Preview: Northwestern 2012 Comment Count

Brian November 9th, 2012 at 12:51 PM

Previously here: Ace FFFF! Lanyard program. Vicious Electronic Questioning.


WHAT Michigan vs Northwestern
WHERE Michigan Stadium
Ann Arbor, MI
WHEN 12:00 PM Eastern
November 10th, 2012
THE LINE Michigan –9.5
WEATHER dry, partly cloudy, around 60

Yeah, that line swung hard from a –13 open. Denard uncertainty, or just bettors all looking at that and going "ah yup Northwestern," as was Michigan fans' instinct? Probably both for a four point move.

Run Offense vs Northwestern


So… after last week I don't even know man. Here's Northwestern's Big Ten performance to date:

Opponent Att Yds TD YPC
Indiana 26 167 2 6.4
Penn State 44 179 3 4.1
Minnesota 37 206 1 5.6
Nebraska 41 225 1 5.5
Iowa 37 138 2 3.7

I've gotten a vibe of sunny optimism from Northwestern fans about the run defense with their blogs and our Q&As and whatnot; the numbers don't really show it until the Iowa game. Penn State yeah but I think they only did okay there. Zach Zwinak put up 122 yards on 18 carries, 4.3 per; Matt McGloin had seven carries, two of which I've slashed out as sacks; the other five just about have to be scrambles. But even so they're only around 4, 4.5.

Meanwhile, a Denard-less Michigan just put up 4.0 YPC against awful awful Minnesota, garbage time excluded, and 4.7 garbage time inclusive. Without Denard the run offense's limitations are ruthlessly exposed. So it depends on the availability of the man who is Denard, about which we know nothing. Michigan is flirting with offensive line changes

To prepare for Northwestern, Hoke has emphasized physicality in practices this week. On Wednesday, Hoke recycled a phrase he hasn’t used in quite some time. He said he could “hear” football, a term he favors when his lineman are hitting up to his standards.

Still, Hoke said he wouldn’t make a decision on Burzynski or Miller until after Thursday’s practice.

“Those guys have gotten some reps with the ones some, but we’ll see,” Hoke said. “I can’t tell you until we finish, and we don’t really finish until Thursday, where everybody’s at from a mental standpoint.”

…ten games into the season. That is not good. Barnum, Mealer, and Omameh—Omameh to a lesser extent—have all taken turns getting run plays blown up, and the tight end play has been erratic at best. Kwiatkowski has been pretty good; the other two guys have not been. The running backs have not been generating yards themselves.

Everything is a disaster and Denard is averaging 7.2 YPC without even bothering to adjust for sacks. Gardner could paper over some of that with his legs, but Michigan wisely avoided deploying them much since getting Gardner dinged would mean walk-on Jack Kennedy enters. That is not likely to be good eats.

So… yeah. At this point Michigan isn't likely to find the secret, so it's about the quarterback getting a numerical advantage and running the veer—Michigan's single consistently successful run play—and only Denard can do that because if Denard is not in the game Michigan cannot risk getting their QB injured. Predict that.

As for the Wildcats, they are functional. They crushed their crappy nonconference opponents (Syracuse, Vandy, BC) on the ground and have hung in against the non-Indiana(!) sections of the schedule. I'd normally dismiss crushing Iowa's run game after AIRBHG blew everything up, including two Hawkeye OL starters, but… yeah, can't. Because of the blocking.

Key Matchup: Michigan Interior OL versus Block Somebody. Right? I mean, right.

[Hit THE JUMP for more BIG TENNNN offense]

Pass Offense vs Northwestern


Again the uncertainty makes everything uncertain. Northwestern is giving up scads of passing yards but the efficiency numbers are okay (48th) despite acquiring only three interceptions all year. The Wildcats get to the QB fairly well and have kept most teams from putting up gaudy YPA numbers. Big Ten opponents:

Opponent Att Cmp Yards TD Int Cmp% YPA
Indiana 39 22 266 1 1 56% 6.8
Penn State 51 35 282 2 0 69% 5.5
Minnesota 30 16 169 0 1 53% 5.6
Nebraska 39 27 342 3 0 69% 8.8
Iowa 38 24 214 0 0 63% 5.6

That's actually pretty impressive in games not against Taylor Martinez. Yeah, level of competition has been poor, but you can say that about any Big Ten team.

Wildcat partisans are big fans of freshman corner Nick VanHoose, who redshirted last year and has burst onto the scene as a lockdown-type corner guy, but he is "questionable" this week after a shoulder injury held him out of the Iowa game. He is listed as a starter and Northwestern is coming off a bye, so Michigan will probably face him. Nickel guy Quinn Evans, also hurt in the Nebraska loss, should return as well.

