With three games left in the season Michigan is reduced to fighting for its postseason life, needing to win two to become bowl eligible and avoid a losing season. Indeed there are some fans rooting for that not to happen if only to speed up the seemingly inevitable coaching change, but there are seniors such as Devin Gardner and Jake Ryan and Frank Clark who are down to the final three games of their careers. Tomorrow is the first of those, and if they take care of business they’ll be one step closer to earning a fourth and final game.
|Ryan Field – 3:30 p.m. EST – ESPN2
|Northwestern Head Coach:
||Pat Fitzgerald (9th season)
||58-51 (all at Northwestern)
||Mick McCall (7th season)
||Mike Hankwitz (7th season)
|Returning 2013 Starters:
||17 (9 offense, 8 defense)
||5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)
||UM 29 – NU 17 3OT (2013)
||Michigan leads 55-15-2
|Record at Ryan Field:
||Michigan leads 19-7
|Current Streak at NU:
|Last 10 Meetings:
|Last Northwestern Win:
|Last NU Home Win:
But while Michigan owns the series history with Northwestern 55-15-2 and has topped Northwestern three years in a row, 11 of the past 15, and 30 of the past 34, the Wildcats have made Michigan really work for it in each of the past two years. In 2012, Michigan needed a Devin Gardner hail Mary to Roy Roundtree in the closing seconds to get into field position for the game-tying field goal and then won in overtime. Last season, it took an improbable last-second 44-yard field goal to tie the game and Michigan won in triple overtime.
This season, Michigan and Northwestern are essentially equals, underperforming their preseason expectations with bad offenses and decent defenses. But while Michigan doesn’t have a quality win Northwestern has beaten then-17th-ranked Wisconsin, and while Michigan doesn’t have a road win Northwestern dominated Penn State in State College. On the other hand, Northwestern has the worst loss, a 23-15 Week 2 home loss to Northern Illinois.
After a 10-3 season in 2012, Pat Fitzgerald had Northwestern the talk of the town. The Wildcats started 4-0 in 2013, moving all the way up to 16th nationally and landing ESPN College Game Day for the Oct. 5 showdown with 4th-ranked Ohio State. But that 40-30 loss kicked off a seven game losing streak that ended with a 37-34 win over Illinois on the final game of the season. Northwestern finished 5-7, which means in the past 16 games, the Wildcats are 4-12 — two games worse than Brady Hoke’s 6-10 in that same timespan.
But Fitzgerald is still beloved in Evanston and has even been thrown around as a possible candidate — if a long shot — to replace Hoke at Michigan. An argument can certainly be made that Northwestern has outplayed Michigan each of the past two years despite losing, and Fitzgerald won’t have to use much to motivate his team tomorrow. Can Northwestern finally finish the game? Or will Michigan get the best of the ‘cats once again? Let’s take a look at the matchups.
Michigan defense vs Northwestern offense: When Northwestern has the ball
Northwestern’s offense ranks 113th nationally in scoring (19.1 points per game), 105th in rushing (124.8 yards per game), 88th in passing (205.2 yards per game), and 114th in total offense (330.0 yards per game). Comparatively, Michigan’s scores about a field goal more per game, rushes for 30 more yards, and passes for 30 fewer. Both teams average the exact same amount of total yards. Northwestern converts third downs at a clip of 38 percent compared to Michigan’s 41, has allowed five more sacks in one fewer game, and has scored three fewer touchdowns.
With Kain Colter gone, senior quarterback Trevor Siemian has attempted just 15 fewer passes than he did all of last season, but is 603 yards shy of last year’s pace and 3.5 completion percentage points behind. He has also thrown just four touchdown passes in eight games and compared to six interceptions. Even so, he has still thrown for more yards than Devin Gardner in one fewer game. He has topped 200 yards passing in four of eight games with a high of 269 on 32-of-50 completions against Minnesota. However, Iowa held him to just 8-of-18 for 68 yards last Saturday.
Siemian doesn’t have a standout receiver, but does have a group of solid pass catchers. The leading receiver is senior USC transfer Kyle Prater, who has 29 catches for 286 yards and one touchdown. At 6’5″, 225, he’s a similar size as Devin Funchess, but lacks the same type of game breaking ability. Junior super back Dan Vitale is the second-leading receiver with 26 catches for 282 yards and a score, while junior Miles Shuler has 23 for 190 yards, but has yet to find the end zone. However, Shuler, a Rutgers transfer, suffered a head injury on Oct. 18 and hasn’t played since. He’s out for tomorrow as well. Senior Tony Jones, a Flint, Mich. native, started the season with a seven-catch, 64-yard game, but has tailed off since then. He has 18 catches for 179 yards. Junior Cameron Dickerson is the only other receiver with double-digit receptions with 11 for 171 and one score.
