At the very beginning of the season, I pointed this contest out as a game that could possibly give Michigan a scare. After all, it really isn't a surprise that our Wolverines are in the hunt to play in the Big Ten Championship, and the Wildcats have been flying under everyone's radar.
Northwestern, under Pat Fitzgerald, has been steadily improving through the last couple of years, and he has his Wildcats on track to be a force in the Big Ten through the coming years. When these two teams met up last season, the first half was completely dominated by Northwestern. But as Michigan always does, they went into the locker room at half time, came out with some adjustments, and ran away with the win.
Here are the keys to the game.
The Wolverines are fresh of a big victory on the road against Minnesota, where Devin Gardner filled in for the injured Denard Robinson and put on a show of his own. Most importantly, they kept themselves in striking distance of Nebraska for the driver's seat in the Legends Division.
1. Protect Against The Run
Northwestern will be throwing in Kain Colter, so it will a primarily rushing offense. Brady Hoke expressed his displeasure with the Wolverines against the run last week against Minnesota, pointing out a lack of physicality and poor tackling. To the average eye, it looked like a good performance. But in the eyes of Brady Hoke, there is always room for improvement.
With Colter under center, Northwestern seems to be an overall better football team. Although the passing game isn't quite what it is with QB Trevor Siemian, there is more diversity and play making ability with Colter, something needed against the tough Wolverine defense.
Michigan's secondary has proven itself enough to allow Greg Mattison to dial up some pressure and really protect against the sometimes overwhelming rushing attack of Northwestern.
2. Trust Denard Robinson
Denard Robinson missed the first full game of his career last week, and Devin Gardner stepped in for a possible sneak peak of what is to come next season. But this season, Michigan has one of the most prolific playmakers in the country with Denard Robinson, and I think Al Borges would be foolish not to trust him in this late season situation.
Not only is he the Wolverine's number one playmaker, he is a leader of the team. And this is where leaders step up for their team. Late in the season, playing catch up with Nebraska, needing to win out, Denard Robinson is the man for the job. And it all starts tomorrow with Northwestern.
The Wildcats are one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten this season. We all knew Pat Fitzgerald had this team moving in the right direction, but I don't think anybody predicted it would come together so smoothly like it has.
1. Stick To The Ground
As good as Michigan's run defense has been this season, the secondary has been better. For most teams, it's a "pick your poison" situation. But for Northwestern, they could very well find some success on the ground because of the options they have.
In Ann Arbor, if anyone is running the ball, it's Denard Robinson. But they operate a little differently in Evanston. Kain Colter is more than capable of applying the five points of pressure and breaking loose, but RB Venric Mark is the highlight of this Wildcat rushing attack.
He's picked up over 1,000 yards on the season and has broken runs out for runs of 80 and 72 yards over the last two games.
2. Tight Coverage
The Wolverines have become very predictable over the past couple of games, and one of the few plays that is still working for Al Borges and the offense is a variety of screen passes. Michigan has some of the best blocking WRs in the nation, so it is almost impossible to perfectly defend the screen, but that tight coverage really cuts down on the play making potential of guys like Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo.
The immediate counter would be to try to beat the Wildcats deep, but let's fact it: Denard Robinson really hasn't proven he can throw that ball yet. Even if he did hit it once, I would still keep my corners right up on the line with no cushion.
If Robinson can prove that he can exploit the deep ball, sure, back off. But as it stands right now, defending Michigan right on the line would really put a strangle on an already-struggling offense.
Brady Hoke hasn't lost at the Big House. Why start now? Michigan over Northwestern, 24-21.