This has traditionally been an opportunity to firebomb something. Last year Denard threw three first-half interceptions… and for 337 yards on just 26 attempts, with Devin Gardner kicking in two completions for 25 yards.

Northwestern avoids nickel sets as much as possible so if Michigan does spread it out this should be advantage Drew Dileo… if Michigan doesn't forget that throwing him the ball is an excellent idea. Ace wasn't impresssed with the OLBs in coverage:

I was most impressed by MLB Damien Proby, who leads the team with 86 tackles (56 solo); he reads plays and sheds blocks well. The linebackers weren't as good in coverage, especially in underneath zones, but that was more on the OLBs than Proby from what I saw.

High low that corner and see what happens, please.

While SDE Tyler Scott has an impressive seven sacks, that's a good spot for Michigan to face a quality opponent player. Michigan's tackles have excelled in pass protection and should shut him off. If Northwestern wants to generate pressure they'll have to blitz, which then puts guys in one on one coverage, etc.

Expectations change drastically based on who is in the game at quarterback, but this will have to be efficient if Michigan is going to have a good day on offense—yeah, that's where we are.

Key Matchup: Denard vs. Ulnard Nerve Compression.

Run Defense vs Northwestern

This preview assumes the Trevor Siemian experiment is over and Colter will be the quarterback unless Northwestern is struggling immensely, which actually has a decent shot of transpiring.

Under that assumption, Venric Mark and Kain Colter provide almost the exact same threat level that Nebraska posed without Rex Burkhead: Martinez/Abdullah is the same combo of athletic option quarterback and lightning-quick tailback Nebraska features. They're a bit off the pace overall (5.9 YPC for the Cornpack, 5.3 for Northwestern) but there's an obvious reason for that:

Opponent Att Yds TD YPC
Indiana 58 394 5 6.8
Penn State 24 127 2 5.3
Minnesota 33 210 3 6.4
Nebraska 37 182 2 4.9
Iowa 45 365 3 8.1

In the bolded games, Kain Colter had a total of two passing attempts. Trevor Siemian had 71. When you take away the threat of Colter's legs the running game slides back a yard or more per carry, and for little reward. Siemian's actually averaging few yards an attempt than Colter, but that's another section of the preview.

Expect Colter, who had an uber-Denard-like day last week with 166 yards on 26 carries and nine passing attempts total. He had not been that effective since Indiana. Even in the Minnesota game where he was the starter at QB, he had 26 yards on ten carries.

On the other hand, Mark has been rampant. He's gone over 100 yards in every Big Ten game except Penn State, when he took 13 carries 77 yards—almost six a pop. The last two weeks he's cracked the century mark with only sixteen carries. Northwestern is a pure spread 'n' shred focused on making you account for every player on the field and screwing with safeties, which can mean meh gain after meh gain against defenses that can deal with it… and 80-yard touchdowns when opponents can't.


Mark is a home-run hitter; there will be times tomorrow when he is one guy from a lot of yards.

Thankfully, Michigan's linebackers and safeties have been extremely good about not turning those situations into lots of yards. Michigan's run defense has been extraordinarily consistent since they got done with their Alabama-option doubleheader to start the season: opponents will run around 30 times and emerge with just over 100 yards. The only exceptions have been Purdue (could not muster the 100 yards) and Nebraska (got an extra ten carries and 160 yards). They're not going to blow you up at the line; they will keep linebackers clean and get you down after a maximum of twelve yards; they will also punch you off the field on third and short like nobody's business.

Mark provides a bigger threat than most opponents have to date, but at this point I'll have to see a running back break a long one to believe it. Long runs by RBs against Michigan this year:

  • ND: 15 yards
  • Purdue: 11
  • Illinois: 9
  • MSU: 8
  • Nebraska: 18
  • Minnesota: 11

Michigan has been hit with 23 and 29 yard runs by Nathan Scheelhaase and Taylor Martinez, respectively. Running backs are just SOL. Michigan should keep the Northwestern rushing offense contained.

Key Matchup: Kovacs and Gordon versus Mark, Colter on several runs where they need to tackle in space. They should do this.

Pass Defense vs Northwestern


if you could throw to yourself, Northwestern would have explored that

Horrible! (I mean Northwestern!)

Yeah, like everyone else Michigan has played. Alternating between Colter and Trevor Siemian, Northwestern languishes at 96th in passer efficiency. Being that low is hard when you only have three interceptions on the season, but they manage it. Colter averages 5.8 YPA; Siemian 5.7. That's close to Michigan's 2008 Threet/Sheridan combo, and that ain't good.

