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Posts Tagged ‘Pat Fitzgerald’

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Coaches (part two)

Friday, August 15th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Coaches

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking who will be the top head coaches in the Big Ten this upcoming season. This may be bending the definition of “position,” but this series has already listed who will be the best offensive, defensive, and special-teams players in the Big Ten in 2014. The head coaches included in this top 10 are whom we believe have been the best coaches recently and will be next season, not necessarily those who have had the best overall careers. Yesterday, we revealed the Big Ten head coaches ranked No. 6 through No. 10. If you missed it, we encourage you to catch up here. Done? Perfect! On that note, let’s unveil who will be the five best head coaches in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two | Running Backs: Part One, Part Two | Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two | Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two | Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two
Linebackers: Part One, Part Two | Cornerbacks: Part One, Part Two | Safeties:Part One, Part Two
Special Teams: Kicking Specialists, Return Specialists | Coaches: Part One

5. Gary Andersen, Wisconsin | Overall Record: 39-35 (6 yrs) – Record at Wisconsin: 9-4 (1 yr)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 9-4 6-2 2nd (Leaders) Capital One (L)
Career Totals 9-4 6-2   0-1
(Brian Ebner, AP)

(Brian Ebner, AP)

Of all the head coaches in the Big Ten, Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen probably is the toughest to peg. Until this past season, Andersen had no experience coaching in a Power Five conference. He made his head-coaching debut at Southern Utah, a Division I-AA program, in 2003. He departed after the season to become an assistant at Utah—before it joined the Pac-12—where eventually he was promoted to defensive coordinator. He held that position when the Utes’ undefeated squad upset Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. Andersen utilized that success to land the head-coaching gig at a floundering Utah State program. The Aggies had not won more than seven games in a season since 1979. Andersen’s first two years there were no different, but, thereafter, he took Utah State to unforeseen heights. The next two seasons, the Aggies totaled an 18-8 record, which included a program-best 11 wins in 2012. No longer was Utah State some bottom-of-the-barrel program. It now was a legitimate “mid-major” power.

Andersen’s achievements in college football’s lower levels were noticed after 2012 as Power Five schools with head-coaching vacancies came calling. One such school was Wisconsin, whom former head coach Bret Bielema had stunned by ditching the Badgers for Arkansas in the SEC. Bielema left behind a Big Ten powerhouse that won a share of the conference crown and appeared in the Rose Bowl each of his final three seasons in Madison. With Bielema no longer in the picture, someone needed to step in and maintain Wisconsin’s success; Andersen was tabbed to be that person. He did well in his first season with the Badgers last year, too. Although their streak of Big Ten championships ended, Andersen coached them to a 9-4 record and national rank of 19th in the F/+ Combined Ratings—a set of rankings which combines two advanced statistical algorithms. It was an encouraging sign that Wisconsin experienced little drop-off with Andersen holding the reins.

Yet this will be the season that really tests whether Andersen deserves to be considered one of the five best coaches in the Big Ten. While Wisconsin will benefit from possessing what should be one of the nation’s most explosive rushing attacks and a weak conference slate, the Badgers still must replace their entire starting front seven on defense and find answers—any answer—for their depleted receiving corps. The talent and depth that has bolstered Wisconsin in years past does not seem to be quite there in 2014. This means that Andersen’s coaching ability will need to be at the top of its game because Wisconsin will not be able to afford as many errors. Then, after the season, we will be able to evaluate Andersen’s performance and finally peg exactly where he should fall on this list.

4. James Franklin, Penn State | Overall Record: 24-15 (3 yrs) – Record at Penn State: 0-0 (0 yrs)
Record at Vanderbilt Overall W/L SEC W/L Standing Bowl
2013 9-4 4-4 4th (East) BBVA Compass (W)
2012 9-4 5-3 4th (East) Music City (W)
2011 6-7 2-6 T4th (East) Liberty (L)
Career Totals 24-15 11-13   2-1
(Matthew O'Haren, USA Today Sports)

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

James Franklin has been a collegiate head coach for only three seasons, but he has taken the nation by storm in that short span. Franklin made his head-coaching debut at Vanderbilt in 2011. Vanderbilt always has been one of the toughest coaching jobs in America due to its small enrollment, academic focus, and SEC membership. Since 1982, the Commodores had recorded only one winning season—a 7-6 record in 2008—prior to Franklin’s arrival and consistently found themselves near the bottom of the F/+ Combined Ratings. They were perennial losers, a team SEC powerhouses viewed as an automatic conference win. But Franklin changed all of that the instant he stepped on the Vanderbilt campus.

Under Franklin, the Commodores were no longer pushovers. In his first season in 2011, he coached Vanderbilt to a 6-7 record and only its second bowl appearance since 1982. The record was not flashy, but, unlike previous seasons, Vanderbilt actually was competitive against its tougher opponents, losing to Georgia, Arkansas, and Florida by a combined 13 points. It is no surprise that advanced statistics really liked what the Commodores offered in 2011, ranking them 39th in the F/+ Combined Ratings just one year after placing 101st. It was significant progress in just one season with Franklin in charge, but he was not finished. In each of the next two seasons, the Commodores posted a 9-4 record and no less than four SEC victories. The last time they had a nine-win season? 1915. And Vanderbilt just accomplished the feat two years in a row. In three seasons at Vanderbilt, Franklin tallied 24 wins overall, which tied the best three-year stretch in school history. Franklin’s stint at Vanderbilt was an overwhelming success as he was able to achieve things there that no one had done in decades and decades.

This translated into instant stardom for Franklin and made him a hot commodity as the coaching carousel spun and spun. Initially, it seemed like Franklin would remain at Vanderbilt for a fourth season. But, then, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien left Happy Valley for a shot at the NFL with the Houston Texans. The Nittany Lions, hoping to appease its disappointed fan base with a popular hire, traveled into SEC territory and persuaded Franklin to join them in the Big Ten. Since then, Franklin and Penn State have torched the recruiting trail. According to 247 Sports, Penn State already has 19 commits in the 2015 class, 12 of which are four-stars, and the sixth-best class in the nation. While Franklin’s recruiting prowess certainly has been noted, the real question is how Franklin will do on the sidelines in his first season at Penn State. The Nittany Lions still are dealing with the scholarship reductions and postseason ban handed to them in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Will Franklin continue to be a star and have immediate success at Penn State like he did at Vanderbilt? Or will the lack of talented depth at multiple positions be too much to overcome? My guess: Franklin’s star may not shine as bright after a 2014 season that will be a tougher challenge than most expect.

3. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern | Overall Record: 55-46 (8 yrs) – Record at Northwestern: 55-46 (8 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 5-7 1-7 6th (Legends)
2012 10-3 5-3 3rd (Legends) Gator (W)
2011 6-7 3-5 5th (Legends) Meineke Car Care (L)
2010 7-6 3-5 T7th Ticket City (L)
2009 8-5 5-3 T4th Outback (L)
2008 9-4 5-3 T4th Alamo (L)
2007 6-6 3-5 T7th
2006 4-8 2-6 T8th
Career Totals 55-46 27-37   1-4
(US Presswire)

(US Presswire)

Similar to Penn State’s James Franklin, Pat Fitzgerald has built his coaching reputation by transforming what has traditionally been a down-in-the-dumps football program with lofty academic standards and limited resources into a respectable one. In 2006, Fitzgerald, a former All-American linebacker at Northwestern, was promoted by his alma mater from an assistant to head coach. Prior to Fitzgerald assuming the top spot on its coaching staff, Northwestern had managed an eight-plus-win season only three times since it had joined the Big Ten in 1953. Yet it took the Wildcats only the first seven seasons of Fitzgerald’s tenure to accomplish the same feat, recording nine wins in 2008, eight in 2009, and a program-best 10 in 2012. Not every season has been such a triumph for Fitzgerald’s Wildcats, but no longer are they an easy out for Big Ten opponents.

