Preview: Northwestern

Submitted by Brian on October 7th, 2011 at 1:33 PM

Previously here: FFFF from Ace.

Other stuff: Northwestern mascot paint dismemberment. Know Your Foe from the MZone. Who Are You And Why Do We Care? Sippin' on Purple is your NW blog of note. Also check out Lake the Posts.

Previews from BWS, M&BN, Big House Blog, and. Also a preview-type thing-ish from brilliantly named Northwestern blog Bring Your Champions, They're Our Meat.

Hockey plays Bentley this weekend; Michigan Hockey Net has you covered.


WHAT Michigan vs Northwestern
WHERE Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
WHEN 7 Eastern, October 8th 2011
THE LINE Michigan –7.5
WEATHER clear, high to mid 60s, 0% chance of rain


Run Offense vs. Northwestern


right: leading tackler Bryce McNaul

The Wildcats need to figure out whether or not they're any good at this. Last year it was clear they were not, as they gave up almost 200 yards a game and finished 92nd in raw yardage. They might have actually been worse than this—they gave up 5.2 YPC. That was worse than Minnesota. By contrast #95 Michigan and their 4.4 YPC were almost stingy.

So when the Wildcats gave up 5.2 YPC to Boston College's primary tailback and 381 yards to Army, it was just more of the same. Then they basically shut down the same powerful Illinois ground game that was a major reason the Wildcats' numbers were so bad last year. And a quick peek at previous box scores shows that Army needed 75 carries to get those yards.

So… maybe they're plausible? Let's check the FFFF:

OVERVIEW: The Wildcats actually did a solid job defending the Illini triple-option attack, and they were very aggressive in flowing to the ball and forcing Scheelhaase to make a decision while taking a hit. While the Illini weren't able to do much on the ground (3.1 yards per carry after sacks removed), they exploited this aggression, coupled with man coverage, by torching the Wildcat secondary on many play-action passes.

Aggression led to success and getting constraint down their throat. This seems like a game for counters. Conveniently, Michigan just debuted one with great success against Minnesota. Even more conveniently, their quarterback is a walking play action fake and Northwestern's safeties are giving up long touchdowns to Eastern Illinois. But that's another section.

Michigan has all but dumped the under-center run game in favor of a shotgun attack not much different from what Rodriguez ran last year. There's more power, no outside zone, and Borges threw in some isos last week, but it's basically an inside zone read/QB iso/QB power offense with constraint plays attached. This makes life hard on safeties, forces extra guys in the box, and still levels opponents. Michigan is averaging nearly 7 yards a carry and is well over that number when under-center carries are excised.

Realistically the best Northwestern can hope for here is to bleed it out slowly, catch Michigan with the right run blitzes, get Denard behind the chains, and try to strangle it out from there. Given the safety situation and the simplicity of the Michigan offense that seems unlikely.

Key Matchup: Interior offensive line versus Northwestern blitzes and line shifts. When Michigan struggled last week it was because guys on the line did not combo effectively because Minnesota shifted late. Northwestern looks run-blitz heavy and will test the recognition skills of the line.

Pass Offense vs. Northwestern

Northwestern has a safety of great woe. The Tribune:

"I like that you guys are demanding perfection," Fitzgerald replied. "Our (first-stringers) have given up two big plays. We want to eliminate those, but frankly it's one guy that needs to do it. He will remain nameless."

Nice sentiment, but safety Ibraheim Campbell, a redshirt freshman, was largely responsible for Andre Williams' 69-yard scamper and the Panthers' long touchdown pass. Eastern Illinois' late-game run came in garbage time against backups.

That statement from Fitzgerald came before AJ Jenkins went ham on the Northwestern secondary on such plays as "Blitheringly Wide Open Touchdown" and "Yet Another Blitheringly Wide Open Touchdown."  An example:


That is terrible cover-3 play, just like all the wide open corner routes Jenkins ran. I'm guessing the youth and injury stricken secondary will improve but gradually, which means this weekend Michigan will have plenty of guys open. BONUS: Minnesota blew this route package exactly the same way last weekend, with the deep middle safety pulling up on the out route and leaving the post wide open for six. Denard threw it to Hemingway on the out because he was open, too, but one dollar says Borges has coached Denard on taking the deep throw here and will see if the Wildcats make this mistake again. Also, these safeties are going to freak out on QB Oh Noes guaranteed.

