By Kevin Sweeney
It’s hard to have a tougher three weeks than what the Northwestern football team has had. After a exciting road victory to open the season over Purdue, things have largely fallen apart for the ‘Cats, and the road only gets tougher from here. An uninspiring home performance against Duke was followed up by an embarrassing loss to Akron, a game in which Northwestern shot themselves in the foot time and time again.
After a bye week to regroup, the Wildcats return to take on a red-hot Michigan team ranked 14th in the Associated Press Top 25 Saturday at Ryan Field. They’ll do so without star running back Jeremy Larkin, who was forced to medically retire from football earlier this week after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis. With a large crowd expected and students finally back on campus, Northwestern will look to shock the world and build momentum as they enter the meat of their Big Ten schedule.
In many ways, Michigan’s season has been the exact opposite of Northwestern’s. The Wolverines struggled mightily on offense in a disappointing season-opening defeat at the hands of Notre Dame. Since, Jim Harbaugh’s club has found its stride offensively, averaging 50 points per game in a trio of wins against Western Michigan, SMU, and Nebraska. While that group wasn’t exactly a murderer’s row (none of those teams are currently over .500 on the season), the Wolverines have seemingly found their identity on offense, a power-running attack led by a trio of outstanding running backs in Karan Higdon, Chris Evans, and Tru Wilson. Quarterback Shea Patterson has been efficient, making good decisions in a much more structured offense than he came from at Ole Miss. While Patterson will have to prove himself against elite competition to live up the the high expectations steeped upon him since he arrived in Ann Arbor, the last three performances have been a significant improvement from the opener, a game in which the Wolverines were barely able to move the ball.
That offensive unit will have to deal with a Northwestern defense that has been streaky after coming into the season with high expectations. The front seven has been solid as expected, though they haven’t been able to force many negative plays, and the defense as a whole hasn’t forced a turnover since the season opener. The big boys up front for the ‘Cats will be tested by the Wolverines’ rushing attack, and forcing Patterson into obvious passing situations on 2nd and 3rd down would be huge for Northwestern’s hopes of winning this game.
How Clayton Thorson and the Wildcats’ offense responds to their second-half nightmare against Akron remains to be seen. Three turnovers, including a horribly ill-advised throw by Thorson that turned into a 97-yard pick-six, derailed what had appeared to be an easy win for the ‘Cats. That’s simply unacceptable for any 5th-year senior quarterback, let alone one with aspirations of being an early pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Now, Thorson will face the best defense he has seen (and perhaps will see) all season without his safety blanket in Larkin. All hope is not lost at the running back position, where Pat Fitzgerald and staff have recruited well in recent years. Look for junior John Moten to get the first carry, but true freshman Isaiah Bowser and sophomore Jesse Brown to also get touches out of the backfield in a by-committee approach. Still, it seems evident that Mick McCall will have to play through the air significantly more than he’s perhaps comfortable doing, especially given the fact that the Wolverines have conceded just 2.7 yards per carry this season. For the first time in his career, Thorson won’t have a workhorse out of the backfield to rely on. He’ll certainly need to make better decisions and hit on some deep throws to stretch the defense for the ‘Cats to be able to move the ball effectively.
Keys to the Game:
- Make Adjustments Offensively: Northwestern has excelled this season on “scripted” drives to open games, with touchdowns against Purdue and Duke to get off on the right foot. However, McCall has struggled to make adjustments to the offensive gameplan in real time, which will be especially crucial facing one of the best defensive coordinators in college football in Don Brown.
- Win the Turnover Battle: The ‘Cats have only lost two games since the start of the 2016 season when they have a positive turnover margin. Three interceptions against Purdue gave this team life, and finding a way to take the ball away from this Michigan team would be huge. Meanwhile, Thorson will have to avoid making the same mistakes that plagued him against Akron against a much more talented and athletic Wolverine defense.
- Keep the Crowd Involved: While there will likely be a strong Michigan fan contingent at Ryan Field on Saturday, Northwestern should have a good turnout as well. It’s the Wildcat Welcome football game, which means the entire freshman class (and transfers) will be in attendance. That, combined with most students not having much schoolwork to do and a good kickoff time, and the student section will be as packed as it will be all year. The Wildcats have to get off to a strong start and convince those students to stick around and be rowdy.
Prediction: Michigan 27, Northwestern 17
Northwestern scores first and keeps the game close throughout, but the defense wears down and is unable to stop the run late. ‘Cats cover the 14.5 point spread, but fall to 1-3 on the season.
Be sure to tune in to all the action live on WNUR Sports! Parker Johnson and Matt McHugh will have the call from Evanston, with Tim Hackett providing the sideline reports and Kevin Sweeney keeping you updated on Twitter from press row.