For example, many may question Fitzgerald’s spot at No. 3 on this list following Northwestern’s underachieving 2013 campaign. Entering last season, the Wildcats were projected to build off their 10-win season in 2012 and possibly contend for a Big Ten championship. However, after sweeping its four non-conference foes, Northwestern suffered one bad break after the other. There was quarterback Kain Colter’s bobbled snap on fourth-and-one as Northwestern was driving for a game-winning score late in the fourth quarter against Ohio State. Then, there was the Hail Mary the Wildcats allowed to Nebraska on the final play of the game to lose by three points. There was also the hurried field goal Michigan somehow managed to kick before time expired to force overtime, which led to Northwestern losing in the third extra frame. And none of this bad luck even accounts for the countless number of Northwestern players that went down with injuries all season. Essentially, everything that could go wrong went wrong. Should Fitzgerald be responsible for some of this? Possibly. But most of the reasons why Northwestern had a 5-7 record last season were out of his control.

This is why Fitzgerald still is considered one of the best coaches in the Big Ten. He put Northwestern in a position to potentially contend for a Big Ten title before bad karma struck and struck hard. Do you know how many other coaches could put Northwestern in such a position? Very, very few. Fitzgerald very likely would experience much more success and more wins if he chose to leave Northwestern for a blue-chip, top-of-the-line college football factory that has exponentially more resources. But he has chosen to stay in Evanston and sustain Northwestern’s new reputation as a respectable program. This fall, even after the recent news that playmaker Venric Mark will transfer and top wideout Christian Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury, the Wildcats still have an outside shot at winning what will be a weak Big Ten West. And this is all possible because of Fitzgerald.

2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State | Overall Record: 128-25 (12 yrs) – Record at Ohio State: 24-2 (2 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 12-2 8-0 1st (Leaders) Orange (L)
2012 12-0 8-0 1st (Leaders)
Career Totals 24-2 16-0   0-1
(Bradley Leeb, USA Today Sports)

(Bradley Leeb, USA Today Sports)

There is no doubt that Urban Meyer has the best resume of any head coach in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation.  Meyer won at an astonishing level at each of his first three stops. When he was first hired as a head coach by Bowling Green in 2001, he took over a program that went 2-9 the previous season. But this did not prevent the Falcons from earning 17 wins in Meyer’s two seasons at the helm. Meyer then moved to the Mountain West Conference to become Utah’s head coach. Just like at Bowling Green, he was there for only two seasons. This time, though, Meyer coached the Utes to a 22-2 record and two conference championships, including an undefeated season and Fiesta Bowl victory in 2004. Meyer experienced the same type of success once he departed for Florida prior to 2005 and joined the “big leagues,” so to speak. In his six years with the Gators, he compiled a 65-15 record, three 13-win seasons, and two BCS national championships (2006 and 2008). In just a short decade, Meyer’s status skyrocketed from being a nobody to being considered one of the best coaches in the country.

After a one-year “reprieve” from college coaching in 2011 to “spend more time with his family,” Meyer dove back into it by taking the head job at Ohio State. The Buckeyes needed a new coach to guide the program after Jim Tressel resigned amid NCAA violations resulting from a tattoo-parlor scandal that saw the NCAA allege that Tressel had knowingly withheld information to maintain his players’ eligibility. Meyer decided he was the man to replace Tressel as the face of the prestigious program. His first two seasons have seen him win just like he has at every other stop he had as a head coach. The Buckeyes won their first 24 contests under Meyer and achieved a perfect season in 2012. Their only two losses were to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game and Clemson in the Orange Bowl last season. Given Ohio State’s current recruiting and Meyer’s astounding track record of winning, Ohio State does not seem like it will be slowing down any time soon.

Accordingly, you are probably wondering why Meyer is at No. 2 on this list rather than in the top spot given the accolades he has received throughout his head-coaching career. Once again, the purpose of this list is to rank who will be the best head coaches in 2014, not necessarily the ones who have had the best careers. There is no doubt that Meyer has had the best career among Big Ten coaches. No other Big Ten coach can claim winning a national championship, let alone two. And no other Big Ten coach can claim to have won 24 consecutive contests at any point of their head-coaching career. Nonetheless, there is another Big Ten coach who has been more impressive than Meyer recently, turning a mediocre program into a consistent contender despite having far less to work with in the cupboard.

1. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State | Overall Record: 82-46 (10 yrs) – Record at Michigan St: 64-29 (7 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 13-1 8-0 1st (Legends) Rose (W)
2012 7-6 3-5 4th (Legends) Buffalo Wild Wings (W)
2011 11-3 7-1 1st (Legends) Outback (W)
2010 11-2 7-1 T1st Capital One (L)
2009 6-7 4-4 T6th Alamo (L)
2008 9-4 6-2 3rd Capital One (L)
2007 7-6 3-5 T7th Champs Sports (L)
Career Totals 64-29 38-18   3-4
(AP)

(AP)

Before Mark Dantonio left Cincinnati to assume command of the Michigan State football program in 2007, the Spartans were in a funk. Since the 1987 season, which had been the last time they had participated in the Rose Bowl, the Spartans had managed to win more than eight games only once—a 10-2 record in in 1999 with Nick Saban as head coach. Not only was Michigan State failing to win enough games to contend for conference championships, it also was struggling mightily against its premier rival Michigan. During that two-decade span, the Spartans were only 5-15 against the Wolverines from Ann Arbor. Accordingly, Michigan State was looked down upon by the Big Ten’s best, seen only as a middle-of-the-pack program that caused a minor inconvenience.

When Dantonio first arrived in East Lansing, there was not much to write home about. In his first three seasons at Michigan State, Dantonio’s Spartans put together only a 22-17 record, even though they did beat Rich Rodriguez-led Michigan twice. It was unclear whether Dantonio could take them to the top. It is not fuzzy anymore. In the past four seasons, Michigan State has been one of the best programs in the Big Ten. The Spartans have attained a 42-12 record and 77.8-win-percentage in those four years, which is second in the Big Ten only to Ohio State in that span, and won at least 11 games in three of those years. This increase in wins has brought the Spartans a share of two Big Ten championships—their first since 1990—and their first Rose Bowl victory since 1987. The Spartans now are surging under Dantonio.

So why is Dantonio slotted in the top spot ahead of Meyer? Michigan State’s win against Ohio State in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game could be used as evidence, but let’s move that to the side for a minute. In the past four seasons, both Michigan State and Ohio State have 42 wins. Ohio State has a better winning percentage only because it has two fewer losses. It is that close. And, yet, Dantonio has achieved this with either loads of recruiting gems or less talented players than Ohio State. From 2009 to 2013, Michigan State’s recruiting classes’ average national ranking was 30.6 according to 247 Sports. Ohio State’s? 7.6. The Buckeyes have had much more raw talent at their disposal than the Spartans, but this has not stopped Dantonio, with the help of defensive wizard Pat Narduzzi, from putting out an equivalent product. No, Meyer has not been at Ohio State for the past four years, but he had much more to work with the moment he stepped foot in Columbus. And, despite this, Michigan State is on the same playing field as Ohio State, which is why Dantonio currently is the best head coach in the Big Ten.

