Michigan-Northwestern And The Annual First Road Game Blues
(JCB Weekend Set Up: SteveY takes on the Red River Rivalry. And during the 3:30 window it’s quantity over quality. Lets hope that becomes a good thing. The blog’s formal picks will be forthcoming. No later than for breakfast reading tomorrow)
This weekend the "This Is Not The Last Two Years Tour" begins. The schedule amps up compared to the last three weeks with this contest with Northwestern. Say what you will about Northwestern, but they've become an annual bowl team. And Michigan hasn't really been able to stop any offense from a Big 10 bowl team in recent years. If the defense throws a wrench into Northwestern's offense, then that would actually be a break through to a certain degree. Can the defense that's generated 15 turnovers keep up its thievery? Can the clutch red zone defense continue to limit damage? Can anything remotely close to the 10.2 points per game be sustained? Can the second quarter turnaround from a year ago keep Michigan in games?
Suddenly everyone loves Michigan. At one point, in the summer, the spread on this game was Northwestern -3. As game week rolls wraps up, oddsmakers feel the need to make Michigan more than a touchdown favorite in order to get even action on both sides. Let me play Chicken Little a bit just for some perspective to save us from possible fatal overconfidence as fans.
Just Cover Blog Rule: Never bet on a team with a countdown clock in their locker room the week before the game said clock is counting down towards. That is Michigan this week. This game has a classic game trap game look to it with the Wolverines playing hated rival Michigan State and their obnoxious three-game winning streak in the series next Saturday. Sharps for years have been banking by playing against teams in juiced up look ahead spots like this. Heck, you could argue its a sandwich game, since Michigan is coming off a win in a trophy game.
Just Cover Blog Rule: Never bet on a team in the regular season a week after a trophy game. Its the football cousin of never bet on a basketball team in the immediate game after their fans storm the court. You could argue its a sandwich game, in between rivals and trophy games in the wake of the Battle For The Little Brown Jug a week ago. I think that gives the 2011 Minnesota outfit a little too much credit. Rarely are trophy games that easy and Michigan didn’t need anything close to trophy game pep to cruise by. However, it does give us a warning not to play Northwestern in this game as well.
Just Cover Blog Rule: Be Wary Of Michigan In Their First Road Game. The major historical element in the room is Michigan's annual woes in their first road game. Michigan is 10-22 ATS since 1979 in their first road game, 3-18 when installed as the favorite. Uh oh. Here we go. I love trends like this, but I am also vigilante with them because when they cool off and, AHEM, regress to the mean, I want to be a step ahead so I don't lose my shirt on a trend that isn't a trend anymore. That sleuth in me would point out that Michigan is 3-2 ATS the last five years in this spot. Of course, all three covers were as underdogs in the Notre Dame series, another strong, long-term series trend. So who knows. I do know that plenty of sharps circle the first Michigan road game of the year and play it like its tradition. Some are probably downright giddy at the prospect of getting the Cats, the definition of a feisty dog, and a full touchdown head start.
Just Cover Blog Rule: Wow, we're getting a lot of these today. What can I say, the blog is getting ISO Certified this week, so we're all about rules, steps and processes. Anyway, here you go: Never bet on a team that's in their first road game of the season after starting the season with four or more home games in a row. To me, this is just a recipe for problems. I'm always interested in teams I don't trust or who I think are overrated in spots like this. Its certainly a situation that demands pause before pulling a trigger on the road team. I don't think any trend should override how you've analyzed a game otherwise, but if there's reasonable doubt in your mind, these are the types of situations you should avoid betting on. Remember, your profit is built as much on the bets you don't make as they are on the ones you do. Michigan has been in this spot before and have struggled each time: 1984, a 14-6 taffy pull with Indiana; 1987, the Demetrius Brown seven interception, 17-11 at Michigan State; 1993, a 17-7 loss at Michigan State with the Spartans stoning Tyrone Wheatley into the worst day of his career, 33 yards on 11 carries; 2007, on this very field, a 12-point win over Northwestern, in a game that required Michigan to climb out of a listless, 9-point halftime hole. I’m pretty sure Lloyd Carr guaranteed to sign a transfer paper or two during that intermission speech as well. Wait, too soon? And 2009, a 26-20 OT loss at MSU, a game during Michigan was whipped every which way but loose for 3.5 quarters until sparking a comeback to force overtime in the final seconds. Interesting how Michigan struggled putting points on the board in each of those games. Its so hard to see this team struggling like that tomorrow night. None of those outcomes are related to each other. But, its some proof that this game is prone to some basic human foibles and maybe this situation is at least one of them to beware of. Thus, the JCB rule.