There will be opportunities for big plays. Michigan has not hit them much, if at all, so far this year. Denard's accuracy will be important, as will Borges giving him throws he's comfortable with (ie, in the pocket or quick Oh Noes seams).

The Wildcats do have one quality corner in Jordan Mabin, FWIW. They have a bit of a pass rush, one that seems blitz-based with sacks spread out over the roster. People don't blitz Denard much, though.

Key Matchup: Denard versus Finding Blitheringly Wide Open Guys. There have been a number this year that Denard has not seen, and he's missed some of the ones he has. Avoid Mabin and take the easy pickings that will erupt.

Run Defense vs. Northwestern

Kain Colter Northwestern v Boston College tr_N1Q9-ybql[1]northwestern-university-automatically-imported-true-freshman-treyvon-green-made-his-debut-saturda-nwu-x-auto-02024md[1]

Colter, left, is NW's leading rusher. The leetle Green is the primary RB.

With Mike Trumpy out for the year after tearing his ACL and the questionable status of Persa's achilles the burden here will fall largely on Treyvon Green, a two-star true freshman who managed 67 yards on 17 carries last weekend. Sophomore Adonis Smith and Jacob "Don't Call Me Jingleheimer" Schmidt will also contribute carries, but Smith only carried once and Schmidt 6 times last week. Both were healthy. Green looks like the man.

Despite my general belief that Northwestern tailbacks not named Tyrell Sutton are all cut from the same uninspiring cloth it appears the loss of Trumpy will be a blow. Sippin' on Purple:

The ballcarrier sophomore wasn't listed as starter on the depth chart but had taken the lion's share of carries at running back and was clearly the best player coming out of the backfield, leading the team's corps in runs and yards. He was tearing up Illinois on the ground with 12 carries for 63 yards before getting hurt, and, well, sadly, it's serious.

After leaving the game, NU's run game sputtered - although Dan Persa got hurt pretty simultaneously. Treyvon Green looks promising and did have nearly 70 yards on 17 carries, and Jacob Schmidt actually had one of the best runs of his career churning his legs into the end zone for NU's final touchdown, but I don't think anybody can act like Trumpy hasn't been the best runner.

I wouldn't rule out Purdue-style mass-QB wackiness. Kain Coulter is Northwestern's leading rusher by a considerable margin and is already be used by the skill-position-poor Wildcats as a slot receiver. If Northwestern isn't moving the ball with Persa they could give Michigan more of a spread 'n' shred look with Coulter or even have both QBs in the same backfield.

If that seems desperate, well… yeah. The remaining RB platoon combined to average 3.3 YPC on 24 carries against Illinois, and while Northwestern did manage 5.3 YPC against Army it was only Colter and Trumpy who were efficient. Schmidt and Green had eight carries for 25 yards.

For its part, Michigan merrily strangled Minnesota last week and has been pretty good so far this year when not giving up the edge on jet sweeps and the like—something I bet one dollar Northwestern implements with Colter. Pay no attention to the mildly alarming YPC average of Gopher backs, which was aided by garbage-time carries and bizarre occurrences.

But that's Minnesota. The last actual football teams Michigan played both moved the ball with some effectiveness. San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman racked up 109 yards on 21 carries, though a big chunk of that was on one epic rock-paper-scissors minus play where SDSU caught a misaligned Michigan in a bad zone blitz. Eastern Michigan—yes, more of an actual football team than Minnesota—exploited Michigan's weak edges in the first half and finished with 4.5 YPC. Notre Dame tore Michigan up.

Which of those games is this matchup more likely to look like? The vote here is Eastern. Northwestern's tailbacks lack the experience and/or athleticism to bust it to the second level unless Michigan gets RPSed and their offensive line has failed to impress. Where Northwestern might have an advantage is in the style of their run game, which is based off a passing spread when Persa is available. Michigan struggled against that versus Notre Dame.

