Preview: Northwestern

Submitted by Brian on November 14th, 2008 at 9:58 PM

A thousand apologies: I accidentally published this as the Minnesota preview, so no one saw this.

The Essentials

WHAT Michigan vs. Northwestern
WHERE Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Michigan
WHEN 12:00 EST, November 15th, 2008
THE LINE Michigan by 3.5
WEATHER Mid 40s, windy, 100% chance of rain. Fun!

*(NCAA football lines courtesy BetUS sportsbook)

Run Offense vs. Northwestern

Michigan's run offense has emerged from slumber with a series of slashing 40-yarders the past couple weeks. Yesterday's UFR has the details:

Over the last two weeks, Michigan has 76 carries for 430 yards. Though they haven't been taking on the 1970s Steelers, that's 5.7 YPC against a vast array of eight- and sometimes even nine-man fronts with a rag-tag offensive line, a banged up set of running backs, and quarterbacks close to the platonic opposite of Pat White.

Caution is still advisable, as Purdue is the country's #90 rush defense and Minnesota is #65. Northwestern, remarkably, will be a step up. They come in with the #45 rush defense and I'm sure most of you remember the specter of Northwestern DT John Gill slashing into Mike Hart over and over again last year in Evanston.

Add in an impressive performance against Penn State and that's three of four weeks the ground game has performed admirably, with Michigan State's snap-jumping ways the exception.

Northwestern, meanwhile:

Team Rushes Yards Avg
Iowa 31 169 5.5
Michigan State 32 176 5.5
Purdue 25 158 6.3
Indiana 36 72 2.0
Minnesota 25 68 2.7
Ohio State 45 244 5.4

FWIW, Half of Purdue's total was one 76 yard Kory Sheets touchdown, so that game is:

  1. 76 yard touchdown
  2. 24 carries for 3.4 YPC.

This, unfortunately, looks like Great Success against finesse spread teams and crunching death against the straight-ahead pounders of the world. Michigan has been pretty good with the straight ahead pounding, actually, but that's almost entirely due to MINOR RAGE, which is doubtful with shoulder and rib injuries this week. The backups are slight freshmen better suited to bouncing past opponents than powering through them.

I think this will be an issue. Last year the Northwestern game caused my head to explode. Michigan ran no play action and one misdirection play the whole game, allowing this to happen:

Holy crap, Kraus(-2) just gets his ass kicked by John Gill. He's driven yards into the backfield, directly into Hart's path, and Gill makes the TFL. … Gill crashes into Boren, preventing him from doubling the other DT. So no zone block and thus an unblocked linebacker. Hart stuffed for nothing. … Kraus(-2) lets Gill right by him and Mallett is sacked … Boren(-2) owned by Gill again. WTF is going on? … Gill again in the backfield, this time working on Kraus(-1).

John Gill is a badass. John Gill is basically J Leman. John Gill is starting for Northwestern this weekend in a windy, rainy game in the 40s. Last year John Gill slanted so hard to the playside on every snap that it was impossible to prevent him from punching Mike Hart's mom in the backfield.

Raise your hand if you're surprised the UFR was one long diatribe against Mike Debord. No one, I see.

So. WTF? Well, the Gill Event was extremely similar to the Penn State event Michigan experienced last year: saddled with Mallett, Michigan ran zone stretches again and again and again and basically told their opponent that if you slant hard you're going to kill the play in the backfield half time time. Michigan averaged 3.2 YPC. The week before, Michigan scraped out a win against Penn State averaging 3.0 YPC.

This year, Michigan tore Penn State up in the first half before running out of stuff to do, shooting Brandon Minor into Penn State's secondary with some unexpected plays. The gambling, slanting Penn State defense was cowed by consecutive long runs that caught PSU DTs on the wrong side of Michigan OLs; if Michigan can get Gill and other Wildcats guessing wrong there will be creases. Significant creases. 

Key Matchup: I think it might be John Gill and Slanty McDefensiveCoordinator versus David Molk and Michigan's playcalling.

Pass Offense vs. Minnesota




Suicidal kitten? It's cute, small, you want to care for it and hope it does the best but you're probably going to end up with DEATH at some point.

Yeah, so Nick Sheridan put up 18 for 30 for 203 yards and a touchdown last week. He hit a variety of bubble screens. He rolled out and threw looping fifteen yard passes that looked like sure disaster but invariably found their way into the receiver's hands for a first down. He was accurate-ish on a number of deep balls but floated two of them such that easy touchdowns were turned into an incompletion and a 30-yard wheel. He should have thrown two ugly interceptions.

