Preview: Northwestern

Submitted by Ace on November 7th, 2014 at 1:58 PM

It's Ace, filling in for Brian today on the preview. You will skip over this and address your comments to Brian because that's what always happens. If I'm horribly wrong about anything, though, this is totally Brian.


price is right fitz

WHAT Michigan at Northwestern
WHERE Big House West
Evanston, Illinois
WHEN 3:30 Eastern
November 8th, 2014
TICKETS Currently 27 bucks
WEATHER partly cloudy, 20% chance of rain dropping to 0% after kickoff
low 40s dipping to high 30s, ~15mph winds


Northwestern is a tough team to figure out. They looked pretty bad during the nonconference portion of the schedule, started Big Ten play by blowing out Penn State and knocking off Wisconsin, then lost their last three, culminating in a 48-7 thumping at the hands of Iowa last week. Vegas thinks this is pretty close to a coin-flip; the line opened Northwestern -2 but has been bet all the way to Michigan -1.5. Both of these teams are obviously having a rough go; at least one InsideNU contributor is totally stealing our schtick:

It's almost basketball season... it's almost basketball season...

Michigan 23, Northwestern 10 

This seems to be one of those games where fans of each team are by and large expecting the other team to win.

Run Offense vs Northwestern

Chi Chi Ariguzo (#44) is one of the B1G's better weakside LBs. [Fuller]

Until the last two weeks, Northwesterns rush defense had been quite good outside of an understandably rough outing against Wisconsin. Those last two weeks don't look so good, however, as both Nebraska and Iowa rushed for four touchdowns on around 45 carries that averaged ~5 yards. Mark Weisman (Mark Weisman!) was able to turn the corner on several outside runs against the Wildcats last week.

The rush defense's dropoff coincides directly with senior MIKE Collin Ellis missing these last two games due to a concussion suffered against Minnesota, and Ellis isn't expected to play this weekend. His replacement, Anthony Walker, is a redshirt freshman—he looked like one against Iowa. Chi Chi Ariguzo is a quality weakside linebacker, but all it takes is one inside LB getting out of his lane for a solid gain to open up.

The Northwestern defensive line is solid but unspectacular, with only one DL (DE Dean Lowry with 5.5) posting more than three tackles for loss this year. As a team, the Wildcats have just 44 TFLs in eight games—they don't give up many big plays, but they also don't make many.

That could be very good news for Drake Johnson, who should get the chance to build on his breakout performance against Indiana; with his speed, getting to the line of scrimmage clean should be enough for him to crank out 3-4 yards with relative regularity, which is really all M fans can ask for by now. Iowa's repeated success getting to the edge is also encouraging; even after last week, the Hawkeyes are 101st in rushing S&P+, while the Wolverines are a downright average 45th.

One thing to watch: Northwestern likes to get a little aggressive with their strong safety, whether it be four-year starter Ibraheim Campbell—who's missed the last few weeks with a hamstring injury and may or may not be able to play Saturday—or talented but raw redshirt freshmam Godwin Igwebuike.

I'm a little afraid to declare this publicly but I think Michigan might actually be able to run the ball a little bit this weekend.

Key Matchup: Michigan blocking backs and tight ends versus Northwestern's aggressive safeties. If NW is rolling a safety into the box and run-blitzing, the ancillary blockers—as well as the line—has to be able to recognize and pick up their assignments. If they do so, the zone stretch should be there for the taking, and that seems like the play Drake Johnson is most comfortable (and productive) running.

[Hit THE JUMP for the REST of the PREVIEW]

Pass Offense vs Northwestern

One can dream. [Fuller]

Another area where injury has hampered Northwestern's performance, though in this case said performance wasn't very good in the first place. Opponents have completed well over 60% of their passes for three straight weeks now, and two of those opponents—Minnesota and Iowa, of all teams—broke ten yards per attempt. (The other, Nebraska, averaged a mere 7.9.) That's the same stretch Campbell has missed, and his absence has certainly been a factor; Igwebuike was victimized for a long gain on a flea flicker last week.

That doesn't fully account for Northwestern's woes in this department, however. They've given up well north of 7 YPA in every game except a three-game stretch against Western Illinois (is Western Illinois), Penn State (can't block a soul), and Wisconsin (safety-turned-QB or QB-with-the-yips); the advanced metrics (58th in passing S&P+, 64th on passing downs) and the traditional numbers (55th in passing yardage against) actually line up quite well here. They're good against bad passing offenses, not so much against passing games with a pulse.

Of course, we're desperately putting two fingers on Michigan's throat and waiting for a thump-thump, and coming to the conclusion that we may have lost the patient. M's passing offense is bad by any measure, and putting much—if any—stock in a solid outing against Indiana is, as we well know, likely to lead to disappointment.

Northwestern has just 14 sacks this season, so the pass protection should at least hold up okay. Whether or not Michigan will actually take shots downfield, though... well, we've yet to see it.

Key matchup:  Gardner versus himself. Always. Michigan should be able to move the ball in fits and spurts, but in a game poised to be pretty darn ugly, an interception could swing the whole contest.

