to our 2. Hidden yards can often determine the outcome of a game, unless it's Michigan versus Northwestern.
I know you are patiently waiting for the links, but I've got one more of these, so bare with me. Northwestern was 10 of 20 on third conversions to Michigan's 1 of 12. How in the heck did we win this game? Oh, yeah, that's right, we were playing Northwestern.
Boxscore Link: http://www.mgoblue.com/sports/m-footbl/stats/110814aaa.html
Burst of Impetus
* Pat Fitzgerald would have you believe that when Northwestern blocked Michigan's field goal attempt to end the first half, Northwestern seized the momentum. I'm a scientist, so I'm fairly certain I can explain why he was wrong. Momentum is mass times velocity. Since neither team had any forward velocity, there was no momentum to be had. Michigan's touchdown drive came after Northwestern muffed a punt return. Gardner threw an 18 yard pass to Funchess, down to Northwestern's three. De'Veon Smith punched it in from there. Michigan's offense was functional for two plays, and that's all we really needed, because Northwestern.
* Jake Ryan led the defense with 11 tackles. He had half a TFL for 1 yard, a BrUp, and a huge, impetus reversing interception. There were some growing pains earlier in the season, but he seems to be settling in at MLB.
* Will Hagerup banged a punt 57 yards early in the game, but only netted 37 yards on the punt as it snuck into the endzone. That was his only touchback; however, and he contributed mightily to the cause by knocking three punts inside Northwestern's 20, with 2 of them being downed at the 1 yard line.
* Devin Gardner continued to explode in every direction. He finished 11 of 24 for 109 yards and 2 interceptions. I thought the blame for the first interception could be split equally between Gardner and Butt, but that second INT was vintage Gardner. I've been wondering why Michigan hasn't been throwing the deep ball this season, and I think it's because Gardner can't be counted on to get the ball within 10 yards of the receiver, and if by accident he does, the receivers can't be counted on to make a play on the ball.
* My one prediction going into this game was that if Gardner threw a pick-six, we'd lose. If he didn't, we'd win. At least I got one prediction right this season, but Northwestern had a 79 yard interception return and had a couple other chances to score from the defensive side of the ball.
Love the Drake, but Really Love De'Veon
* I saw Brian give De'Veon another -2 in the UFRs this week, and that got my dander up. I can't help it, I love watching him run. Well, you can't really call it running. It's more like slogging. But the guy gets YAC like nobody's business. De'Veon gained 122 yards on 18 carries and only lost 1 yard. He finished with 121 net yards, 1 TD, and a 6.7 yard per carry average.
* Michigan won a game with special teams? Yes, Michigan won a game with special teams, but it's probably more accurate to say that Northwestern lost because of their special teams.
* Northwestern netted 30 yards per punt, about 5 yards less than Michigan. Michigan picked up about 30 hidden yards on punt exchanges.
* Northwestern did block a Michigan FG attempt, but also missed a 36 yard attempt.
* Northwestern's offense dominated Michigan's defense on it's last two drives. This would suggest that Northwestern would have been better served kicking the extra point and going to overtime. However, Northwestern's field goal kicking appears to be so bad that Michigan would have a decided advantage in the kicking game had the game gone to overtime. Teams start at the 25 yard line in overtime. Michigan can make 42 yard field goals. Yes, they occassionally get blocked, but more often than not they go in. Northwestern would need to gain a first down to get into field goal position. I think that's likely the reason why Fitz went for two and the win in regulation.
* I normally don't complain about the umps, but I thought they were awful. It wasn't just the penalty yard discrepancy. There was Funchess' offensive pass interference call, and numerous questionable spots that went against us.
Who was worse?
* Your candidates are Brady Hoke, Pat Fitzgerald, and whomever directed the game for ESPN. The coverage was awful. They were continually late cutting to the sideline view at the start of the play, and they even missed an entire play to let Adnan Virk give us an Auburn-Texas A&M update. Hey, ESPN, we're watching a Michigan-Northwestern football game. That means we're certifiably insane. No one who bothers to watch Michigan versus Northwestern gives a sh!t about good teams playing good football.
More Best and Worst
* I watched two games today. This one, and State versus State. The latter was a contest to see who is the best of the best of the Big Ten. After last week, it's obvious that Indiana - due to their present QB situation - is the worst of the worst. So what does that make the Michigan - Northwestern game? I was going to say it was a contest to see who was the best of the worst of the Big Ten, but after winning, Michigan sits at 3-3 in the conference and 5-5 overall. We're solidly in the middle of the middle. Next week will determine if we're the best or worst of the average teams. We were all expecting, or at least hoping for better in year 4 of the Hoke administration.
* I made the statement this week that I'd take Hoke back next season if we won by 1 point on November 29. I hemorrhaged quite a few MGoPoints as a result, and rightly so. I'll readily admit that a one point victory over Northwestern is not the same as a 1 point win over the Buckeyes. But after today, after what Ohio State proved by going into Spartan Stadium and doing that to Dantonio and his nationally renowned defense, you've got to admit that if we upset the Buckeyes to end the regular season, Brady Hoke should be put up for sainthood because a few major miracles will have occurred. I think it's far more likely that we lose by 40+ points than we win, but that's why they play the game. Maybe Gardner, Funchess and Norfleet can get healthy during our bye week and our passing game can provide a nice complement to the newfound competence in the running game. That would be the best outcome going down the stretch. I'm prepared for the worst.
Just in time for the Northwestern game, here's some Ryan Field video via my quad rotor! This is from a few weeks ago, hence the green trees. I live in Wisconsin now and Northwestern is right along the way on my drive home to Michigan.
(sorry, don't know how to imbed).