So what do you think? Do you agree or disagree with our list? Is Mark Dantonio currently the best head football coach in the Big Ten? Or should that honor belong to Urban Meyer? And what about Brady Hoke? Does he deserve to be in the top five? Please leave your thoughts below in the comments section.

2014 opponent preview: Northwestern

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014


2014-Opponent-Preview-NW

Our last two opponent previews have been about the new kids on the block, Rutgers and Maryland. Today, we take a look at one of the old guards, the Northwestern Wildcats, who we feel will be the fifth-toughest opponent on Michigan’s schedule. Previously, we previewed Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio), Minnesota, Utah, Indiana, Rutgers, and Maryland.

Overview

Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 30 California
Sept. 6 Northern Illinois
Sept. 20 Western Illinois
Sept. 27 at Penn State
Oct. 4 Wisconsin
Oct. 11 at Minnesota
Oct. 18 Nebraska
Nov. 1 at Iowa
Nov. 8 Michigan
Nov. 15 at Notre Dame
Nov. 22 at Purdue
Nov. 29 Illinois

A year ago at this time, there was a lot of excitement surrounding the Northwestern program that many assumed was ready to take the next step forward. The Wildcats were coming off a 10-win season and a bowl victory and started the 2013 season ranked for the first time in over a decade. A 4-0 start got Northwestern to 16th in the country heading into a Big Ten opener against fourth-ranked Ohio State. ESPN College GameDay was there for the nationally televised primetime battle.

Instead of pulling off a program-building upset, its was the beginning of the end for Pat Fitzgerald’s 2013 squad. Northwestern held a 30-27 lead midway through the fourth quarter, but Ohio State scored two touchdowns in the final five minutes to steal the win. From there, the Wildcats lost seven straight, including two in overtime before finishing the season with a  37-34 win over Illinois. Instead of building on the 10-win 2012 season, Northwestern cut its win total in half at 5-7.

Then came the offseason and the circus came to town. Departing quarterback Kain Colter led a unionization push that Fitzgerald strongly opposed. It led to a team vote and brought the nation’s media to Evanston in search of a story that could forever change the landscape of college athletics. Instead of simply focusing on improving through the offseason, Fitzgerald had to keep his players focused on football despite all of the distractions and visions of grandeur. By many accounts, the situation galvanized the team, but while the vote came and went, the result has yet to be announced and could become a distraction once again this fall when the National Labor Relations Board releases the outcome.

If the process really did bring the team together, and if Fitzgerald can keep his team focused through the NLRB ruling, the expectations from last season could come to fruition this fall. Seventeen starters return from last year’s team, including nine on offense, and the Wildcats don’t have to deal with Ohio State or Michigan State this season. Could Northwestern make a run at the Big Ten West title? Let’s take a closer look.

Offense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
QB Trevor Siemian 6’3″, 210 178-298 for 2,149 yds, 11 TD, 9 INT
RB Venric Mark 5’8″, 175 97 yds (3.1 avg), 5 rec, 48  rec. yards
SB Dan Vitale 6’2″, 225 34 rec, 382 rec. yds, 3 rec. TD
WR Tony Jones 6’0″, 195 55 rec. for 630 yds, 4 TD
WR Christian Jones 6’3″, 225 54 rec. for 668 yds, 4 TD
WR Cameron Dickerson 6’3″, 235 11 rec. for 125 yds, 1 TD
LT Paul Jorgenson 6’6″, 295 12 starts (13 career starts)
LG Geoff Mogus 6’5″, 295 11 starts (11 career starts)
C Brandon Vitabile 6’3″, 300 12 starts (38 career starts)
RG Matt Frazier 6’4″, 290 4 starts (4 career starts)
RT Eric Olson 6’6″, 290 0 starts (0 career starts)

Last season, Northwestern’s offense stormed out of the gate averaging 41.3 points per game in the 4-0 start. A 30-point performance in the loss to Ohio State was good as well, but the offense took a nose dive from there. The Wildcats failed to score more than 24 points in any of its next six games — all losses — and averaged just 13.7 points in that stretch. The 37 points put up in the finale against Illinois brought Northwestern’s season average to 26.2 points per game, which ranked 83rd nationally. The total offense ranked 73rd (399.6 yards per game), rush offense ranked 62nd (172.4 yards per game), and pass offense ranked 71st (227.2 yard per game). That’s a far cry from the way the first five games of the season went and offensive coordinator Mike McCall will have to find a way to sustain the offense through Big Ten play if the Wildcats want any chance of competing.

The major change will be handing the reigns of the offense completely to fifth-year senior quarterback Trevor Siemian, who has spent the past two seasons splitting time with Colter. The do-everything Colter was a freak athlete playing quarterback to keep defenses off balance while Siemian is your more traditional true quarterback with less big-play ability, but also more stable. In 2013, Siemian completed 59.7 percent of his passes for 2,149 yards, 11 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. In that Ohio State game, he completed 13-of-18 for 245 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick and he capped the season with a 414-yard, four-touchdown game against Illinois.

Venric Mark returns from injury as one of the most explosive running backs in the Big Ten

Venric Mark returns from injury as one of the most explosive running backs in the Big Ten

While the offense loses the mobility of Colter, it still has one of the Big Ten’s most electric running backs, Venric Mark. The 5’8″, 175-pound senior was plagued by injuries last season and played in just three games as a result. But when he was healthy in 2012, Mark rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns on six yard per carry, earning second team All-Big Ten honors. Drew rated Mark the sixth-best running back in the Big Ten this fall, though it likely would have been higher if not for the questions about his health.

Mark isn’t alone in the backfield, however. Fellow senior Treyvon Green picked up the slack in Mark’s absence last season, leading the Wildcats with 736 rushing yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. At 5’10″, 215, Green is a much bigger back than Mark and creates a nice one-two punch. Then there’s redshirt sophomore Stephen Buckley, who saw limited action in nine games last season and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. In the one game he saw a full workload, he rushed for 99 yards on 17 carries against an Iowa defense that held Michigan to just 60 rushing yards on 29 carries.

Like the backfield, a lot of production returns at receiver, but the one thing the group lacks is explosiveness. Five of the top six receivers from a year ago return, but the only Wildcat that caught at least 10 passes and averaged a respectable yards per catch — Rashad Lawrence (14.9) — is gone. Senior Christian Jones, who led the team with 668 yards and four touchdowns on 54 catches, averaged just 12.4 yards per catch. Fellow senior Tony Jones led the team in receptions (55), finished second in yards (630), and also had four scores, averaged just 11.5 yards per catch. Don’t get me wrong; they’re a good receiving duo — Drew ranked them the sixth- and seventh-best receivers in the Big Ten this fall — but they lack the big-play ability that Stefon Diggs and Deon Long have.

There are a couple of contenders to complement them. USC transfer Kyle Prater, who has been hampered by injuries since he’s been in Evanston, and Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler were both highly-ranked recruits and if at least one of them can pan out, Siemian will have plenty of options to work with. McCall and Fitzgerald have stated their intention to spread the ball around a lot more this season and superback Dan Vitale, who caught 34 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns in 2013, will also get plenty of targets. Finally, there’s junior Cameron Dickerson, who caught just 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown last season but is expected to take on a bigger role in the passing game this fall.