Key Matchup: Third and short versus first down. I figure Michigan will blow a couple plays on the edge and get sliced up on short passes, but it doesn't look like Northwestern has much, if any, big play ability. Their longest run of the year not from Trumpy (out) or Colter (marginalized) is 15 yards, it's Ebert or nothing deep. That means a lot of third and short, which Michigan has been very good on this year. If they can keep that up Northwestern isn't going to score many touchdowns.

Pass Defense vs. Northwestern


Persa health disclaimers apply. Northwestern has little faith in Colter as a passer. This is how their second-to-last against Illinois drive ended:

  • (1st and 10) Green, Treyvon rush over left guard for loss of 1 yard to the ILL42 (Brown, Jonathan;Foster, Glenn).
  • (2nd and 11) Green, Treyvon rush over right guard for 3 yards to the ILL39 (Buchanan, M.).
  • (3rd and 8) Green, Treyvon rush left for no gain to the ILL39 (Mercilus, W.).
  • (4th and 8) Colter, Kain rush right for 4 yards to the ILL35 (Mercilus, W.).

That last one was a scramble; they still ran on third and eight with three minutes left in a game they were trailing. If Colter plays extensively Northwestern loses.

Assuming a healthy and effective Persa, Michigan's secondary will be getting their stiffest test of the year not named Michael Floyd. Yes, Ryan Lindley is an NFL draft pick after the season and Alex Carder is doing nasty things to the MAC but Persa completed 73% of his passes last year and finished top ten in passer efficiency. 8.5 YPA and a 15-4 TD-INT ratio, man. He managed this playing with maybe one good receiver behind a line that finished 112th in sacks allowed. He is good at the football. Imagine a grittier, non-insane Tate Forcier who means it when he says "it's hard to flunk out."

But, man, he's got nothing to work with. Despite returning four starters the line is hardly better in pass protection, allowing 2.5 sacks per game while throwing it only 21.5 times. That's horrible. Illinois had four sacks on a day when Northwestern quarterbacks got off 16 passes. That's even more horrible. Their quarterbacks are mobile! Northwestern's offensive line is awful.

At receiver, Jeremy Ebert is a quality option short and long but not a guy who is going to force Michigan to back off press coverage. He will get his; if Michigan prevents him from getting deep they will eventually chase Persa to Northwestern's doom. They have very little past Ebert. Drake Dunsmore returns after making 40 catches a year ago; he is just a guy. The depth is bad to the point where they're playing Colter in the slot, which is an epic position switch starter situation: Colter was the starting quarterback two weeks ago.

Persa is good enough to chop Michigan's secondary up despite this, especially when he breaks contain after his horrible offensive line lets guys through. Again, keep it in front of you and eventually they'll break down.

Key Matchup: The Second Guy Trying To Kill Persa versus Incompetent OL. Persa will get pressure that will flush him from the pocket and he will murder Michigan when this happens. One pass rusher is not enough; Michigan will have to get a second whether its via blitz or being a lot better than Northwestern's horrible offensive line.

Special Teams


In other news, everything else is horrible. Michigan would have given up massive plays in both coverage phases if not for Gopher penalties and Will Hagerup's return was underwhelming. Kickoff returns get slightly past the 20 at all times. I guess punt returns have been pretty good.

Hagerup will probably bounce back—there's a reason he kicked many balls a long way last year. The coverage issues are worrying since they don't seem to be getting any better. If anything they're worse. [spread punt rant]

But Northwestern is kind of average here, too. The punting is turrible. They are averaging 34.5 yards net, which is 101st. This is mostly because the punts don't go anywhere to begin with—their gross is under 38 yards. They do have some impressive return numbers but the top-ten punt return status is based on three opportunities. Kickoffs are more robust and will be a concern.

Michigan might have an… advantage… at… kicker? Brendan Gibbons was 3/3 against Minnesota with two of those coming from actual field goal range. Northwestern's Jeff Budzien is a new starter who's 1/3 on the year.