What has me tied up the most about handicapping the game is my obvious love of Michigan, but also I'm a fan of Northwestern and love, love, love this team as an underdog. Well, any team that's an underdog in their games. The team catching points is 40-16 ATS since 2006 in Northwestern games. But the Purple and the points have been good to me. In 2008, I broke into blogging doing Big 10 Picks here in the diaries before eventually birthing the JCB. During that time, I am 11-3 ATS when taking Northwestern as an underdog. Its always been a good club in our bag. I might not always play them in that spot, but I always give them a second, third, even fourth look before. We’re 2-0 on them this year having had Wildcat tickets in both the BC and Illinois games. I keep tossing around in my mind that given my luck with Northwestern and the major upside to not winning on the +7.5, that I should just do this for pure emotional hedging reasons.
So, there's my weekly nervous ninny routine. I'm excited for this game because I do feel it will give Michigan a more legit test than anything we've seen the last three weeks. Some of evidence on record for Michigan is sketchy on account of opponent. I think there are plenty of measuring stick battles in this one that will be more relevant to projecting Michigan the rest of the way. Here are five keys/matchups/stats that I think will eventually tell the tale of this one.
Fun little matchup between Michigan's offensive tackles and Northwestern's high motor, play making defensive ends. The main event is along the left side with Taylor Lewan going up against Vincent Browne. A senior, Browne has 33 career TFLs and earned second team All Big-10 Honors a year ago. I think we all expect Lewan to compete and win some level of All Big-10 Honors before his career is done. Lewan had a knack for the killer penalty a year ago, can he keep his clean yellow flag sheet after a night of tangling with Browne? On the other side, the Mark Hugye vs Tyler Scott battle looks like another matchup that go either way. Most Michigan fans probably have been muttering under their breath for years that the offensive line will take a step forward once a talent upgrade from Hugye can be found. But, here's Hugye in his third year as a starter and fourth year as a contributor. He's developed into a pretty solid collegiate tackle. Scott is a redshirt sophomore, arriving from Warren, Ohio as a 2-star LB recruit in 2009. He's 45 lbs. heavier than he was when he arrived on campus, notched 3.5 TFLs in limited time a year ago and won the starting DE in the summer. He seems to have a quick burst and will probably beat Hugye once or twice in this game. How costly will those be?
Will the real Northwestern rush defense step up? Are you the one who was milked to death by Army? Or the one that shut down Boston College after a big opening play run and closed down Illinois' potent, dangerous multi-faceted attack? It maybe closer to the latter than you think. The Cats welcomed two additions to their lineup a week ago that made a big difference against the Illini. DT Jack DiNardo returned after missing the Army game. He was a wrecking ball against BC and Illinois, you have to think he might have helped keep those rushing numbers against the Cadets down had he played. They usually line him up next to Browne, so that's Molk and Barnum/Schofield territory. I like Dinardo's game, but if Michigan lets him tear up the interior line, what will MSU do to them next week? The other addition was redshirt freshman Colin Ellis at strongside linebacker. He didn't play in any of the three first games due to a broken thumb. He's an interesting player for Northwestern. He was the very first player to sign in Fitzgerald's 2009 recruiting class, venturing north from his native Louisiana. He made that state's top-50 prospect in 2009, slipping into the rankings at #43. To compare, Michigan's Carvin Johnson and Drew Dileo were 13th and 26th on that same list. He's the prototypical NW OLB: smallish, more speedy than elite fast and quick to diagnose plays. But, he's never had to chase or figure out somebody like Denard before. This kid seems to have a great college career ahead of him, but you cant help but wonder if Denard is going "posterize" him once or twice on a big play.