The offensive line has a chance to be among the Big Ten’s best with everyone returning. All 60 starts from last season are back with 100 combined career starts between them. The anchor of the line is fifth-year senior Brandon Vitabile, an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer a year ago who has started 38 straight games. Drew ranked Vitabile as the eight-best offensive lineman in the conference this fall. Last year’s left tackle, Jack Konopka, who has 25 career starts, may be the odd man looking in as he has been replaced by fifth-year senior Paul Jorgensen, who moves over from right tackle to help protect Siemian. Rising redshirt sophomore Eric Olsen will likely take the spot Jorgensen vacated at right tackle, while Konopka will be the top backup to both of them. At guard, redshirt juniors Geoff Mogus (11 career starts) and Matt Frazier (four) will start on the left and right, respectively.

Defense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
DE Dean Lowry 6’6″, 265 33 tackles, 7 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 2 INT, 1 FR
DT Sean McEvilly 6’5″, 290 9 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 QBH
DT C.J. Robbins 6’5″, 285 3 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 PD
DE Deonte Gibson 6’3″, 260 22 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 QBH, 2 PD
SAM Drew Smith 6’1″, 215 31 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3 QBH
MLB Collin Ellis 6’2″, 230 78 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 3 INT, 9 PD
WLB Chi Chi Ariguzo 6’3″, 235 106 tackles, 6 TFL, 2 sacks, 4 INT, 6 PD
CB Nick VanHoose 6’0″, 190 61 tackles, 5 TFL, 8 PD
CB Matthew Harris 5’11″, 180 36 tackles, 5 PD
S Ibraheim Campbell 5’11″, 205 73 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 4 INT, 9 PD
S Traveon Henry 6’1″, 200 77 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PD

Fitzgerald came to Northwestern promising a tough, hard-nosed defense just like he was as a linebacker for the Wildcats in the mid-1990s. But last season, Northwestern got pushed around, and while some of that can be pinned on the offensive meltdown in the second half of the season, the defense just wasn’t put to par. It ranked 69th nationally in scoring defense (27.1 points per game), 89th in total defense (423.4 yards per game), 68th in rush defense (167.7 yards per game), and 101st in pass defense (255.8 yards per game).

Senior Ibraheim Campbell is a ball-hawking safety (Michael Bojda, The Daily Illini)

Senior Ibraheim Campbell is one of the top safeties in the conference (Michael Bojda, The Daily Illini)

Fitzgerald’s defensive coordinator, Mike Hankwitz, played at Michigan and was a part of the 1969 Big Ten championship team in Bo Schembechler’s first season. He then served as a graduate assistant for Bo from 1970-72 before moving on. He has been a defensive coordinator since 1982 and has been at Northwestern since 2008.

His first order of business this season will be finding a replacement for the production lost by defensive end Tyler Scott’s departure. Scott led the team with 10 tackles for loss and six sacks and was a second team All-Big Ten selection. The good news is that juniors Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson and redshirt sophomore Ifeadi Odenigbo, a former four-star recruit, are talented and experienced. The three combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in 2013. The interior of the line is where the questions lie. Former four-star Greg Kuhar, now a redshirt sophomore, worked his way into the rotation late last season and will be needed to play an increased role this fall. Seniors Sean McEvilly and Chance Carter are the presumed starters, but Kuhar and redshirt junior C.J. Robbins are pushing them with good spring performances.

Similar to the situation on the line, the linebacker corps has to replace its most productive player from 2013, but does have solid talent and experience returning. Damien Proby led the team with 112 tackles in addition to five tackles for loss and a sack, but will be replaced by either junior Drew Smith or senior Jimmy Hall. Hall, a converted safety, tallied 36 tackles and an interception last year, while Smith contributed 31 tackles, 4.5 of which went for loss. The returning starters are seniors Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who were second and third on the team in tackles last season with 106 and 78, respectively. Ariguzo had six tackles for loss, two sacks, and a team-high four interceptions, while Ellis had 5.5 tackles for loss, half a sack, and three picks.

Northwestern’s secondary was pretty bad a year ago, but has some good playmakers and enough experience returning that it could be a strength this season. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell is one of the Big Ten’s best. Drew ranked him the fourth-best safety in the league. He recorded 73 tackles, 2.5 for loss, one sack, and four interceptions last season. His safety mate is junior Traveon Henry, who excels in run support. He notched 77 tackle, four for loss, and one pick. There will be some competition at corner. Redshirt junior Nick VanHoose has 22 career starts and should have one of the spots locked up. Sophomore Matthew Harris started the final five games of last season and will battle with Daniel Jones, who started the season opener in 2013 but blew out his knee and missed the rest of the year, and sophomore Dwight White.

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
PK Arthur Omilian 5’11″, 160
P Chris Gradone 6’2″, 190 37.8 avg, 5 In-20, 1 TB, 1 50+
KR Matthew Harris 5’11″, 180 21 ret, 23.0 avg
PR Venric Mark 5’8″, 175 15 ret, 18.7 avg., 2 TD (in 2012)

While Northwestern has returning starters all over the offense and defense, the Wildcats have to replace a very good kicker. Jeff Budzien made 87.3 percent of his field goal attempts the last three years (48-of-55) and if you throw out his 2011 season, he converted 93.3 percent (42-of-45) in 2012 and ’13. He won the Bakken-Andersen Big Ten Kicker of the Year award both years. But now his reliability is gone and Fitzgerald has to find someone to replace him. That will be a battle between redshirt freshman Hunter Niswander and redshirt junior Arthur Omilian. The former was the 12th-ranked kicker in the 2013 class, while the latter served as Budzien’s backup last season. Punter Brandon Williams is also gone, but he averaged just 36 yards per punt. Junior Chris Gradone, who handled punting duties for the final three games last season, will assume the role.

The return game will be led by Mark and Harris. When healthy in 2012, Mark was a first team All-America punt returner, averaging 18.7 yards per  return with two touchdowns. He was less explosive on kick returns, averaging just 19.8 yards, but he’ll still share the job with Harris, who averaged 23 yards per kick return in 2013.

Outlook

Injuries really hurt Northwestern last season, but in reality, the 5-7 record very easily could have been 8-4 plus a bowl game. The Wildcats lost to Iowa in overtime, Nebraska on a last-second Hail Mary, and Michigan in overtime after the Wolverines converted an improbably last-second field goal in regulation. Five wins should be guaranteed right off the bat — the first three against California, Northern Illinois, and Western Illinois and the last two against Purdue and Illinois. Then they’ll have to fight for wins against a tough middle slate. Mark’s return and more stability at quarterback should certainly help avoid the offensive pitfalls of last season and the overall depth on defense should help them finish games better than they did a year ago. Anywhere between a 6-6 and 9-3 regular season is doable and it will all depend on whether Siemian and Mark can stay healthy.

What it means for Michigan

Michigan has to travel to Evanston for a second straight season, but that’s not as bad as having to travel to East Lansing two years in a row. Michigan always has strong fan support in Chicago, so the environment isn’t as tough. But Michigan and Northwestern have essentially played as evenly as it gets the past two years. A case could certainly be made that Northwestern outplayed Michigan in both despite Michigan winning both, as both required near miracles in the closing seconds of regulation. That’s great motivation for Fitzgerald’s squad. Another close one this year is probably a safe bet.