Run Defense vs Northwestern

True freshman Justin Jackson is living up to the four-star hype. [David Banks/Getty]

Until they took a beating against Iowa, Northwestern's rushing offense had been creeping towards respectability due to the effort of four-star freshman Justin Jackson, who usurped Traevon Green as the starting running back and proceeded to rip off three straight 100-yard games before finishing with 96 on 24 carries versus the Hawkeyes.

Jackson is a relatively slender, upright runner who nevertheless manages to finish his runs with surprising power; he displays patience beyond his years waiting for the right hole to open up and his quick feet allow him to pick through traffic:

Jackson is at his best when he can hit the edge, in part because Northwestern's blocking on the outside is better than what they've got going on the interior; inside zones went nowhere against Iowa's excellent pair of DTs, and M's group inside isn't far behind the Hawkeyes.

The running game goes as Jackson goes, and Jackson is largely left to his own devices to pick up yardage; his 4.6 yards per carry is over a full yard better than Green's mark, while the other RB options have mostly seen garbage time—based on the stats and the tape, it appears the O-line isn't opening much up. That's really hampered their ability to break anything long; they've recorded just four runs of 20+ yards, 122nd nationally. (For perspective, Michigan has 13 such runs, 46th in the country.)

It doesn't help that opponents are able to stack the box due to Northwestern's weak passing attack, which has been less and less effective as the season has progressed. Michigan, meanwhile, has risen all the way to sixth(!) in rushing S&P+; the Wolverines should be able to key on the run and shut it down.

Key Matchup: Michigan's DEs versus holding the edge. I expect the tackles to win the battle against NW's interior line, leaving the outside as the only route to success on the ground. Jackson can turn the corner if given the opportunity, and while M has mostly been quite disciplined against the run, Taco Charlton has shown his youth a bit by giving up the edge on occasion. With the Wildcats struggling mightily to move the ball through the air, that seems to be their most likely way to break a big (or even kinda-sorta big) play.

Pass Defense vs Northwestern

Unstoppable Levitating Throw-God Trevor Siemian. [Fuller]

Outside of whenever Brian has been watching him, Trevor Siemian has never been much more than an average-at-best quarterback, and as of late he's really struggled—check out the YPA figures for his last four games:

Opponent Att Comp Pct. Yards YPA TD INT
Cal 44 23 52.3 229 5.2 1 2
N. Illinois 41 27 65.9 268 6.5 1 1
W. Illinois 25 15 60.0 117 4.7 0 0
Penn State 37 21 56.8 258 7.0 0 1
Wisconsin 29 15 51.7 182 6.3 1 0
Minnesota 50 32 64.0 269 5.4 1 1
Nebraska 39 18 46.2 173 4.4 0 1
Iowa 18 8 44.4 68 3.8 0 0

Siemian finally got pulled in the second half against Iowa, but his replacement, junior Zack Oliver, completed just 1/6 passes for 7 yards, so expect Siemian to take the snaps this weekend.

The paltry passing production can be chalked up to a number of factors beyond Siemian's sometimes erratic throwing. Northwestern ranks 103rd in adjusted sack rate, and alarmingly for them, a lot of that pressure is coming straight up the gut:

Siemian got a lot of pressure right in his face, resulting in a couple pass attempts being batted right back at him, and the Wildcat backs didn't have any room to operate on the interior. Iowa does boast an excellent pair of DTs in Carl Davis and Lucas Trinca-Pasat, but I think Michigan can replicate a fair amount of their success.

The tackles didn't fare a whole lot better than the interior line. Trinca-Pasat recorded one of his three sacks on a stunt in which he thoroughly manhandled left tackle Paul Jorgensen.

Siemian isn't the smoothest operator in the pocket, which doesn't help matters, and he's also dealing with a nagging ankle injury. Also not helping: the receiver can't get open downfield even when Siemian has the time to unleash a deep ball. Only one of their top four receivers is averaging more than ten yards a catch: H-back Dan Vitale with 10.9. It's rarely a good sign when your "big-play" threat is half-fullback, half-tight end, and... yup, it's not a good sign at all:

According to FEI, Michigan is 93rd nationally in a stat called "Explosive Drives," which is the percentage of an offense's drives that average at least 10 yards per play, while Northwestern is 117th. This should be no surprise given that only one team in the nation has fewer 30-plus-yard passes this season than Michigan (4), and that team is Northwestern (3).

With no Kain Colter providing a dual-threat (or moonlighting as a decent slot receiver) and no Christian Jones on the outside, the passing game has curled up and died. I'm sorry, Heiko, but it's apparently not good if Kyle Prater is starting for your football team. Pat Fitzgerald is gaining a reputation for being very candid in press conferences. This is certainly candid:

Asked to evaluate the recent play of [the receivers], Fitzgerald replied, "Horrible."

Dropped passes, running the wrong routes, blocking?

"Sure, keep going," Fitzgerald said.

Michigan pass defense has been pretty mediocre, but that should be enough to win this matchup handily.

Key Matchup: The defensive backs versus tackling in space. Northwestern will try to get its passing game going with screens and quick-hitters; if M can limit those to reasonably short gains, they'll shut down this passing, er, attack-like substance.