This is a symptom of Northwestern's offense, sure. Colter is completing almost 70% of his passes but manages that YPA. Northwestern gets a lot of short stuff and seems constitutionally incapable of going deep. Ace:

A major reason why Northwestern has decided to give a less effective quarterback most of their snaps is because Colter is their biggest threat at receiver; the rest of the unit has a tough time getting separation and there isn't a big-play threat on the roster. Demetrius Fields lead the team in receptions with 26—he averages just 8.3 yards per catch. Three other wideouts have between 21 and 24 catches—their averages fall between 10.5 and 12.7. Nobody else with more than one catch—mostly running backs at this point—has more than 6.6 yards per catch. Lots of the dinkin' and dunkin' for this squad, including some (usually ineffective, at least in this game) bubble and tunnel screens.

The usual. With Siemian Northwestern hypothetically loosens opponents up, but that hasn't been the case; Wildcat fans expect that experiment is over and Michigan will get a full spread 'n' shred experience with Colter at the helm. That means a lot of Ryan over slot receivers menacing short stuff, a number of slants and whatnot, and occasional deep shots that don't seem that scary. Given the composition of Northwestern's offense the relatively impressive sack numbers are considerably reduced in, uh, impressiveness. Ace again:

I wasn't very impressed with the offensive line, despite Northwestern's solid rushing numbers and lack of sacks allowed (1.33 per game, 24th nationally). That sack number can be largely credited to the dearth of downfield passing attempts—Northwestern's passes all came from the gun, never featured a play-action fake, and almost entirely came on quick three-step drops. Right guard Neil Deiters still managed to give up a pair of sacks when he was manhandled by PSU DT Jordan Hill.

This will be a battle of tackling in space that Michigan seems pretty good at. Floyd gets in trouble when guys run past him deep; on short stuff he has been reliable since Purdue got some hitch-and-YAC stuff.

Key Matchup: Tackling On The Catch versus Um, Not Doing That. Michigan needs to put the Wildcat offense in third and three, third and two, whereupon the advantage swings to Mattison and his infinite slant destruction.

Special Teams

Collectively, Northwestern is really good at this. FEI has them 4th. Their field goal kicker is 11 of 12 on the year with decent distance mixed in—he's 8th as a person. They're #1 in punt returns in the fancy numbers, third in the conventional ones. Mark has touchdowns against Syracuse and Penn State—if Michigan's punt coverage is going to burn them, this might be the game. Kick return is blah, whatever; NW punting is excellent in advanced stats despite being only eh in the regular ones.

Michigan is middling overall. Despite bombing a bunch of punts, they're in triple digits(!) to the advanced stats; everything else is okay at best except field goals, which are good, but not great because Michigan doesn't really kick many long ones.

The most likely outcome in which special teams make an impact on the game is a Mark punt return that flips field position.




Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • Michigan's down to Jack Kennedy by halftime. [RE-RE-REMIX!]
  • Mark's grabbing a punt with no one within 15 yards of him.
  • They still can't block anybody.

Cackle with knowing glee if...

  • Denard is back, remains an incredibly effective one-man run offense.
  • Jake Ryan eliminating NW's screen game befuddles their entire offense.
  • NW can't pass protect, leaving their offense trying to run run run against Michigan.

Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 (Baseline 5; +1 for Competent Run Defense Versus… Run Offense, +1 for Denard Uncertainty, –1 for Oh Vegas Line You So Saucy, –1 for How You Gonna Run Your Screens When Jake Ryan Is Murdering Anyone On The Edge?, –1 for Either Denard Or Yeah I Can See Devin Whipping Around Like A Lunatic Working, Actually, –1 for Northwestern Can't Even Scare Us By Missing Deep Balls)

Desperate need to win level: 7 (Baseline 5; +1 for Win This Dang Conference?, –1 for Yeah But Probably Not, +1 for YEAH BUT MAYBE JERK, +1 for Keep That Momentum Going Yo, Recruiting And Business, +1 for Brady Hoke Undefeated At Home Streak, –1 for Non-rival, Injury Thing, OL Thing, Deal)

Loss will cause me to... At least we don't have to play a top-15 SEC team in a bowl… oh we still do : (

Win will cause me to... GEW NARTNAY LINONS

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

It's going to be an ugly game in which offenses struggle to move the ball. Michigan has not given up big plays all year; Northwestern will test that and probably pick up a chunk or two when Michigan loses leverage on the sideline. They are still not likely to burn Michigan deep in either the run or pass game. They'll put together some field goal drives and the like; they will struggle to crack 300 yards and Michigan should keep its streak of keeping opponents under 20 points actually earned by the offense (ie, not counting the 2 and 5 yard FG drives by Nebraska) intact.

