Shea Patterson is one of four quarterbacks to transfer to Ann Arbor since Jim Harbaugh arrived four years ago, and it’s no secret that his performance under center after transferring from Ole Miss might just make or break not only the season for Michigan, but maybe even Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as coach.
After an 8-5 season capped off by an embarrassing loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, a lot of issues became prevalent, the first of which was that the quarterback question needed to be answered. If Patterson can answer it, Harbaugh might keep his job and the Wolverines could finally break through in a tough Big Ten East.
Northwestern will host Michigan following the Wildcats’ bye week, with the matchup at Ryan Field slated for September 29.
Northwestern Defense vs. Michigan Offense
The Michigan quarterback corps was just above average to begin with, but the slew of injuries it endured pushed the team to mediocrity by season’s end. This year, former five-star recruit Shea Patterson, who passed for 2,259 yards (which led the SEC before he went down with a PCL injury) and completed passes at a 64 percent clip with 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions, leads the charge as the latest quarterback under Jim Harbaugh’s tutelage. Even the talent behind him is solid, with redshirt sophomore Brandon Peters, who performed admirably after Wilton Speight’s injury given the circumstances, and redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey (Christian’s little brother) rounding out the depth chart under center.
Patterson has talented receivers to work with as well in the shifty Donovan Peoples-Jones (also a potent punt returner) and Tarik Black, as well as the single coolest name among all college football pass catchers in Eddie McDoom. On the ground, Michigan’s backs got a lot of carries last year due to the quarterback situation and performed admirably. Karan Higdon will return for his senior season after amassing 994 yards in 2017, along with junior back Chris Evans, who rushed for 685.
After a relative down-year last year due to injuries and inexperience, this year’s defensive crop for Northwestern is exciting because of the immense potential it has. Paddy Fisher was one of, if not the best, defensive freshmen in the Big Ten, and he finished the season as the conference’s fourth-leading tackler with 113 total tackles. He will be joined by Nate Hall in his redshirt senior season after his best year in a Northwestern uniform last year. Hall led the Wildcats, ranked second in the Big Ten, and ranked 13th nationally with 16.5 tackles for loss during the regular season.
In the trenches, sophomore Samdup Miller and redshirt junior Joe Gaziano lead the Wildcats’ pressure team. Miller’s true freshman campaign was incredible, leading all Power 5 rookies with 8.5 tackles for loss, and all Big Ten rookies with 5.5 sacks. Joe Gaziano is a menace of an edge rusher. The play that most encapsulates his skill was his first career sack back in 2016 against Michigan State. Northwestern knew they had something special, and he has delivered in spades in his first two years. He led the Big Ten in sacks per game last year, and already ranks ninth in program history with 13.5 career sacks in just 26 career contests. If there’s one guy Shea Patterson should be scared of, it’s Gaziano.
Northwestern Offense vs. Michigan Defense
Michigan’s defense was the one consistent positives in last year’s multi-month stumble of a football season. As one of the youngest defenses in the nation, they finished the year ranked 10th by S&P+, and the scary part is, this Michigan defense only got better under coordinator Doc Brown. Ranked #3 nationally by 247Sports and #5 by BleacherReport coming into 2018, this defense has few weaknesses. Interior pass rusher Maurice Hurst and linebacker Mike McCray are the only defensive starters they lost. Rashan Gary (66 tackles, 12 TFL in 2017) is one of the best players in the Big Ten, and he and third-team All-American Devin Bush also return, with Bush as the team’s leading tackler from last year.
Where Joe Gaziano finished as the Big Ten’s leader in sacks per game with 0.69, fifth-year defensive end Chase Winovich and hybrid safety/linebacker Khaleke Hudson, both Wolverines, ranked right behind him at Nos. 2 and 3 with 0.62 each. They could very well expose what was a weakness early in the season for Northwestern in their offensive line. Tommy Doles and company have improved year-to-year and even game-to-game last year, but will need to bring their A-game and block at the first and second levels against a very good Michigan defense.
Clayton Thorson finished third in the Big Ten last year with 218.8 passing yards per game in what became a much more balanced offensive attack for the Wildcats than in years past. The reasons for this are twofold. First, Thorson has matured as an intelligent decision-maker under pressure and has grown into his big frame and strong arm, airing out more long-balls. Although there is room for growth in the latter as far as accuracy, the second of the two aforementioned reasons will help this out even more.
The Wildcats’ receiving corps is stronger than it has ever been in the Thorson era. Bennett Skowronek is the largest of Thorson’s targets at 6’4” and has added to his game every year. He is the leader of this body of receivers, make no mistake about it. Joining him is a guy who is one of the fastest on the team in Riley Lees. He had an electrifying punt return for a touchdown that was eventually called back against Purdue that saw him break tackles and tip-toe down the sideline en route to the end zone. Flynn Nagel also returns after a 489-yard, two-touchdown season as the Wildcats’ number-two receiver.
Northwestern has a lot of options through the air, which should help out Jeremy Larkin on the ground in his first season as Northwestern’s primary back. Larkin is a bruiser back that gets yards after contact at an awesome rate, dissimilar to Justin Jackson’s more shifty runs that made him a menace in the open field.
The last time these two teams met, Michigan embarrassed an over-ranked Northwestern squad at the Big House. This year, they meet at Ryan Field with the Wolverines trying to win a “take-care-of-business” game, and the Wildcats vying for legitimacy in a rejuvenated Big Ten West. With a fully healthy Clayton Thorson and a more mature defense, Northwestern has a shot, but the maize and blue train is going to roll into Evanston with a full head of steam and something to prove. Northwestern will need to execute on every front to beat the Wolverines.