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Northwestern: first look

November 4th, 2012 by Justin Potts


Read our preseason preview here.

Michigan kept its Big Ten title hopes alive by doing exactly what it was expected to do: beat Minnesota. The quest continues this Saturday against another Legends division foe that has its own, albeit unlikely, championship hopes. Northwestern enters 7-2 overall and 3-2 in the conference. The two losses came at the hands of Penn State and Nebraska, and because of that loss to the Cornhuskers, Northwestern has to win out and needs Nebraska to lose twice more to win the division.

In all reality, Northwestern should have beaten Nebraska, just like Michigan State should have done this past Saturday. The Wildcats held a 12 point lead in the fourth quarter, but let it slip away. Otherwise, this Saturday’s game would be even bigger for both teams. Can Michigan keep it’s hopes alive, or will Northwestern put an end to them? Let’s take a look.

Northwestern 2012 Statistics & Michigan Comparison
Northwestern Michigan Rank Opponent Rank
Points Per Game 30.4 | 28.8 52 | 60 22.3 | 16.8 35 | 13
Rushing Yards 2,128 | 1,808 1,092 | 1,289
Rush Avg. Per Game 236.4 | 200.9 13 | 28 121.3 | 143.2 23 | 44
Avg. Per Rush 5.3 | 5.0 3.5 | 3.7
Passing Yards 1,461 | 1,606 2,452 | 1,309
Pass Avg. Per Game 162.3 | 178.4 109 | 105 272.4 | 145.4 107 | 1
Total Offense 3,589 | 3,414 3,544 | 2,598
Total Off Avg. Per Game 398.8 | 379.3 67 | 82 393.8 | 288.7 60 | 7
Kick Return Average 15.9 | 22.4 116 | 53 20.0 | 21.7 38 | 68
Punt Return Average 21.0 | 8.9 3 | 57 3.3 | 6.3 11 | 49
Avg. Time of Possession 29:08 | 30:35 80 | 48 30:52 | 29:25
3rd Down Conversion Pct 46% | 48% 25 | 16 39% | 34% 57 | 31
Sacks By-Yards 19-130 | 11-99 52 | 105 12-69 | 10-78 24 | 18
Touchdowns Scored 34 | 31 24 | 15
Field Goals-Attempts 12-13 | 14-17 11-13 | 15-21
Red Zone Scores (32-35) 91% | (28-31) 90% 8 | 14 (26-32) 81% | (22-26) 85% 56 | 87
Red Zone Touchdowns (22-35) 63% | (17-31) 55% (17-32) 53% | (11-26) 42%

The main thing that sticks out of the stats is Northwestern’s run game which ranks 13th nationally and third in the Big Ten behind Nebraska and Ohio State. The reason for the success is the two-headed monster of running back Venric Mark and jack of all trades Kain Colter. Mark trails only Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell in yards per game (119.7) and is second only to Denard Robinson in yards per carry (6.5). Colter has carried the ball 114 times for 622 yards and 11 touchdowns.

While the run game is highly successful, the passing game leaves much to be desired. Averaging just 162.3 yards per game through the air, Northwestern is last in the Big Ten. Quarterback Trevor Siemian has completed just under 59 percent of his passes for 931 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions. But after underwhelming performances against Penn State and Wisconsin, it was Colter who regained the quarterback position against Iowa on Saturday. He threw just nine passes, completing six of them, but one of those completions was a 47-yard touchdown. It hasn’t been officially announced yet, but he will likely be under center this Saturday.

Venric Mark is the Big Ten's second leading rusher (photo by Nam Y. Huh, AP)

Sounds a big like Michigan, right? Good run game, lackluster passing game, explosive dual-threat quarterback. Well, what about their defense?

Northwestern boasts a solid rush defense, allowing just 121.3 yards per game, which ranks 23rd nationally and fourth in the Big Ten. The best rushing offense the Wildcats have faced, Nebraska, was held to 68 yards below its season average. However, the ‘Huskers lit up the NW pass defense with 342 yards through the air. And that leads us to the Wildcat weakness and the main discrepancy between Michigan and Northwestern: pass defense.

Northwestern gives up an average of 272.4 passing yards per game, which is last in the Big Ten and 107th nationally. This also likely plays into the good rush defense numbers, but any way you slice it, there’s room to pass on the Wildcats. Last season, Denard passed for 337 yards on NW – the second best passing game of his career.

Linebacker Damien Proby leads the team, and ranks fourth in the conference, in tackles with 86, while fellow linebacker David Nwabuisi ranks ninth in the Big Ten with 75. They’re a large part of why the run defense has been so good. Defensive back Ibraheim Campbell ranks 12th in the conference with 67, which gives NW three players with more tackles than Michigan’s top tackler, Desmond Morgan. Of course, tackles don’t tell the whole picture. Defensive lineman Scott Tyler leads the Big Ten with seven sacks.

An area of concern for Michigan should be in the return game. Mark averages 25.2 yards per punt return and has already returned two for touchdowns this season. He hasn’t had as much success on kick returns, but he’s still dangerous any time the ball is in his hands and Michigan hasn’t been great at covering kicks this season.

It will certainly be a tougher game than this past Saturday, but it’s another game that Michigan should win. Michigan now carries the nation’s second longest home winning streak and will need that to continue in the Big House on Saturday to stay in contention for Indianapolis.