He'll start tomorrow; Threet is supposedly healthy (he has gone through the last couple practices and is available). Justin Feagin will probably reprise his Incredibly Surprising Quarterback role. In the script this is the week he pulls up and chucks one to a wide open tight end.

Northwestern, meanwhile, has given up a ton of yards through the air (they're 89th) but has been good-ish in efficiency terms (49th), though the quality of competition hasn't exactly been great. Northwestern got Indiana's backup, a melting-down Curtis Painter, a n00b-y Ricky Stanzi, and Brian Hoyer, and didn't exactly blow the doors off. They're 20th in sacks, though.

I pretty skeptical we'll see a repeat performance from Sheridan, especially given the nasty combination of his arm strength and the weather conditions. He might be the more effective quarterback anyway, because he's the more accurate guy on screens and short stuff

Key Matchup: Sheridan versus not throwing the killer interception. Even in his magnum opus last week he should have chucked two interceptions. I think Michigan wins if he avoids the killer INT.

Run Defense vs. Northwestern

Michigan's run defense has been spotty at best this year but if the 3-3-5 has been relegated to history's trash pile I'm fairly optimistic here. You may remember last year's game, when Michigan used… well… an inexplicable 3-3-5 on a lot of potential run downs and got gashed a thousand times, including yielding a 50-yard touchdown run to Northwestern backup tailback Omar Conteh. When Michigan was in a more conventional front their runs were limited to the occasional Shawn Crable screwup on the edge.

Michigan doesn't have to worry about Conteh this year, and it's not because starter Tyrell Sutton has returned to health: both players are out for the year with injuries. Left standing is true freshman Stephen Simmons, who has 18 carries for 53 yards to his name. Information is limited, but what we know:

  • He's 5'8".
  • Rivals gave him two stars.
  • His other offer was from Indiana.

Okay, not incredibly impressive but you dismiss the Northwestern running game at your peril—I mean, it's basically what we run and we've managed to cobble something together of late.

Simmons isn't going to get all the carries, though. Between them, Mike Kafka and CJ Bacher have 31% of Northwestern's attempts on the ground this year. The quarterback keeper is much more of a threat for Northwestern than it is Michigan. Kafka won the Minnesota game by putting up 217 rushing yards and actually had an eminently respectable 126 rushing yards against Ohio State; 43 yards of sacks masked his day on the ground.

Key Matchup: Jamison or Graham or Harrison or whoever's got QB contain versus irresponsibility. I know this might bite me in the ass, but I can't see this Simmons guy doing much against Michigan's defense. A few runs here and there will get into the secondary, but unless they managed to unearth another Sutton (and remember that Sutton had much more hype coming into college after an impressive HS All Star game performance) he's not going to make yards that aren't there. Contain the QBs, contain the NW running game.

Pass Defense vs. Northwestern

Word on the street is that starting quarterback CJ Bacher will return this weekend after suffering through a hamstring injury the past couple weeks. Lake The Posts remains skeptical about Bacher's health:

The semantic interpretations over Fitz' positioning of the QB situation continue to fill up columns, but I think every Cats fan expects both CJ and Mike to play.

We might see something like a Sheridan/Feagin split in the game, with Mike "Franz" Kafka in the Incredibly Surprising Quarterback Role. Kafka can throw at least a little bit, so he might be only Mildly Surprising.

Northwestern quarterbacks are collectively 89th in passing efficiency; Bacher has 10 touchdowns against 11 interceptions so far this year and is averaging an ugly 5.6 YPA. Kafka's managed 3 interceptions in just 46 throws, though he is averaging 7.2 YPA. Some of that is probably Ohio State taking the foot off the gas after getting up huge,, though.

There is no main receiving threat: Eric Peterman, Ross Land, and Rasheed Ward have near-identical statistics and there's a trio of guys with about 15 catches behind hem; Running backs have caught 40 passes, too, so Michigan will have to watch for screens and the like. All of these guys are typical Northwestern receivers: large, not particularly athletic, decent hands, etc.

Michigan turned in a terrific performance against Minnesota one week after getting obliterated by Purdue's third-string quarterback, so you tell me what the hell is going on. The change away from the 3-3-5 stack allowed Michigan to keep two deep safeties and that, in turn, gave the cornerbacks freer reign to play aggressively.

One thing to look for: the bubble screen minigame. Michigan's scheme against the bubble is to have the cornerback to that side freak out and explode the guy in the backfield, which has worked wonders but seems vulnerable to a counter-punch of some sort. Minnesota tried it once, found no one immediately open, and then was swallowed by Brandon Graham. Northwestern loves screens of all sorts and will have to find a way to make the bubble effective or will have a hard time moving the ball.

