Preview: Northwestern 2015

Submitted by Brian on October 9th, 2015 at 2:00 PM


WHAT Northwestern at Michigan
WHERE Michigan Stadium
Ann Arbor, MI
WHEN 3:30 Eastern
October 10th, 2015
THE LINE Michigan –7.5
TICKETS From $91
PARKING From $20
WEATHER sunny, chilly AM, mid 60s gametime, 0% chance of rain

Picture at right posted in a spirit of genuine love and admiration for Bo Cisek.


Run Offense vs Northwestern


Anthony Walker is not to be confused with Antoine

This has been up and down for the Wildcats. They've hampered Stanford and Minnesota (a combined 3.5 YPC after sacks are removed), but both Duke and Ball State gashed the Wildcats for more than five yards a carry, nearing 200 yards each. Duke's output was their best of the year on a per-carry basis; they just rushed for under a yard per carry in a 9-7 win(!) over Boston College. Ball State also just rushed for under a yard per carry against Toledo. They did not win.

So this is very different than Michigan's run D. It's not exactly bad. But it's not amazing. Northwestern is 44th in YPC allowed, and that's after facing the #35, #39, #83, and #109 rush offenses plus an FCS team. That is average performance against an average schedule. (For comparison, Michigan is fifth against #21, #32, #41, #84, and #115. IE: on another level entirely.)

Northwestern has a much more extreme version of the linebacker dichotomy Michigan does. Anthony Walker has been heroic this season, with a typical statline of 18 tackles, 3 TFLs, one baby saved from a burning building, and a PBU. Ace:

MIKE Anthony Walker flew under the radar heading into the season, but it's hard not to notice him now that he's amassed 44 tackles and 8.5 TFLs through five games for one of the most surprisingly strong defenses in the country. While he's a tiny bit undersized at 6'1, 235, he's got great athleticism for an inside linebacker, and his ability to read and react only makes it easier for him to shut down plays in a hurry:

Walker is at his best going sideline to sideline but he can also shed blocks and make plays between the tackles; he's also a solid cover linebacker.

The rest of their linebackers are nowhere near his level; I have seen them make weak tackle attempts in many games, get out of position, etc. After Walker, Northwestern's next two leading tacklers are the starting safeties. Only then do the other starting LBs come. Get Walker blocked and you can get to the secondary.

The Northwestern defensive line is fine. They're solid. They execute their assignments. They have something of a playmaker in Dean Lowry (4.5 TFLs). Ace compared him to Ryan Van Bergen and I think that's on point. I really liked RVB's game, but he's not Joey Bosa or Yannick Ngakoue. I am more optimistic about Michigan's ability to pound out yards against this defense than Ace is; the numbers for the season aren't great, and Minnesota's infinite offensive problems probably inflated the assets of the Northwestern D.

As for Michigan, Steve Lorenz is reporting Michigan should have De'Veon Smith back for this game. I have heard similar; I expect he will be available but maybe not 100% depending on his pain tolerance level.

Smith's projected return is a major boost. Michigan's anger back had his most impressive outing of 2014 in the #M00N game:

He was at his most effective against Northwestern, when he was able to slip through the line and utilize that power and balance to bludgeon the Wildcats.

One particular third and short conversion was whistled dead despite Smith still inching forward with two different Wildcats hanging off him like 300-pound Christmas ornaments.

This is much the same crew he's going up against; if he can duplicate that performance Michigan has gone a long way towards winning.

That is somewhat likely. While Northwestern's taken a step forward on defense, it hasn't shown up too much in the run game; meanwhile this is basically the same Michigan rushing offense with a much better coaching situation. Consistent production is likely.



Pass Offense vs Northwestern

Northwestern Penn St Football

It's a weird year in the Big Ten, and there's nothing weirder than the fact that Northwestern's secondary could be the best in the conference. Michigan would strenuously dispute that, but non-insane arguments can be had about it. For those of us raised on good old fashioned Northwestern #chaos #brand football this is a disappointment. For Promethean Northwestern fans, a break from having their liver eaten must be nice.

But, yes, they are legit good. Nick Van Hoose and Matthew Harris are the best duo in recent memory for the Wildcats. Ace

[Harris] plays the ball very well in the air. VanHoose is less of a playmaker but is in the receiver's hip pocket so much that he doesn't get thrown at much.