On the other side of the ball, quarterback uncertainty makes very many things possible. The line is just the line at this point; hopefully they'll cope better against guys who are solid players but not the bull-rushing athletic specimens Minnesota (yeah, Minnesota) has. Michigan will put enough together to win.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:

  • Gardner gets the start, does okay but not as well as against Minnesota.
  • Jake Ryan gets his own National Debt Clock that tracks his TFLs after another 2.5+ in this game.
  • Northwestern turns to Siemian in the second half in an effort to juice their offense.
  • Michigan, 25-14



November 9th, 2012 at 12:55 PM ^

Although it will most likely be nice weather by kickoff, it will probably rain in the morning so the field may be wet, coupled with sustained winds of around 10 mph and gusts up to 20 mph. Hopefully the ground game can be reliable in case the wind is worse than expected.


November 9th, 2012 at 12:58 PM ^

only in a world where we have too much time on our hands to contemplate football. Our offensive line is a bit of an EL tire fire, though. 

Look at this this way--who would have wanted to COAST on Saturday. This way we're likely to get another classic seesaw M-NW battle!


November 9th, 2012 at 1:07 PM ^

Northwestern's going to get 14 points?  That's such a weird score, how are they going to get that?  One touchdown with mixed extra point, two field goals, and a safety?


November 9th, 2012 at 1:11 PM ^

Michigan 25 - Northwestern 14?

You sure enjoy picking scorees that NEVER and I mean NEVER occur in a real football game.  Look at this week for example -what the hell is up with this "14" shit anyways?  I've never seen you pick a number that crazy before - what are projecting 4 field goals and a safety?

Edit: Bhrino beat me to the punch!


eamus_caeruli (not verified)

November 9th, 2012 at 1:52 PM ^


I look at that adorable "intangible" leopard cat, and I want it to come home with me.  Is it possible?  Declaw it, potty train it.  Its like a dog, but a big cat.  Imagine the possibilites for home security!  I wonder what it would be like walking that thing around my neighborhood.  I think I might get in trouble.  Wow, I just woke-up, meanwhile...

I am nervous for this one.  NW is one of those teams that on paper, they really shouldn't beat decent teams, but they find a way to win.  Pat is a heck of a coach, but I just hope whether its Denard or Devin, we can exploit their secondary weaknesses, and spring a few long runs in the ground game.  Further, I sort of want a classic BIG game where we grind the clock out with short runs and nail biting 3rd and 4th down conversions, and NW is forced to throw to win.  I know we some trouble in the secondary, but I am confident that we could get enough pressure to force some poor throws.  

We could all be wrong and not seeing it, and we could crush them as well.  If Denard plays, I could see him running wild.  It should actually be a fun game to watch tomorrow.  


November 9th, 2012 at 3:11 PM ^

I do not recommend leopards or other big cats as home security. Especially if you have children. You're not going to domesticate them in one generation, and as long as they have teeth they're going to be dangerous.

One Inch Woody…

November 9th, 2012 at 2:26 PM ^

I really liked how our offense evolved in the passing game with Devin as quarterback. If defenses respect his scrambling ability, they're more likely to give him time to pass and if they give him time to pass, I feel like we can start opening up the run game. Not only that, we've started to run some actual constraint plays/hot reads which makes it feel less like 100 different plays strung together and more like a logical progression.

With Denard in the game, I can't believe that northwestern will respect the pass since he's injured. No matter how good the veer is, it's not going to work with 8 or 9 in the box. I also believe that the O-line will get its act together tomorrow and we will get 150+ yards of rushing, and Touissant will have his first 100 yard day of the season.

Michigan 23
Northwestern 21


November 9th, 2012 at 2:31 PM ^

I think you're spot on in your assessment of Michigan containing Northwestern's Run game if  McMcCall continues with this parade of zone-read schemes.  Assuming Michigan can execute a scrape-exchange as well as Nebraska did three weeks ago, the Colter-keeper will work out in the Wolverines' favor more often than not.  However, I think things might get a little more interesting if McMcMcCall decides to build on the triple-option looks which seemed to be successful last year against Michigan and this year against Nebraska.  Granted, I don't think we've really been holding a mature triple-option gameplan close to our chests all this time (seriously, we could have used it against Nebraska...), but wouldn't it be nice if...


November 9th, 2012 at 3:56 PM ^

We have better talent across the board, but not easilyenough to offset INTs or NU receivers running free. A few UM mistakes keep it close (7 pts) although Hoke continues his Nov magic.


November 9th, 2012 at 8:12 PM ^

I think we will see the D have their most sacks in a game this season. When you can't run, you pass. Pressure will not only lead to sacks but interceptions.

It looks like Gardner may start and if he can lead the team to some early scores he may stay in. But, if he cannot move the offense, I think you will see Robinson come in during the 2nd QTR or 2nd Half.

My best guess UM 31 - NU 13.