Special Teams

Northwestern has an in-season punter controversy. I REPEAT: NORTHWESTERN HAS AN IN-SEASON PUNTER CONTROVERSY. Starter Chris Grandone was benched against Iowa after some underwhelming kicks and a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown; redshirt freshman Hunter Niswander booted one 42 yards and is now listed as the co-starter. This probably didn't come as a huge surprise to NW fans; the Wildcats are 120th in net punting. They're not giving up huge returns for the most part; they're just not kicking the ball very far. Still, short punts could give Norfleet a chance to break one.

Kicker Jack Mitchell has hit 7/8 field goals this year, but every single make has been within 30 yards; he missed his lone attempt from 40+ and hasn't even tried a 30-39 yarder this season. It doesn't appear Northwestern has a lot of trust in their kicking game.

Returns have been about average for the Wildcats. They'll be breaking in a new punt returner, as normal starter Miles Shuler—also their starting slot receiver—is out with an undisclosed injury.

Key Matchup: Michigan versus counting.


will one of you at least try to do something fun, please

Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • A Northwestern player is running with the ball more than five yards past the line of scrimmage.
  • Michigan can't generate a pass rush.
  • Gardner's very bad idea throws are actually caught by Wildcats defenders.

Cackle with knowing glee if..

  • Michigan has an offensive play go longer than 30 yards.
  • Okay, fine, 20 yards.
  • hey i'll take ten yards if that's what it takes to keep me from bleeding out through my eyeholes


Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 (Baseline 5; +1 for Unstoppable Throw-God Trevor Siemian, –1 for UTG Looks Eminently Stoppable, –1 for The Best Part Of Their Offense Averages 4.6 YPC, –1 for Michigan Is Somehow A Road Favorite, +1 for Vegas Didn't Start The Line There, –1 for Big House West)

Desperate need to win level: I won't bother with the usual format. It's a 10 if you're Brady Hoke; it's a 10 if you're really itching for that bowl game; it's a 1 if you're living in constant fear that Hoke can somehow save his job by going 6-6.

Loss will cause me to... write in rapturous tones about basketball.

Win will cause me to... write in rapturous tones about basketball.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

This game will be hideous.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:

  • The defense holds NW under 250 total yards.
  • Drake Johnson finishes with 80-ish yards on 25 carries and the hype train slows quite a bit.
  • Michigan, 13-7



November 7th, 2014 at 2:32 PM ^

Not sure why they're so pessimistic.  They hold their players out when they get concussions and still manage to get 11 per play.  They're already a step up from where we're at.

On the flip side, of all weeks to hope for basketball season, against Michigan?  Does this blogger not know where Michigan's been?


November 7th, 2014 at 2:28 PM ^

Five safeties and a field goal not good enough for you?  Or do you have the audacity to think Michigan's going to find the end zone?

And for all we know, NW might go for the ol' "no offense" Tecmo Super Bowl hat trick -- two safeties and a FG.


November 7th, 2014 at 2:35 PM ^

Anyone else notice that Brian has been posting less since the DB a story broke? Only one UFR this week (and last), having Ace do the preview, relatively shorter UV. Everything ok big guy?

After emailgate, I was worried that DB would hire a squad of really douchey hit men to kidnap Brian for pretty much putting the final nail in the coffin. Now I fear that DB may have him and that Ace and co are just keeping this thing going weekend at Bernies style.

DB, if you have him, we will pay the ransom. Send us Brian in one piece and we will send you 2 coke products, a tub of Choibani yogurt, Special K and a giant noodle.


November 7th, 2014 at 2:38 PM ^

don't like to complain, but the caption under the picture in the "Run Offense vs. Northwestern" section is incorrect.  That is NOT Chi Chi Ariguzo, that is  clearly RS FR LB Harold Freedom.  Please fix.


November 7th, 2014 at 2:42 PM ^

Knowing that NW will try to run outside, is it possible to split our DE's out wider to contain?  Sure that would hurt their pass rush, but I think their run game is a bigger threat.  If the RBs then want to cut it inside the DEs, at least we have LBs there to clean up.  Losing contain is a bad thing.

Space Coyote

November 7th, 2014 at 2:57 PM ^

First year I ever coached I was responsible for the DL. Fresh out of high school, I thought I had all the answers. Our team is getting killed on sweeps all day and they are struggling understanding where they can anchor and still make a play without letting the runner outside of them.

So, like the genius I thought I was back then, I pulled a little trick out of my sleeve and told them to widen out a little bit so their angle would be a little more advantageous. Turns out when you do that you are easier to kick out, your LBs are more exposed to blockers, and guys end up attempting to do things outside their assignment while attepting to cover huge gaps in your front.

The point is, everyone on the defense has assignments and things they are responsible for. Part of the way this defense works is for the DEs to set the edge and not let it widen out so that the LBs can flow or so that the safeties can fill (depending on the coverage, scheme, etc). So unless Michigan is going to a Wide 9 scheme, which they have never done under Mattison, this is one of those things that in theory sounds like it makes sense, until you learn in a really unsuccessful way that it is not.