I've watched the Wildcats in three of their games (Stanford, Ball State, and Minnesota) and have been impressed with both guys' ability to stick with their charges. It is not particularly difficult to see them doing so against Michigan wide receivers not named Chesson, and Chesson's had issues with consistency. He is also not at all like Ball State's Jordan Williams, who torched the Wildcats for 133 yards thanks in large part to the fact that he is huge and leaps well for jump balls. Jump balls that Michigan does not throw.

The Northwestern safeties have also impressed as the Wildcats are once again amongst the national leaders in preventing long plays from the opponent. They're 9th in preventing 20 yarders and haven't given up a 40 yard play this year. (Michigan is tied for second in 20 yarders and has one play of 30+, that towards the end of the UNLV game.)

This is a nice combination, and when you add in a super-fast MLB the underneath stuff gets difficult as well. Northwestern's back seven has largely earned its ranking.

Not so good is the pass rush, which has just nine sacks on the year, three of those against Eastern Illinois. Against D-I competition the Wildcats are averaging 1.5 sacks a game; DL Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo lead the way with 2.5 each.

Meanwhile this has been a struggle for Michigan. Jake Rudock has been erratic and mostly bad so far in his Michigan career. He's taken a significant step backwards even from his middling form at Iowa, missing short passes repeatedly and suddenly unable to complete a long pass. Turnovers have made an unwelcome resurgence after he got through the entirety of 2014 with just 5 interceptions.

The light could go on at some point since a lot of the problems are either things that used to be strengths or clearly a result of an unfamiliarity with Michigan's offense. At this point Michigan fans just want mediocre production and no turnovers.

One possible advantage for Michigan will be their tight ends. Northwestern has not faced a team that plays them other than Minnesota and their hopeless broken offense. If Michigan can put someone on Northwestern's shaky-non-Walker LBs profit can be had.


Run Defense vs Northwestern


Jackson is default Northwestern tailback

Lead back Justin Jackson is in the mold of most Northwestern lead backs: undersized, shifty, not particularly athletic, and more than the sum of his parts. Skip the worthless first minute of this highlight package but do examine the second and third:

Jackson is at his best picking through traffic on the infinite iterations of inside zone that Michigan is about to see; he is a bit like Mike Hart without the power.

Jackson's backed up by a couple guys who are almost exactly like him; Solomon Vault had a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch against Minnesota that replay overturned.

Northwestern can and does run quarterback Clayton Thorson, but since a 42-yard QB draw that scored the only touchdown in the Stanford game he's been pedestrian. Minnesota and Duke bottled him up; he went for 45 yards on 22 carries in those games. Thorson is about as mobile as Jake Rudock; he is a bit bigger. Northwestern mostly runs him to keep defenses honest and occupy defenders when Jackson and company have the ball.

The combine these things and you have an offense that has veritably shredded lower-level competition (5 YPC against Ball State and EIU) and been just good enough against Power 5 teams. The typical Northwestern rushing day has 50 carries and change, rushes for close to 4 yards a pop, and lacks a truly explosive play.

Michigan's brutal defense is never more brutal than when opponents try to run. Occasionally the ball will pop outside the tackles when a linebacker fails to maintain leverage. Every once in a while a DL will get cut or fly up in the wrong gap. All other carries to date have been crushed in the meaty hands of Michigan's DL.

No opponent since Utah has cracked 100 yards on the ground; Michigan is giving up 2.3 yards an attempt. Maryland leads the nation in interceptions and still passed about two thirds of the time against the Wolverines. Michigan's backups would be an upper-echelon Big Ten defensive line. They have done all these things with five and six man boxes.

There are two caveats to the previous two paragraphs. One: starting WDE Mario Ojemudia has been lost for the season. After struggles in space in the opening game Ojemudia was playing very well. His backup, Royce Jenkins-Stone, is a senior who has played pretty well in limited opportunities, but a dropoff is likely.

Two: the sole opponent to rush even semi-competently against Michigan, Utah, did so largely because their QB Travis Wilson went for 57 yards on 11 carries. While Michigan largely shut down a mobile QB the next week, in that game they blew a scrape exchange and let the Beavers rip off a 20-yarder.

Those two events could combine unpleasantly. If Royce Jenkins-Stone is shaky as the option guy in his first start at DE, the very very spread option Northwestern offense could make unexpected headway.