Big Ten Media Days: Word clouding the Big Ten coaches

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014


All 14 Big Ten coaches got 15 minutes apiece at the podium in front of the assembled media in the Hilton Chicago on Monday. Each delivered an opening statement and then fielded a few questions. Typically, there isn’t much news to come out of these sessions. It’s more of a time to drum up excitement about the upcoming season and tout all the things they’re excited about. Every coach has fantasies about Big Ten titles this time of year and doesn’t want to reveal too much, so to spice things up a bit we took an idea that we really liked from the SEC SB Nation blog Team Speed Kills and applied it to each of the Big Ten coaches’ speeches.

We used Wordle to spit out a word cloud for each coach based on the transcript from his 15 minutes at the podium. The bigger the word, the more often it was used, so you can get an idea of what each coach places the most emphasis on. As a Maize and Go Blue exclusive, we also scrubbed away the coach speak and translated what each coach was really saying.

Brady Hoke – Michigan

Hoke

There must be something wrong with this thing. “Tremendous” doesn’t fill the entire page. Neither does “Well…” or “Fergodsakes”. And contrary to popular belief in Columbus and East Lansing, although “think” was his most-used word today, Hoke does “think” about more than just donuts. He didn’t even mention them once in his 15 minutes. But I wouldn’t blame him if he did. There’s a great donut shop a short walk from the Hilton.

Urban Meyer – Ohio State

Urban

I THINK we’re GOING to be GOOD you GUYS. Good enough to have a grand total of zero Big Ten titles and zero bowl wins in my first two seasons. You know what else is good? This Chicago pizza. Have you guys ever had this stuff? It’s JUST so cheesy and…deep. So much better than that other stuff.

Mark Dantonio – Michigan State

Dantonio

You know, we had a GREAT season last YEAR and it was all because of that one GAME when we beat Michigan. The way THINGS are GOING, we’re number ONE in the state as far as FOOTBALL is concerned. Oh, we won the Rose Bowl? Well, we beat Michigan. Where’s the threat?

Bo Pelini – Nebraska

Pelini

I THINK my cat is enjoying himself up in the room. As soon as I’m done talking about FOOTBALL, I’m GOING to take him to see a LOT of Chicago THINGS. It will MAKE his day. You know, it’s LOOKING like he’s the secret ingredient to the TEAM’s success this season. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.

James Franklin – Penn State

Franklin

I’m REALLY EXCITED about this PROGRAM. I THINK it’s GOING to be much easier than it was in the SEC. THINGS aren’t really comparable as far as facilities are concerned, but hey, it’s an OPPORTUNITY and I can’t wait to meet Sandy Barbour woman.

Gary Andersen – Wisconsin

Andersen

I’m glad to begin my second YEAR at Wisconsin. We don’t hear much about Brigham YOUNG around here and that’s always a GOOD thing. These cheese-loving folks are about as GOOD as it GETs. You know, the Packers have that tradition where they let the KIDS give the PLAYERS bike rides, and with the YOUTH we have I THINK that’s a good POSITION to take with this TEAM.

Pat Fitzgerald – Northwestern

Fitzgerald

I THINK it’s so GREAT that you GUYS haven’t asked about unions yet. We just want to play FOOTBALL. I’m not GOING to talk about the WAY our former QUARTERBACK tried to hurt our PROGRAM last YEAR by trying to unionize. These guys are a TEAM, not employees. LOOK, I won’t talk about it at all.

Kirk Ferentz – Iowa

Ferentz

It’s CERTAINLY a GREAT YEAR for Big Ten Media Days with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland. I’ve been coming to this THING for 16 YEARS and it has gotten stale. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve GOT some GOOD coaches in this conference but I THINK Kyle and Randy have what it takes to spice things up a little bit, kind of like Greg Davis and Phil Parker did for me in Iowa City last season.

Kevin Wilson – Indiana

Wilson

Wait, we can’t JUST PLAY offense in the Big Ten? Why didn’t you GUYS tell me that three YEARs ago? My boy Rich Rod told me that’s how you succeed in this conference. I’m starting to THINK he was just pulling my chain. I had to bring in a new defensive coordinator this offseason and he’s GOING to have to get the job done. Go big or go HOME, right?

Jerry Kill – Minnesota

Kill

I’ve GOT this program trending in the right direction, getting BETTER each YEAR, and I THINK that will continue. Have you guys seen that brown jug thing? My KIDS were asking about it, but I’ve GOTTA say, I don’t think that thing actually exists. If it does, our PLAYERS are going to GET it DONE this season. Oh, who am I kidding?

Randy Edsall – Maryland

Edsall

Crabcakes and football. That’s what MARYLAND does! We’re GOING to win the BIG East…I mean ACC…I mean American Athletic Conf…wait, what conference am I in now? Big TEN! That’s right. I THINK I’m gonna need Kirk to show me around.

Tim Beckman – Illinois

Beckman

FOOTBALL! We’ve got lots of PLAYERS, man. But with Scheelhaase gone we need a new QUARTERBACK, so this offseason I set up shop in Tallahassee when I heard Famous Jameis might be in trouble. I really WANT that guy. But it didn’t work out. Anyone else have sanctions going on this YEAR?

Kyle Flood – Rutgers

Flood

This is a cute city you midwestern folks have out here. I mean, REALLY, it’s cute, but it doesn’t compare to the BIG city we have in my part of the country. Chicago has one FOOTBALL team, New York have two, and you know what: they play in Jersey, home of RUTGERS, the school that started football.

Darrell Hazell – Purdue

Hazell

Alright you GUYS. THINGS are GOING just RIGHT for us this YEAR. Have you heard about our 6-foot-8, 400-pound PLAYER? We’ve got the biggest drum and now the biggest FOOTBALL player in the conference. That should guarantee us at least two wins this year.

Somehow: Michigan 27 – Northwestern 19, 3 OT

Saturday, November 16th, 2013


(USA Today Sports)

In a driving wind and rain along the shores of Lake Michigan, a Michigan offense that struggled to move the ball with any consistency for 60 minutes suddenly came alive in overtime.In the first extra period Devin Gardner connected with freshman tight end Jake Butt for the first touchdown of the game by either team. After Northwestern responded with a touchdown of its own, and then a field goal on its next possession, Michigan answered with a field goal. In two overtime periods both teams topped their regulation point totals.

Michigan started with the ball again in the third stanza and found the end zone once again, this time on a 5-yard run by Gardner. Forced to go for two, Michigan was able to convert as Gardner ran it into the left corner. Michigan’s defense held the Wildcats and the Wolverines escaped Evanston with an ugly but much-needed victory.

Final Stats
Michigan Northwestern
Score 27 19
Record 7-3 (3-3) 4-6 (0-6)
Total Yards 337 304
Net Rushing Yards 137 141
Net Passing Yards 200 163
First Downs 26 18
Turnovers 0 1
Penalties-Yards 1-15 3-20
Punts-Yards 6-255 6-180
Time of Possession 27:20 30:22
Third Down Conversions 2-of-18 5-of-19
Fourth Down Conversions 2-of-4 1-of-2
Sacks By-Yards 2-23 5-40
Field Goals 4-for-5 4-for-4
PATs 1-for-1 1-for-1
Red Zone Scores-Chances 4-of-5 4-of-4
Full Box Score

But the game would have been over in regulation if not for a controversial play in the final seconds. Michigan was trying to drive down the field to tie or win the game, trailing 9-6. After converting two fourth downs, Gardner connected with Jeremy Gallon for 16 yards on 3rd-and-23. But Gallon was tackled in bounds. Michigan’s field goal unit sprinted onto the field. Luckily, holder Drew Dileo was already on the field on the previous play and slid into position. Kicker Brendan Gibbons didn’t mark off his steps as a kicker normally would, but instead lined himself up approximately where he should be just as the snap went to Dileo. Gibbons booted a line drive through the uprights for the improbable game-tying 44-yard field goal as time expired.