Key Matchup: Screen minigame.

Special Teams

Should be a Michigan advantage overall. Michigan got a couple good kickoff returns for the third consecutive week and now threatens to reach average in returns. They're 66th in KO returns and 62nd in punt returns. Given the vast disaster this area was early in the year, that's cause for a (small, reserved) celebration. Northwestern, meanwhile, idles in the 90s.

Michigan remains #1 in net punting; Zoltan is a hero and will continue providing long, virtually unreturnable kicks that are well-covered. One thing to watch for: if it's windy Michigan might go with the rugby liners more often: several of Zoltan's punts this year have had intentionally flat trajectories. These punts hit after about 30 yards, but are never fielded and because of the trajectory invariably bounce 10 or even 20 yards downfield. Northwestern's net punting is 44th; if there are regular punt exchanges Michigan should come out ahead.

Kicking is a slight advantage to Northwestern. Spectacularly-named Armando Villareal is 17 of 21 this year; KC Lopata is 10 of 13.

Key Matchup: Kickers versus the weather. And punt returners.



 garfield minus garfield 

Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • John Gill slices into the backfield and you're like "doesn't this look familiar? And stupid?"
  • Our running game just can't operate well without MINOR RAGE.
  • Northwestern's third string running back starts slashing us.

Cackle with knowing glee if...

  • The diversity of the Michigan ground game gets NW guys on the wrong side of blockers.
  • The nickel package looks like a good solution.
  • They throw a lot of bubble screens.

Fear/Paranoia Level: 6 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for Maybe Not DEATH But Suicidal Kitten, +1 for The Weather Is Ugly, Isn't It, –1 for Hey We're A Vegas Favorite!, +1 for And We're Like 2-8 Against The Spread, –1 for Their Running Backs Are Dead And So Is Their Quarterback, Sort Of, +1 for Uh… So Are Ours, –1 for In A Battle Of Punts, We Have Space.)

Desperate need to win level: 2 out of 10. (Baseline 5; –1 for We're Still 3-7, +1 for But A Win Plus Something Respectable Against OSU Looks Like Progress, –1 for .)

Loss will cause me to... sigh audibly and return to my "Is Michigan 2008 Worse Than Notre Dame 2007?" post.

Win will cause me to... allow myself the tiniest little flicker of hope about beating Ohio State, which I will forcibly obliterate by Monday.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

This looks like an ugly punt-fest to me. I assume Northwestern won't replicate Minnesota's mistakes and let the bubble screen become a regular part of Michigan's arsenal, especially in the gross weather expected. They'll crowd the line, take away that, and dare Michigan to chuck it deep, which they will not be able to do.

Michigan will get behind the chains on first down plenty due to that and gambling from Northwestern's pretty good front seven, which will make it very tough to sustain drives. There should be a couple opportunities for Michigan to slash into the Northwestern secondary, at which point someone will pick up 30 or so yards; much hinges on whether these plays hit the endzone (either because the running back makes a safety miss or good field position) or end up resulting in dodgy field goal attempts.

As for Northwestern's offense… well, I see virtually the same thing with less chance of a long run due to the shakiness of their tailback situation. These teams are near mirror images on offense: same scheme, same dinged up nominal starter, same pass-wonky backup, same depleted RB corps. I worry about a bubble-screen counterpunch and Northwestern's consistently effective regular screen game, and figure they'll sustain at least a couple drives and get one big play.

In the end, though, there will be many punts and that favors Michigan, which has found someone to return them and someone to boot them very far in such a way as to make them nigh unreturnable.

Finally, opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:

  • Sheridan takes a major step back.
  • Zoltan is the difference.
  • Michigan, 17-13.



November 14th, 2008 at 10:46 PM ^

I know Minnesota is having a decent season but I still don't think they should be favored to win the Michigan/Northwestern game.

/snarky tone


November 15th, 2008 at 8:00 PM ^

good....I like.

MINOR RAGE came about when Minor came into his own again PSU by consistently bashing his way into the secondary in the first half. Not so sure about the second half as I didn't see it, and I know that that was one of those moments when Sheridan = DEATH.......much like today.

Michigan Arrogance

November 15th, 2008 at 8:29 AM ^

crowded game last night at Yost, eh? i was gonna invite you up to our row, 3 behind yours at intermission but you took off before i had a chance.

this weather might be as good as purdue 96 (or was it 95?).


November 15th, 2008 at 9:46 AM ^

A cold, ugly Saturday morning...have to go in to work some overtime (blech) and thankfully Suicidal Kitten is here to put a smile on my face. Thank you Suicidal Kitten.