Kovacs Doppelganger. CB Jordan Maybin is the Cats biggest name in the secondary. He's experienced and a good, but not a lockdown, Big 10 corner. But the player to really keep an eye in the Northwestern secondary is safety Brian Peters. He's their Jordan Kovacs in that a lot of their special defensive calls revolve around allowing him to make the big play. Against Illinois, he thwarted one Illini drive burying Scheelhase on a safety blitz. He snuffed out another drive with a pick in the end zone. So there you go. I am setting the MAKE PLAYS Over/Under for Peters at 1.5. If he goes over 1.5 plays that change drives, then Northwestern probably will stay in this game longer than any of us will be comfortable with.
I am obsessed with Michigan's defense in third/fourth and short situations. Look, I love the improvement we've seen on defense, but I'm not ready to think its going to be anything but average at best in the meat of the Big 10. That alone, though, is exciting and should put the team in position to win a lot of games. With Denard on your team, that's not a bad position to be in and a major defensive upgrade nevertheless. But, if this D can find a couple of things that that it can do good to great, then average stats can actually end up better than it looks. One thing the D has proven it can do great is stop people cold in those short yardage situations. Let's consider offensive snaps when its third or fourth down and three or less yards. I mentioned this on the podcast, but that was days ago, so it bears repeating. Michigan's D has faced 20 plays in those spots. They've allowed just nine first downs in those spots and allowed just 43 total yards. That's a fraction more than one yard a play. EMU hit for 19 and 14 yards in two instances, so if you throw those plays out as outliers, then these numbers look even more stout. One other play this year went for seven yards, but every other play went for three yards or less. Its grabbed my attention and its so far been one of the more clutch defenses I've seen in program history in those situations. So far. I'm having flashbacks to last year's basketball team that developed the knack for picking up charges like no other squad I'd seen before in Ann Arbor. All season I kept wondering if those charges would keep coming in Big 10 play, but by the middle of the winter, it was such a part of their defensive game, you expected several calls on that end going Michigan's way. And it did. Can the football team's situational excellence here keep up? Northwestern will come at the Wolverines a little bit differently that the teams they've faced so far. Will either side have any new wrinkles in these spots? Keep track of these downs. If Michigan sets the tone and wins them early, they will have a chance to stake out to a lead.
Limiting Northwestern Snaps. If Persa plays, I really do feel this will be a high end test for Michigan's pass defense. He, his ability to evade the pass rush and his chemistry with Jeremy Ebert can take over games. Does The Happening that is Blake Countess ever match up with Ebert? I'd be lying if I didn't say I'd like to see this once or twice just to see how our freshman stacks up here. What's more with Persa in the game is Northwestern's ability to stay on the field and run a lot of plays. A year ago, no team had a higher percentage of their drives go for 10 or more plays than Northwestern, with 23.1 percent of their possession having that many snaps. Michigan's defense was 116th in the nation at giving up those drives, permitting possessions that long 20.3 percent of the time. This year has been a different story. The Cats took over the Boston College game with five drives of that length, but haven't really been clicking on long drives since. Getting Persa back fulltime may change that. Michigan, meanwhile, has seemingly found the ability to get off the field in due time. They've only allowed six drives all year of 10 plays or more and just 14 total points on those drives.
From a capping standpoint, I am afraid of Michigan closing this game out. The psychology of the look ahead either has you sleepwalking at the start or easing up at the end. I think Michigan will be ready to go out of the gates. And, while I dont necessarily feel they would ever ease up, with Persa playing, the Cats are going to keep coming and coming. Translation? At that -7.5 number, that looks like prime back door cover material. Here's how I see this game going. It's going to be a lot like the Indiana games from the last two years. Northwestern will do damage with its offense. But the Wolverine defense is improved where it wont get rolled on every possession. I should say this will play out like we had hoped last year's IU game would have. The offense having its way and scoring, with the defense getting enough stops to allow for a multiple score cushion. The reason I'm laying off the spread is because I could see a 31-20 score with two minutes to go, Northwestern with the ball and a chance at the back door cover. I dont want that stress. Will it be great to win money when Thomas Gordon closes down that drive with an INT? Sure it would. But Wolverine road games in recent years are stressful enough, my heart cant take Michigan laying a touchdown to go along with it.