It can certainly be argued that Gibbons – and possibly others – weren’t set when the ball was snapped, but the play stood and the game went to overtime. Credit should be given to the coaching staff for having the field goal unit ready to spring onto the field with no timeouts remaining.

Michigan may not have needed the heart-stopping field goal if Hoke had kicked a field goal to tie the game at nine on the previous drive. Instead, he chose to go for it on 4th-and-2 at the Northwestern 4-yard line. Gardner was tackled for a loss of one  and Northwestern took over.

Michigan started the game on offense and looked good marching 63 yards on 12 plays, but the drive stalled in the red zone and the Wolverines had to settle for a field goal. After opening with completions of 17 yards to Gallon and 13 yards to Devin Funchess, Al Borges turned to freshman running back Derrick Green who started instead of Fitzgerald Toussaint. Green rushed for eight yards and then three to pick up the first down. After a Gardner run for eight, Green again picked up three yards and a first down. De’Veon Smith then came in and picked up seven and then five to put Michigan 1st-and-goal.

Derrick Green rushed for 79 yards on 19 carries in his first career start (MGoBlue.com)

For the remainder of the first half, Michigan was unable to move the ball. The next four drives went 28 yards, one yard, 20 yards, and eight yards and Michigan went into the locker room trailing 6-3.

The third quarter was much of the same with Michigan’s three drives going 12, 39, and 27 yards. Northwestern wasn’t much better, but was able to put together a 10-play, 77-yard drive that ended in a field goal to take a 9-3 lead.

At the beginning of the fourth, Michigan downed a punt on the Northwestern 1-yard line. The Wildcats were only able to move the ball two yards on the next three plays and had to punt it back to Michigan. But Brandon Williams’ punt into the strong wind was shanked and went out of bounds at the 11-yard line, just an 8-yard punt. Michigan was in prime position to capitalize, but the Wolverines managed just a field goal. It pulled Michigan within three at 9-6, setting up the crazy sequence of events on the final two possessions.

Michigan finished the game with 337 total yards, its best offensive performance since setting a school record against Indiana four weeks ago. After being held to negative rushing yards in back-to-back games, the Wolverines ran for 137 on 45 carries.

Gardner finished 24-of-43 for 226 yards and a touchdown. Green led all backs with 79 yards on 19 carries – an average of 4.2 yards per carry. Smith added 41 yards on nine carries, averaging 4.3. Gallon became the first Michigan receiver since Mario Manningham in 2007 to surpass 1,000 yards in a season. He caught 10 passes for 115 yards. Funchess added seven receptions for 61 yards. James Ross led the way defensively with 11 tackles and a sack.

It was anything but pretty, but it assures Michigan a winning record for the season and could give the team back some of the confidence it lost the last two weeks. The Wolverines travel to Iowa City next Saturday to face an Iowa team coming off a bye week and then host unbeaten Ohio State to close the regular season on Nov. 30.

M&GB staff predictions: Northwestern

Friday, November 15th, 2013


The battle of the bottom two in the Big Ten Legends Division takes place in Evanston tomorrow. A Michigan loss would remove any chance of a winning conference record for the Wolverines this season. A Northwestern loss would make the final two games of the season must-wins simply to get bowl eligible. Something has to give for these two reeling teams. Let’s take a look at our predictions.

Justin: Don’t expect Al Borges to open up his playbook just because the team has lost two in a row. He only has to keep it under wraps this weekend and next before he breaks everything out against Ohio State on Nov. 30. Right?

Michigan 20 – Northwestern 17

Chris: The Michigan offense has nothing going for it at the present time. No blocking on the line, no running game, no passing game, and poor play calling. The forecast is calling for rain in Evanston for Saturday afternoon. Not to mention, the Wolverines can’t seem to win on the road and are no longer playing for anything except respect, which is often not enough in November after a tough season. Northwestern isn’t exactly a world-beater either. They’ve lost five straight games. All of this combined looks like a snooze-fest of a game. I’ll take the home team, only because they’re at home.

Northwestern 17 – Michigan 16

Staff Predictions
Michigan Northwestern
Justin 20 17
Chris 16 17
Josh 20 17
Sam 17 20
Derick 24 21
Katie 24 17
Drew 21 17
M&GB Average 20 18

Josh: Aside from a key player suffering a major injury the last two weeks could not have gone any worse. Michigan is officially out of the Big Ten title hunt (though they were essentially out before last week) and are no lock to get a seventh win which would guarantee a winning season. We know the line is young and Borges’ play calling often leaves something to be desired but this is team 134 and we have to accept that. Brady Hoke IS the man for this job and, like him or not, Al Borges is the OC for the forseeable future.

Instead of the usual “Michigan will win if..” what I’d like to do this week is touch on “What I’d like to see” a sort of lowering of the high standards we have for our beloved Maize and Blue. We’ve seen several versions of team 134 throughout the season and who knows which one we’ll from week to week but here are some (realistic) things I’d like to see this week at Northwestern.

On Offense

Scrap the pro-style for now. As we’ve highlighted on this blog (and Nebraska noted last week) Michigan tends to tip its hand on offense, especially when they line up under center. The line’s issues cannot be fixed week to week so the next best thing would be to have a legitimate threat of the run to help open up the passing game. What I’d like to see is a predominantly Shotgun and Pistol offense, or at least as much of it as possible. If the defense has to worry about the run coming from all angles it should, in theory, keep them on their toes and prevent them from bull rushing up the middle so much. Will this fix their ails? Probably not but it’s a good place to start. If Michigan can have a semblance of a running attack it will open up the pass and we all know what Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess are capable of if Gardner has time to throw.

I won’t be greedy here and ask to see a 100-yard rusher, though it would be nice, but just enough of a run game to help the pass and to generate some positive yards, for once.

In case that’s too much to ask (and sadly, it might be) I’d like see some quick short passes instead of the run, stuff like screens and short slants. Plenty of teams use the short passing game instead of a run game and it works. For a team that can’t run the ball but has a solid QB (given time Gardner is a really good QB) the short pass might be what it needs to get the ball moving forward consistently. Which ties into all I really want to see this week..

Go back to basics. We haven’t really seen it all year but I don’t think it’s too much to ask here. Step 1: Dumb down the playbook. Break out the uber-simple KISS playbook, find some plays that work. Step 2: keep running them until the defense stops them. Then find some other variations and keep running those.

Despite a lot of internet sentiment Al Borges is actually a really good OC. It’s rather difficult to call plays when the interior of the offensive line isn’t doing its job. Offensive linemen typically take longer to develop and this squad just hasn’t had that luxury.

Fortunately for Michigan they won’t be facing a very good defense so they should be able to get something going.