But until I see that, or any team move the ball on the ground effectively, my assumption is that rushing against Michigan is a cordial invitation to second and nine.


Pass Defense vs Northwestern


If Dan Vitale was a 1970s blaxsplotation star something would have gone very wrong in casting but also he'd star in SUPERBLACK SUPERBACK so that's all fine then

Clayton Thorson is a redshirt freshman who has been largely sheltered from major responsibility. Ace's run/pass-by-down breakdown is stark:

Down Run Pass PA
1st 21 3 1
2nd 15 1 3
3rd 3 12 --

Thorson's scuffling along in his many obvious passing downs, completing 57% on the year for 6.3 YPA. He has not exceeded 128 passing yards against a Power 5 opponent thus far in his career, though his game against Minnesota was reasonably efficient.

Opponent Att Comp Pct. Yards YPA TD Int
Stanford 25 12 48 105 4.2 0 0
@ Duke 23 9 39.1 70 3 0 2
Minnesota 19 14 73.7 128 6.7 0 0

6.7 YPA against a kind-of-good defense (Minnesota has been bludgeoned by injuries) is decent. 9.1 yards a completion indicates how Thorson acquired the majority of those yards: dinking and dunking. One wide receiver, the steady and uninspiring Christian Jones, has more than six catches. WRs have been targeted 59 times; tailbacks (including SUPERBACKS(!)) have been targeted 46. Northwestern has only given up four sacks, and that's not because they've got a lights-out line in pass protection. Ace:

The line looked okay in pass protection; the quick-passing scheme helped them a lot. The right tackle got beat by Theiren Cockran for a sack and another quick pressure—he looked pretty vulnerable. The rest held their own, though the degree of difficulty was low.

It will be interesting to see how Michigan treats SUPERBACK(!) Dan Vitale. Vitale is an excellent and frequently deployed receiver; his 100 yards receiving came in big game-saving chunks against Ball State. He leads the team in targets, catches, and receiving yardage. He is also a fullback. Michigan has generally responded to three-wide formations with a nickel package and will continue that; I bet we see a lot of safeties drawing man coverage against him.

Other than Jones—a possession guy who will catch some hitches and slants and the like—there's not much data on the Northwestern receiving corps. Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler has done little this year but will be a guy to watch in the flats and on the horizontal double move routes that have given Peppers some trouble this year. Shuler returned a punt 65 yards against Minnesota to set up Northwestern's first touchdown and was on the end of Northwestern's sole big passing play against the Cardinal. He has some talent, but as a slot receiver in an offense that's allergic to throwing over the middle he hasn't been used much.

Where are the screens, you ask? They have been rare because many teams are pressing the Northwestern receivers. Stanford did; Minnesota mostly did. Michigan will follow suit, forcing Thorson to get it at least a little downfield if he's going to add to his passing stats.

This matchup leans heavily in Michigan's favor but the many quick slants Maryland found profitable could frustrate if Michigan does not adapt to remove them. Those are the short quick hitters that have allowed Northwestern to move the ball when they have in fact done that; Michigan showed itself slightly vulnerable there.

One other thing of note: if Michigan does end up in the redzone, they are likely to have an advantage. When the field constricts, NW freezes up; Thorson is not reliable in that department.


Special Teams

Michigan projects to have an advantage in the field position battle.

Northwestern kicker Jack Mitchell is middling. He hit a 49 yarder against Stanford but it's been mostly chip shots since, and he's missed three of those plus a PAT. He is not their kickoff guy; said guy is really struggling with just 6 touchbacks in 28 attempts and lots of kickoffs from the 35 that look like this:


That is not an attempt to pop it up just in front of the goal line and swarm for the 5 or 10 yards it gets you. Also that was with the wind.

With a 39 yard average, Punter Hunter Niswander is also struggling. He's only got one touchback, but he's also only put four inside the 20—just about all of those punts are Niswander trying to kick it as far as he can and coming up with 39 yards or so. He has been very good at preventing returns—opponents have 5 for negative 8 yards this year. That tends to happen when you are punting it short.

The Wildcat return units have been one 65-yard Miles Shuler punt return last week and an incredibly important Solomon Vault KO TD against Duke and subpar otherwise. This still adds up to very good, but Michigan is all of a sudden much much better in coverage for some reason.