Key Matchup: Gibbons you put it through the uprights? Ah?



come at me bro

Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • Only one guy is getting in on Persa.
  • The solid safety play turns into a mirage.
  • Northwestern's run defense is for real enough to put Denard in uncomfortable down and distances.

Cackle with knowing glee if...

  • Colter is forced into the game at QB.
  • Michigan's OL can move the Wildcat DL.
  • Denard's accuracy remains at Minnesota levels.

Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 (Baseline 5; –1 for Offensive Line Could Not Block A Countrywide Mortgage, –1 for Lingering Suspicion Persa's Achilles Will Force Him Out Of The Game, +1 for This Is A Road Game, –1 for No It's Not, +1 for Persa Yakety-Saxing Our Secondary, –1 for Denard Now With Arm, +1 for Turnover Implosion Saturday Is Coming Sometime, –1 for AJ Jenkins Has A Cloaking Device And So Does Jeremy Gallon.)

Desperate need to win level: 9 (Baseline 5; +1 for We Can Totally Win Our Crappy Division In Our Crappy Conference, +1 for This Is Not Last Year, +1 for It's Not The Year Before That, Either, +1 for Epic Massive MSU Setup Ho, –1 for Just Northwestern, +1 for Those Who Stayed.)

Loss will cause me to... get my revenge by drinking all of Lake Michigan and exploding all over Evanston. U MAD, thousands of drowned Northwesterners?

Win will cause me to... set the cloning machine to "Cletus," hit the button 5,000 times, and sic them all on East Lansing.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

Though Northwestern put up a lot of points on the Illini, they didn't really move the ball (329 yards). TD drives started on the Illinois 32, 36 (twice), and 39 thanks to turnovers and some amazingly bad punting. There was a single impressive 80-yard march and it does mean something that the Wildcats were able to punch in their opportunities, that looks like a game kept close by Illinois mistakes. The week before that Northwestern lost to Army; their other games were a I-AA patsy and a narrow win over BC that doesn't look good now that BC is ACC Minnesota.

So the question is "Can Persa beat Michigan?" If they're a totally different team with him the answer is yes. I tend to think not because they still have to hand the ball off and try to block and cover people, none of which they seem very good at, and while they did shut down Illinois there is another level beyond the Illinois run game. It's named Denard Robinson. I will believe a non-elite defense shuts down the Michigan ground game when I see it.

Northwestern will struggle to move the ball long distances because they won't be able to run on third and short unless they want to expose Persa to danger; they will give up a couple of cheap touchdowns when their safety of woe executes more woe. Big plays will be the difference.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:

  • Five sacks for Michigan, one of them for Kovacs.
  • Persa does not make it through four quarters.
  • Denard completes 65% of his passes for a healthy YPA. He does throw a ver' bad interception.
  • Michigan, 33-19.



October 7th, 2011 at 1:57 PM ^

I am hoping Roy Roundtree is able to take advantage of the Northwestern secondary and break out of the problems he seems to be having this season.

I think we can win, but I am hoping for a good turnover margin and low penalty number game from us.


October 7th, 2011 at 2:47 PM ^

I love getting these turnovers  on defense and I definetely don't want our offense to turn it over. But I would like to see us shut down an opponent without having to get a bunch of turnovers. I would be really happy to see us play solid defense without the reliance on big plays.

Blue in Seattle

October 7th, 2011 at 3:26 PM ^

Yes he's dropped some balls, but he also doesn't have a lot of balls thrown his way.  What I do seem him doing a lot of is blocking.  I also see Odoms blocking a lot as well.

Roundtree is out there and doing his job, it's just that mostly the receivers are blocking as their job these days.  ND was the only game that really featured passing.  Yes there was some good passing during the Minnesota game, but the majority of plays were runs.

After reading this review of Northwestern, it seems like they may have a chance of initially stopping the running game, but only at the horrible expense of putting everyone in the box.  Denard has not been off on the QB oh noes seem route.  I'm hoping for a 4 verticals day to kick this game off, and then once  NW is playing a huge pass prevent, Denard just starts handing off to consume copius amounts of time per TD drive until it's time to bring in the second string.