On defense

Northwestern has been ravaged by the injury bug this season and isn’t the team we all thought they’d be. However, they still have players capable of making big plays, namely Kain Colter. Michigan has been vulnerable to the big play and Northwestern will be playing with nothing to lose, since well they have nothing to lose. Michigan presents the Wildcats a great opportunity to move one win closer to bowl eligibility and the defense needs to be prepared for their best shot.

Don’t let Northwestern get any momentum. I know that Evanston is a virtual home game for Michigan but there will be plenty of starving Wildcat fans looking to upend a reeling Wolverine squad and get their first conference win.

Get some pressure. On the pass and the run. This line doesn’t have a LaMarr Woodley or Brandon Graham but they are capable of getting some pressure, right? If they can be even just a little disruptive it will take a lot of pressure, no pun intended, off the secondary and Michigan’s offense. I’d like to see, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask, one or two guys consistently in the backfield and maybe a handful of TFL’s.

Capitalize on any opportunities presented. Michigan has missed out on picking off some balls to end drives and missing some tackles have led to bigger plays. Stick to fundamental football and then make the most of the opportunities. There will be balls up for grabs and ball carriers not holding on the way they should, it just happens. Michigan needs to take advantage of those opportunities. Getting some stops and a turnover, or two, will swing the momentum in their favor and help the offense gain some confidence.

On Special Teams

It’s too bad Matt Wile’s punting can’t count as an offensive stat. Anyway, this will be what it always is; win the field position game. I don’t know what else to say here that I don’t say every week so I’ll leave it at that.

Michigan 20 – Northwestern 17

Sam: Northwestern 20 – Michigan 17

Derick: Unfortunately, things have started to spiral out of control for Michigan after the blowout loss in East Lansing.

The offense has finally found some consistency, but it’s in the form of a negative running game. The last thing Brady Hoke needed was to take his young team on the road while mired in a two-game skid.

Northwestern hasn’t been much better during the Big Ten season, but so far this team has failed to play a strong game away from Ann Arbor.

Somebody has to win this game though, and Michigan needs to step up and settle things down. I think Michigan will get a win when it needs it.

Michigan 24 – Northwestern 21

Katie: Michigan at Northwestern. Two teams that started off looking better than the season has played out. Both are at the bottom of the Big Ten Legends Division, and the Wildcats haven’t yet won a conference game. But that doesn’t mean Northwestern is going to roll over and let the Wolverines make it to an even 3-3 in Big Ten play. This Wildcat team played the Buckeyes to within 10, lost to Iowa in OT, and lost to Minnesota and Nebraska by a combined 6 points. Northwestern hasn’t had much go its way, and as Michigan fans we shouldn’t sneer. Akron, UConn, ND, those games could have be losses. And Indiana played us for about all we were worth.

The way the coaching has been at the Big House and away, it’s not improbable that Michigan could suffer its third loss in a row. Northwestern is back in Evanston after two tough defeats on the road, and is looking to break into the win column with Michigan. With the condition of Michigan’s run game, ranked 96th in the nation in yardage, the lack of pass protection and passing ability in crucial moments, that could very well happen.

As if the line of 2 and a half didn’t make calling which way this game will go any harder, the allowed points just seems to be saying the same thing. Northwestern is 62nd in points against, and Michigan, 61st. So, I’m going to have my hands over my eyes watching this one, hoping that Michigan doesn’t turn out to be that guy who goes into the basement after the murderer. Dumb, and predictable.

Michigan 24 – Northwestern 17

Drew: Last week, I wrote that Michigan would lose to a shorthanded Nebraska only if it had not mentally moved past the debacle in East Lansing. Thirteen points, minus-21 rushing yards, 15 tackles-for-loss allowed, and seven sacks allowed against the 70th-ranked defensive unit later, I can safely say that the Wolverines let Michigan State beat them twice.

And now, for all intents and purposes, the 2013 season is over, at least by Michigan standards. There will be no Big Ten championship, no Legends Division championship, and no BCS Bowl. After finishing with only two conference losses in Brady Hoke’s first two years, U-M already has suffered three this season with three conference games remaining that may add to that total. To top it off, the Wolverines have a sub-.500 conference record for the first time under Hoke.

The only thing left for Michigan to do is to stop the bleeding before Ohio State comes to Ann Arbor, likely bringing with it a 23-game winning streak. The first chance to do this is tomorrow against Northwestern—another underachieving Legends Division school. The Wildcats—thought by many to contend for a Big Ten championship this season—are winless in conference play and have been bitten by the injury bug. There is no better opportunity for Michigan to hop back on the tracks.

Yet, despite this, Michigan is an underdog to Northwestern—a team on a five-game losing streak—for the first time in the history of the series. To put this in perspective, the Wildcats were not even the favorite in 2008 when they had a 7-3 record and U-M was 3-7. This is a historic low for the Wolverines. But when one considers Michigan’s offensive woes the past two weeks and its 5-7 record in true road games under Hoke, it is not farfetched that many expect Michigan to lose tomorrow.

I predict that Michigan’s defense will be able to keep Northwestern in check. NU’s offense has been atrocious in conference play, ranking 11th among Big Ten teams in scoring offense and total offense. The question will be whether Michigan’s offense can pull out of its funk. The Wildcats have a knack for forcing turnovers, intercepting the most passes in the nation, but U-M has maintained the best turnover margin in Big Ten play. But it will not matter if Michigan cannot generate more than 200 total yards—a feat it has not achieved since October.

I think Michigan will win and end its skid, but I have been unable to peg this Wolverines team correctly since I joined Maize & Go Blue staff. The only thing I can predict with certainty is that Michigan fans’ frustrations and concerns will not be alleviated afterwards.

Michigan 21 – Northwestern 17

____________________________________________________________________________
For more coverage of this week’s game, see: Michigan-Northwestern game preview; Monday’s First Look: Northwestern, and this week’s Five-Spot Challenge. Drew (@DrewCHallett) compared this year’s Michigan offense to 2008.

Also check out game previews from MGoBlogMaize n BrewTouch the BannerMaize n Blue Nation, and The M Block.

From the other side, staff predictions from Sippin’ on Purple and something about the funny names on Michigan’s roster. I’m sure you can guess which ones they choose as the “best” name.

Michigan-Northwestern game preview

Friday, November 15th, 2013


With three weeks left in the season Michigan finds itself on a downward spiral, losers of their last two and three of the last four, and the schedule doesn’t get any easier. Two road games and a date with undefeated Ohio State remain. Following last week’s loss to Nebraska, with the team’s main goal – the Big Ten championship – out of reach, Brady Hoke issued the new goal: win ten games. The only way that goal can be achieved is by winning the last three and the bowl game.

Quick Facts
Ryan Field – 3:30pm EST – Big Ten Network
Northwestern Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (8th season)
Coaching Record: 54-44 (all at Northwestern)
Offensive Coordinator: Mick McCall (6th season)
Defensive Coordinator: Mike Hankwitz (6th season)
Last Season: 10-3 (5-3, 3rd Legends)
Last Meeting: U-M 38 – NW 31 OT (2012)
All-Time Series: Michigan leads 53-15-2
Record in Evanston: Michigan leads 20-7
Record at Ryan Field: Michigan leads 19-7
Current Michigan Streak: Won 2
Last Michigan Win: 2012

It all begins with Northwestern tomorrow in what figures to be a rainy and windy contest along the shores of Lake Michigan. The forecast calls for a 60 percent chance of showers and 20 miles-per-hour wind with gusts up to 33 mph, which is not a good formula for Michigan’s struggling offense. But Northwestern has plenty of struggles of its own.

