Photo Credit: Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images
Photo Credit: Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

By Marty Johnson

Although Saturday’s game is only the halfway point of the season for both the No. 13 Northwestern Wildcats and the No. 18 Michigan Wolverines, it could very well be the defining moment in their respective seasons. Northwestern (5-0) travels to The Big House to take on the Wolverines (4-1) as the Cats try to beat Michigan for the first time since 2008.

Offense

In Jim Harbaugh’s first full season as head coach, the Wolverines haven’t exactly set the world on fire offensively. Michigan only averages about 28 points and 200 yards rushing and passing per game. At the helm of the Wolverines offense is senior quarterback Jake Rudock and junior running back De’Veon Smith. Rudock has completed 60.1% of his passes, throwing for 956 yards and four touchdowns in the process. Smith has rushed for 331 yards on 69 carries with four touchdowns of his own. However, Michigan’s running attack has considerable depth; five Wolverines have rushed for over 100 yards, and seven have scored a touchdown.

In their only loss of the season (Week 1 vs. Utah), the Wolverines gained only 355 yards of total offense. But the nail in the coffin for them was their three turnovers, the last being a pick-six that put the Utes up 24-10 with 7:56 left in the game.

That being said, Northwestern’s offense hasn’t been the Greatest Show on Turf either. For most of the season the job of the offense has been to not give the game away and let the Cats’ dominant defense go to work. Redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson has only completed 56.6% of his passes for 711 yards, throwing four touchdowns and three interceptions. Thorson, however, also leads the team with four rushing touchdowns and has improved in the past two games, throwing for 384 yards, three touchdowns and only one pick. Justin “the good ol’ ball carrier” Jackson is having a solid sophomore campaign, picking up nearly five yards per carry. But despite the Cats’ 27-0 thrashing of Minnesota last weekend, the team is still only averaging about 25 points per game, three less than Michigan.

In the end, both offenses have been pretty pedestrian so far this season. The difference maker will be Thorson. If he can have a similar kind of performance that he had against the Gophers (14-19 128 yards, Rush TD), then the Cats should have a pretty good afternoon.

Advantage: Even

Defense

If there’s one defense that has been as good as Northwestern’s, it’s Michigan’s. The Wolverines lead the nation in yards allowed per game at a measly 184. They allow only 7.6 points per game, which is second only to the Wildcats. Even in their one loss, the defense was solid, giving up only 337 yards and not allowing a passing TD.

But Northwestern’s defensive unit has been one step above. They only allow an average of seven points a game and have pitched two shutouts (Eastern Illinois and Minnesota). With senior defensive lineman Dean Lowry, sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker, senior cornerback Nick VanHoose, junior cornerback Matthew Harris and sophomore safety Godwin Igwebuike, the Northwestern defense is full of veteran playmakers. The defense has forced five interceptions and five fumbles and gives up only 247 yards per game. If the Wildcats show up in Ann Arbor the way they did in Evanston last weekend, it will be a long game for the Wolverines.

Advantage: Northwestern

Prediction:

Although it is Michigan’s homecoming, the Wildcats spoil the celebration in The Big House with stellar defense and adequate offense, with Thorson and Co. getting help from a defensive TD. The game will be close, however, and will come down to the last possession.

Final Score: Northwestern 14, Michigan 9

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