I guess I think our D is pretty legit as well.  Maybe I'm wrong, but watch the beginning of the Inside Michigan Football when Ryan Van Bergen is speaking and his eyes are just crazy hungry!  Overall I'm glad we have this away game before MSU, and I'm glad MSU has a bye week to comfortably watch the NW-Michigan game.  It's like a visit from the ghost of Christmas Future.




October 7th, 2011 at 7:08 PM ^

After reading this review of Northwestern, it seems like they may have a chance of initially stopping the running game, but only at the horrible expense of putting everyone in the box.

I chuckled at that; horrible expense indeed. We might not have Tom Brady in the backfield, but dammed if he can't come up with a big pass with safetys sucked down. On top of that, his legs have enough respect that those safetys get sucked down regularly.


October 7th, 2011 at 1:58 PM ^


Great analysis, as always.  A couple of edits to the "essentials," FYI:

- The time is 7pm EASTERN, 6pm Central; and

- The line is 7, not 20...



October 7th, 2011 at 2:27 PM ^

In every game, I have predicted the opponent to have more points! Now I will be giving more respect for our D! I'm thinking all FG for NU! Plus some turnovers to put DROB and company in good field position, if not actual D scores!
<br>UM 45 - NU 15

Darth Wolverine

October 7th, 2011 at 2:30 PM ^

I am not THAT nervous for this game. It's Northwestern and they are not really a solid team. They're average and with 120 (is that the number now?) teams in FBS, being average is not very good. For the first time in a while, I have a lot of confidence in the Wolverines. Do I think they can beat anyone in the country? At this point, no, but anyone in the conference, yes (maybe not Wisconsin actually, but we would not get rolled if we played them).


October 7th, 2011 at 2:31 PM ^

If I was Persa's healthy Achilles, I'd file a TRO against Fitzgerald for even thinking of letting the rest of me play tomorrow. 

Should be a good game.  I'm not for the idea of trap games, but this NW team is good enough to catch a team like UM off-guard, especially if they are buying the kool-aid after the 58-0 score last week (which probably would have been somewhere around 40-14 if Minny hadn't taken horrible penalties on returns).  Still a big win, but less than the drubbing the score indicates.


October 7th, 2011 at 3:01 PM ^

every time I read these previews, I get more and more nervous as I approach the end of the preview.  It is amazing what the last 3 years has done to my optimism (this is no way, shape, or form a hit on Rodriguez).  It is just an observation that I have acquired a heart problem over the last 3 years.



October 7th, 2011 at 3:08 PM ^

if persa breaks contain and scrambles he won't kill us at all...  I doubt he runs much during this game and if he does, he is going to try to avoid contact at all costs

marco dane

October 7th, 2011 at 3:16 PM ^

...the play of the safeties has been quite strong. In fact,tackling among the seconday players.

This month should provide us many answers to questions that are abound with mgoboard members.

El Jeffe

October 7th, 2011 at 3:24 PM ^

I predict a zillion short Persapasses that will each gain between 0 and 8 yards. This will annoy the shit out of me because we won't be able to blitz much and will bleed yards. HOWEVA, NW will only get field goals out of most of those drives, leading to a final score of


I also predict that if Persa doesn't play more than 3 quarters we will win 45-9.


October 8th, 2011 at 1:40 AM ^

and I feel like it's because no one has actually watched a michigan game except for the notre dame game. everyone keeps saying there's "major weaknesses" and "key holes to exploit" and yeah we're giving up some yards, but outside of ND, we're allowing ~7 points a game. NU is no ND


October 8th, 2011 at 8:24 AM ^

This game, and virtually every game going forward, will be about Denard's passing success.  They will load the box, attempt to choke the running game and make him throw.  If he has success, the offense will roll.  If not....don't even want to think about it as we will be facing the same situation until we can show that the pass is succesful.

The D gets better every week.  I just don't see how this game is anything but a win.  Michigan seems hungry.  35-17