Michigan's end of this is tantalizing if they can just get a return with Jabrill Peppers, who is chomping at the bit for opportunities. K Kenny Allen is still a bit of a question mark but has ben perfect from inside 40 so far in his career; Blake O'Neill has been masterful aside from a shank or two. He has 11 punts inside the 20 and probably a half-dozen inside the five without a touchback.



Give Me Some Sugar Babe[1]

Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • Michigan's having trouble containing a read option.
  • Sad ghost passes to sad ghost receivers prevent YAC or touchdowns.
  • Targeting issues let unblocked guys show up into otherwise successful runs.

Cackle with knowing glee if...

  • Michigan is blowing the NW DL off the ball.
  • Michigan finally hits a deep ball.
  • Blake O'Neill is punting from the 40.

Fear/Paranoia Level: 6 (Baseline 5; +1 It Me, They Us, +1 for Sad Ghost Rudock, -1 for Meaningful Special Teams Advantage In A Field Position Game, +1 for They Did Crush Stanford's Offense, –1 for The Defenses, While Superficially Similar, Aren't That Close When You Look At The Stats, –1 for How Are They Getting In The Endzone, +1 for This Is Michigan-Northwestern, This Is Chaos)

Desperate need to win level: 9 (Baseline 5; +1 for Hyarrr There Be Validation In Beating A Top 15 Team, +1 for Stakes! There Are Now Stakes!, +1 for Let's Keep The Harbauneymoon Going WOO I CAN HARMANTAEAU ANYTHING, +1 for The Intoxicating Scent Of An Elite Defense Will Evaporate If A Loss Is Placed Upon Our Heads, –1 for I Mean We Kind Of Owe Them A Dumb Win, +1 for Spent Most Of This Week Petting The Computer Screen While Looking At Various Statistical Rankings And Purring Excellent And It Was A Good Time)

Loss will cause me to... board up the windows, the Juggalo hurricane is about to hit town (and leave at halftime)


The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

This is bad news for Northwestern's offense. Michigan has given up one play of more than 20 yards this year, that a late heave by UNLV's Blake Decker. Northwestern's red zone offense is dismal, currently 127th in TD percentage. A Northwestern touchdown would be something of a surprise. Two would be a shock.

On the other side of the ball, Michigan can attempt a boring dinosaur offense approach and expect a reasonable amount of success—enough to move the ball and pin the opponent back with their punting advantage, and eventually that will turn into points. I expect Harbaugh will have a couple things Northwestern hasn't seen and they'll hit some chunk plays as a result.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:

  • Northwestern exceeds 105 yards of offense, but not 200.
  • Combined first down passes further than ten yards downfield < 8
  • Michigan runs 75% of the time
  • Michigan, 18-0



October 9th, 2015 at 6:18 PM ^

The whole Raback thing started one February during the RichRod Days when RichRod was recruiting Florida hard. I believe it was 2010. There was a lot of excitment (both positive and negative) around Demar Dorsey and the type of player that RichRod was recruiting to Michigan. 

Most people said that we didn't have that much of a chance with Dorsey, even up until the very end - the fact that he is Denard's cousin helped, but most people expected him to stay down south and not make the treck up to Michigan. I at one point said "I have a better chance of fornicating with Megan Fox than Demar coming to Michigan"

At the time, I had a brother that went to UofM who had some very good friends on the football team - he lived with three of them. Not star players, but certainly solid contributors who's names are well known to most Michigan observers.

He would always give me the inside scoop - and aside from Brandon Smith being a "beast" (LOL,) most of it was true.

Anyway, on the eve of commitment day, my brother's friend overheard Denard tell RichRod that his "cousin" was coming....word traveled to me, and of course I made the prophetic prediction that he would commit. Chaos ensued. It was fun to watch though and still to this day I love hearing about "Rabacking it" on this board. 

Unfortunately the lore of Demar Dorsey at Michigan stopped there - I would've loved to see him in a winged helmet.



October 10th, 2015 at 1:00 PM ^

away games at EL but not outside Chicago. And we had a couple of memorably poor games that wound up being frantic finish victories under Hoke, Even the victory at Michigan was crazy over the Wildcats. The one easy win at Evanston I remember is when Denard and Devin both had big nights passing, running and catching the ball against them.

But for as difficult a team to play and beat as these guys are, we never seem that anxious about where we play them. I guess that's because Michigan always as a physical and athletic advantage over them that makes up for that concern to go with a long tradition of kicking their ass.