The backfield has brought Northwestern fans some excitement this season, namely from true freshman running back Justin Jackson, who has been gaining steam as the season has gone along. In Week 1, he received just eight carries for 40 yards, and through the first four games, he averaged just 14 carries for 58.5 yards per game. But in the last four, his workload has increased to 25 carries and 123 yards per game. He has topped 100 yards in three of the last four, and the only one he didn’t was a 96-yard performance against Iowa last week. And he did that against four pretty good defenses — Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa.
Michigan offense vs Northwestern defense: When Michigan has the ball
Northwestern’s defense ranks 46th in scoring (23.9 points per game), 65th against the run (166.1 yards per game), 53rd against the pass (222.2 yards per game), and 60th in total defense (388.4 yards per game). The Wildcats allow 2.2 more points, 50 more rushing yards, 33 more passing yards, and 83 more total yards per game than Michigan.
Entering the season, the front seven was considered to be a strength, most notably linebackers Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis. Ariguzo, a senior, leads the team with 72 tackles to go along with four tackles for loss and one sack. Ellis moved from strong side to middle linebacker this season, but suffered a concussion against Minnesota and will not play tomorrow. In his place has been redshirt freshman Anthony Walker, who has recorded 24 tackles, two for loss, and one interception. The strong side spot has been split all season between junior Drew Smith and senior converted safety Jimmy Hall. The duo has combined for 55 tackles, 6.5 for loss, and one sack.
The line is led by junior end Dean Lowry, who leads the team with five tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. The other end has been a rotation between juniors Deonte Gibson and Max Chapman, who have combined for 20 tackles, six for loss, and two sacks. The interior of the line received a huge setback prior to the season when fifth-year senior Sean McEvilly suffered a season-ending foot injury. Sophomore Greg Kuhar and junior C.J. Robbins have been the stalwarts inside, though senior Chance Carter has also seen quite a bit of time. All three, however, are listed on this week’s injury list, Kuhar and Robbins as probable and Carter as questionable.
The secondary has started junior Nick VanHoose and sophomore Matthew Harris at corner in every game this season. The two rank third and fourth on the team in tackles and lead the team with 11 and nine passes defended, respectively. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell has missed four straight games with a hamstring injury, and is questionable for tomorrow’s game. Redshirt freshman Godwin Igwebuike has done well in his stead, leading the team with three interceptions while recording 36 tackles. The other safety is junior Traveon Henry, who ranks second on the team with 56 tackles, including two for loss.
Special Teams: The other third
Sophomore kicker Jack Mitchell has made 7-of-8 field goals this season, but has attempted one field goal longer than 29 yards, a 44-yarder that he missed. Junior punter Chris Gradone‘s average of 37.8 yards per punt does not rank in the Big Ten’s top ten. Shuler is the main return man, averaging 19.8 yards per kick return and 14.0 yards per punt return. The latter would rank second in the conference if he had enough returns, but he has only returned three punts.
Michigan and Northwestern are pretty similar and I would expect a close, low-scoring game like saw last year and like we saw three weeks ago against Penn State. Three of the past four opponents have rushed for over 220 yards against Northwestern and Michigan will try to do the same, combining the power running of De’Veon Smith with the speed of Drake Johnson. It could have some success, but don’t expect 200 yards.
With cold and windy weather expected in Evanston tomorrow, neither passing game will have much success, so it will be up to the ground games. As mentioned above, Northwestern has found success against good defenses the past few weeks with freshman Justin Jackson. Michigan’s rush defense, although 16th nationally, has given up big games to running backs this season. It kept Indiana’s Tevin Coleman in check a week ago because the Hoosiers posed no passing threat. Northwestern’s passing threat will be a bit better, but not much considering the weather. It will be an ugly offensive game and whichever team can avoid turnovers will win. Given Michigan’s recent history with Northwestern, I’ll take Michigan ever so slightly.
Michigan 20 – Northwestern 17, probably in quadruple overtime