Opponent Preview: Michigan

By Matthew Coronado

The Northwestern Wildcats will face the Michigan Wolverines in their seventh game of the season on Oct. 23. This game will be coming off of homecoming week in Evanston against Rutgers and before the ‘Cats take on the Golden Gophers of Minnesota. Northwestern comes into this season with two huge pieces leaving its stout defense: Defensive back Greg Newsome II who was drafted 26th overall to the Cleveland Browns, and linebacker Paddy Fisher who signed with the Carolina Panthers after going undrafted.

It’ll be a major test for last year’s fifth-ranked scoring defense in the country to hold its own against the Wolverines in the Big House. As of Aug. 18, there will be no capacity limit at the stadium, so the Wildcats will have to contend with a raucous crowd that could number over 100,000.

On the offensive side of the ball, there are questions for both teams. The top contenders for starting QB are senior Hunter Johnson and junior transfer Ryan Hilinski from South Carolina. NU coaches have commended Johnson for his improvement over the past year. Johnson still has the same arm and athletic ability that he did in 2019, but now he’s getting another opportunity to lead the ‘Cats on offense. In Johnson’s last season as a starter, he completed less than 47% of his passes, threw four interceptions and only one TD on 108 attempts. It’ll be interesting to see how the start of the season goes for Johnson, as he’s gotten the nod as the starting QB for week one.

For the Wolverines, the picture is a bit less clear, but there seems to be a consensus about former four-star Cade McNamara as the starter. While McNamara doesn’t have the most dynamic arm, he does a great job getting the football in the playmakers’ hands. Those playmakers include the likes of Ronnie Bell, Cornelius Johnson and Daylen Baldwin, all of whom will be options for the Wolverines on the attack this season. And with Northwestern’s downgraded secondary, there might be an opportunity to isolate the Wolverines’ top receivers against Northwestern’s defensive backs. 

Both teams tout some of the best defenses not only in the conference but in the nation, with Michigan’s first-year coordinator Mike McDonald comparing the Wolverines’ defensive schemes to those of the Baltimore Ravens. His focus is on layering several defensive ideas on top of each other to disguise the Wolverines’ coverages and blitzes. Aidan Hutchinson is one of the best defensive ends in the conference and should be a player to watch out for when the Wildcats have the ball. 

Northwestern loses two players from its linebacking core: Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher. But the ‘Cats are still looking to emphasize the defensive end of the ball, even with new coordinator Jim O’Neil, who took over for 73-year-old Michigan alum Mike Hankwitz. Brandon Joseph leads this new-look defense for Northwestern after totaling the most interceptions of any player during last year’s shortened schedule.

There are several storylines headed into this mid-season matchup between old rivals. The winner of this game will carry momentum into the end of the season, so make sure to mark it on your calendars.

Prediction: Michigan 24, Northwestern 17