October 9th, 2015 at 2:22 PM ^

Cats with vengance in mind (recent losses), pull the 'ol tipped pass sliding catch FG attempt, hitting the upright, as time expires, to lose, 18-0. Shutout preserved. 

there, tha's bettah. #GOBLUE



October 9th, 2015 at 2:29 PM ^

Its obviously gonna be a barn burner offensive game.  This always happens when people are so sure that the game is gonna be played one way.  It almost always ends up being the opposite.


October 9th, 2015 at 2:29 PM ^

I think both teams have shaky passing games so it'll be middling run offense vs. stingy run defense for both sides with special teams deciding the difference.  Logically, they might finish regulation scoreless, with an edge to Michigan.

But. . .

This is Michigan-Northwestern.  This is chaos.  So in a year they are two of the five best FBS defenses in the nation, the only logical conclusion is that the two teams will combine for over 100 points.  The defense will get torched for 600+ yards and finish without a sack; Rudock will throw 50 passes including the game-winning TD as time expires for a 61-57 victory.  Because these games never make a lick of sense.


October 9th, 2015 at 4:27 PM ^

I'm not sure NW's run defensive front is better than the one we faced in Utah.  Solid overall D but much better Pass D, free flowing LBs.  I'm convinced we run it right at their all star Middle Line Backer give him less ability to flow.  I think we can successfully run on their defense, but we'll see if oru OL can sustain push at the point of attack.  


October 9th, 2015 at 2:31 PM ^

Ball State also just rushed for under a yard per carry against Toledo. 
Oh yeah?  Well it just so happens that my alma mater Ball State also OUTSCORED TEXAS A&M 20-7 IN THE SECOND HALF.
En route to a 33 point loss.




October 9th, 2015 at 2:31 PM ^

Because it's highly unlikely that Fitzgerald will have a shotgun, I hope Harbaugh dances around him post-game singing "little goodie two shoes" while punching him in the face.

Autocracy Now

October 9th, 2015 at 2:34 PM ^

When I went to Dillo Day visiting a friend at NU one year, some football player was throwing a ball around outside his house and tossed it at my head while I wasn't looking.

Fuck that guy. And beat  Northwestern! 

Hugh White

October 9th, 2015 at 2:42 PM ^

"Undersized, shifty, not particularly athletic".  All true.  But what the highlight-film tends to show is that he sets up and/or exploits blocks, has good vision and makes good cuts.  In other words, exactly what we wish we had more of in Ann Arbor.  


On the other hand, none of those highlights were against Michigan.  He's toast.


October 9th, 2015 at 4:31 PM ^

All 5 characters in the original Evil Dead are MSU students on a spring break trip to Tennessee.


Sam Raimi (writer and director of Evil Dead) is from Royal Oak and attended MSU.

Bruce Campbell is from Royal Oak and attended Western Michigan.


Another interesting note: Joel Coen (of the Coen brothers - Raising Arizona, Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, etc.) was an editor on the original Evil Dead film.


October 9th, 2015 at 2:40 PM ^

I think this is on the optimistic end of plausible.  Michigan is justifiably favored and is the better team, especially at home but I just don't trust our passing game enough to feel very comfortable.  NU's offense is underpowered enough that a shutout is in play but even DJ Durkin would admit that at some point someone will score on us.

I think we win, but think it'll be much closer than we'd like.  Hopefully I'm wrong and in a good way.


October 10th, 2015 at 9:09 AM ^

That was also the first game of the season, and while it was annoying as hell that one of the tv announcers kept mentioning it over and over, the fact that the Standford team had to wake up at 4:30 am PST for the game might have had some effect as well.

I just think if Stanford and Northwestern were to play today, Stanford would win by at least 10-14 points


October 9th, 2015 at 2:43 PM ^

Just think, the Oregon State game was very close to a shutout, as well as the UNLV game. If Michigan shuts out NW this weekend, which I don't think would surprise anyone at this point, they would have been within a hair's breadth of five straight shutouts.

Has any team dine that in the last 50 years? I suppose it's a moot point since we obviously will not have done it either, but damn, we would be close.

El Jeffe

October 9th, 2015 at 2:44 PM ^

Does the Army of Darkness clip mean that NU and UM are clones of each other but we have the shotgun and we will shoot them in the face with it? That seems... correct.