WNUR’s Drew D’Alelio (@DrewDAlelio) takes a look at the upcoming schedule for the Northwestern Wildcats as they head into the final stretch of the Big Ten’s regular season.
The Wildcats are at a critical time in their season- the bye week. Both the coaches and players will have an extensive time to evaluate the season so far, but they’ll also take the time to prepare for a difficult two games coming up.
Northwestern currently sports a 7-2 record, 3-2 in conference play. While that record is far from disappointing, it’s difficult for both the team and Northwestern fans to cope with, knowing that it could be much better. Nevertheless, there is a lot to be excited about for Wildcats fans: Venric Mark leads the big ten in all purpose yards, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian have kept defenses off balance, and both the offensive and defensive lines have been solid week in and week out.
The final stretch won’t be easy. Northwestern’s first game after their bye is away vs. the Michigan Wolverines, who sport a 5-3 record, 3-1 in conference play. Michigan’s squad is led by dynamic quarterback Denard Robinson, who is 2nd in the Big Ten in total offense, only behind Braxton Miller of Ohio State, and 3rd in the Big Ten in total rushing yards. Robinson, however, is dealing with a nerve injury in his throwing elbow, and will not be playing today vs. Minnesota, meaning that his status could be in jeopardy next Saturday as well.
The rest of Michigan’s offense is not anything that Northwestern’s defense can’t handle. Fitz Toussaint, Michigan’s running back, has had a disappointing season after eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark last year. This year, he is averaging 3.3 yards per carry, and 45.9 yards per game. There are no dominant receiving weapons either, which bodes well for Northwestern’s struggling secondary.
Michigan’s defense is 2nd in the big ten, and leads the country in passing defense, allowing only 145.3 passing yards per game. Although critics have argued that the Wolverines have not been challenged by a dynamic passing offense yet, it is undeniable that their passing defense is one of their strengths. Their run defense is not as strong statistically, but linebackers Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan, and Kenny Demens have all proven to be forces this year.
If Denard Robinson is unable to go next Saturday, Northwestern’s chances of escaping Ann Arbor with a victory increase dramatically. In order to succeed in scoring against Michigan’s defense, Northwestern has to simply play to their strengths and the defenses weaknesses. Pat Fitzgerald should not allow Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter to try and test the number one passing defense in the nation. Instead, they should stay true to their ground and pound attack, which didn’t look too shabby against Iowa last week.
After Michigan, Northwestern travels across the state to take on the Michigan State Spartans. While the Spartans 5-4 record, 2-3 in conference play is abysmal, considering that they ranked 13th in the AP Top 25 to begin the season, this team cannot be overlooked.
Michigan State’s offense is led by quarterback Andrew Maxwell and star running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell is averaging 117.9 yards per game this year, and has proven to be as consistent as they come once again. Maxwell has been solid as well, particularly last week versus the Wisconsin Badgers, in which he led a clutch touchdown drive to force overtime, which the Spartans eventually won.
Michigan State’s defense is equally dominant, if not more dominant, than Michigan’s. The Spartans are giving up on average fifteen points per game on defense, only 91.2 rushing yards, and only 267 total yards. In each of those categories, they rank 1st in the Big Ten. The defense is anchored by linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, who continue to prove to be among the best run defenders in the conference.
Because Northwestern’s strengths have been run offense and run defense, Michigan State, at first glance, seems likely to pose a lot of problems for the Cats. The Spartans run defense has the ability to shut down dynamic rushers like Venric Mark and Kain Colter, and will likely force Pat Fitzgerald to move to a more pass heavy approach that he is typically comfortable with. Northwestern’s run defense and pass defense will be tested by two proven playmakers in Le’Veon Bell and Andrew Maxwell, respectively.
My prediction is that Northwestern will beat Michigan, and lose to Michigan State. Because of Denard Robinson’s lingering injuries, the likelihood of him being 100% by next Saturday is slim. In the event that Robinson does regain health by next Saturday, I would predict that the Wolverines edge the Cats, but not by much. Because Michigan State is playing in desperation mode, I believe that they will challenge Northwestern in every facet of the game, and prevail in the end. So far this year, when Northwestern’s run game hasn’t been strong, the team as a whole hasn’t been strong. The stout Spartan defense is unlikely to make things easy for Mark, Colter, and power back Mike Trumpy.
The Wildcats have a difficult road ahead, and must make use of the opportune bye week. Soon, the Wildcats will begin a road trip to Michigan and Michigan State. They’ll have to bring their A game if they hope to escape with victories.