Northwestern won its first four games of the season, climbing as high as 16th in the national rankings. But then Ohio State came to town and kicked off the Wildcats’ freefall. In front of a national audience with ESPN College Game Day on site, Northwestern played the Buckeyes tough but ultimately fell 40-30 when Ohio State scored 14 points in the final six minutes of the game. It was certainly a respectable showing for Pat Fitzgerald’s squad that showed they belonged among the Big Ten’s best.

But what happened over the course of the next four games proved otherwise. A week after nearly topping the Buckeyes, Northwestern traveled to Madison and was soundly beaten 35-6 by Wisconsin, managing just two field goals and giving up more than 500 yards of offense. A week later the Wildcats dropped a home contest to Minnesota. Losses to Iowa and Nebraska followed, and suddenly a team that was 4-0 in the non-conference was now in the Big Ten cellar.

The last one was the toughest to swallow for Northwestern players, coaches, and fans alike because the Wildcats had the game in the bag until Nebraska scored on a last second Hail Mary. Now, Northwestern has to face Michigan, a team that used a Hail Mary of its own to beat the Wildcats a year ago. That has surely been on their minds leading up to this game and Fitzgerald would love nothing more than to stop the skid by avenging last year’s loss in the Big House.

Let’s take a look at the Wildcats.

Michigan defense vs Northwestern offense: When Northwestern has the ball

During the four-game winning streak to start the season Northwestern’s offense averaged 41.2 points per game. But that number has plummeted to just 17.4 during the current five-game losing streak. Remove the Ohio State game and it drops to just 14.2 in the last four weeks. To be fair, the stunning difference coincides with a rash of injuries including star running back Venric Mark, who led the Big Ten in all-purpose yards and was named second-team All-Big Ten a year ago.

Mark’s absence is bad enough, but could have been made up for if it were the only injury. But the piece-meal backfield has seen injuries to everyone. Senior Mike Trumpy and freshman Warren Long missed the Nebraska game, fellow freshman Stephen Buckley suffered a season-ending knee injury, leading rusher Treyvon Green missed the Iowa game, and jack of all trades Kain Colter missed the Minnesota game and was re-injured against Iowa. Green and Trumpy will carry the load tomorrow.

Quarterback Trevor Siemian has taken the majority of the snaps while splitting time behind center with Colter. He has completed 56 percent of his passes for 1,349 yards, seven touchdowns, and six interceptions. But he has been wildly inconsistent. Against Ohio State he completed 13-of-18 for 245 yards, two touchdowns and a pick. But he went just 13-of-34 for 163 against Wisconsin and 4-of-13 for 36 yards and an interception against Nebraska.

Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune had this to say earlier this week: “It certainly appears Siemian has lost confidence, perhaps because of offensive line breakdowns, pick-6s and drops.” Sound familiar?

Colter, meanwhile, is the dual-threat quarterback. He has completed 58-of-74 (78.4 percent) for 545 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions. He’s also the team’s second leading rusher with 409 yards on 94 carries. In Week 3, he rushed for 106 yards on just 15 carries. Two weeks ago, he ran the ball 23 times against Nebraska for 86 yards.

Like Michigan State and Nebraska, Northwestern doesn’t have one standout receiver, but instead shares the ball with a bunch of different guys. Tony Jones leads the Wildcats with 38 receptions for 492 yards and four touchdowns, but also missed the Nebraska game. Over one-third of his receiving yards occurred in the Week 2 game against Syracuse in which he caught nine passes for 185 yards and a score. Junior Christian Jones has 31 receptions for 389 yards and two touchdowns. At 6’3″, he’s the tallest of the Wildcat receivers. Senior Rashad Lawrence has caught 19 passes for 307 – he had eight for 149 against Ohio State – and sophomore Dan Vitale has 26 catches for 298 yards.

Michigan offense vs Northwestern defense: When Michigan has the ball

Northwestern’s defensive front has also suffered from key injuries. Top tackle Sean McEvilly has missed considerable time, but is slated to play tomorrow, while tackle Will Hampton, who started the last four games in place of McEvilly but has also been banged up will also play. Ends Dean Lowry and Tyler Scott have also missed snaps. The latter finished second in the conference with nine sacks in 2012, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten. He’s currently tied for fifth with five sacks.

At linebacker, Northwestern is led by Chi Chi Ariguzo and Damien Proby who are tied for second in the conference with 79 tackles apiece. Both were named honorable mention All-Big Ten last season. Ariguzo is also tied for the Big Ten lead with four interceptions.

The secondary features talented strong safety Ibraheim Campbell, who also has four interceptions. Fellow safety Traveon Henry is typically good at not giving up the big play, but was the goat on Nebraska’s Hail Mary two weeks ago.

The defense is a unit that ranks right around the middle of the pack or bottom third nationally in most statistical categories: 62nd in points allowed, 70th against the run, 97th against the pass, 81st in total yards, 92nd on third downs, 51st in sacks. But as we saw last week, the current state of Michigan’s offense has the potential to make any defense look good.

The other third: Special teams

Senior kicker Jeff Budzien leads the Big Ten in field goals per game, having made 14-of-16 with a long of 43. Senior punter Brandon Williams has booted 50 punts for an average of 37.1 yards, which doesn’t rank in the top ten in the conference. In the return game, Jones handles punt returns, though he has only returned three all season for an average of 7.3 yards. True freshman cornerback Matthew Harris is the main kick returner and averages 24.8 yards per, which ranks seventh in the Big Ten, just ahead of Dennis Norfleet.

Prediction

At this point, I’m not even going to attempt to predict what I think the offense will do. Michigan’s offense has been bad enough the last two weeks and now it gets the added element of rain and wind. It will probably explode for 500 yards and 50 points at this point now that we have all given up hope. But the likely outcome is an ugly, soggy, low-scoring game. I trust Greg Mattison’s defense to slow down Northwestern’s offense and give Michigan’s offense enough room to pull out the win.

Michigan 20 – Northwestern 16

First Look: Northwestern

Monday, November 11th, 2013


Two straight losses in which Michigan’s offense looked completely inept have left Michigan fans wondering where another win is going to come from. This week, the Wolverines hit the road to face the only other Legends Division foe that is in worse shape – Northwestern.

The Wildcats have dropped five straight since starting the season 4-0. Heading into their Oct. 5 matchup with Ohio State, Northwestern was ranked 16th. ESPN College Gameday made the trip to Evanston and billed the game as the one that could trip up the Buckeyes. Instead, Ohio State won 40-30 and Northwestern has continued to slide ever since. A 35-6 defeat to Wisconsin the next week was comparable to Michigan’s loss to Michigan State. The three games since have all been close: a 20-17 loss to Minnesota, a 17-10 overtime loss to Iowa, and a 27-24 loss to Nebraska on a Hail Mary.

Neither team has any conference title hope remaining, but there is still plenty on the line. Northwestern must win two of its final three to become bowl eligible and with a showdown with Michigan State next week this is the better opportunity to pull one out. Michigan is already bowl eligible but with a trip to Iowa, where Michigan always struggles, and then a home tilt with Ohio State remaining, the Wolverines likely see this as the best opportunity to at least secure a winning season. So what’s more likely? Let’s take a look at how the Wildcats compare.

Northwestern Statistics & Michigan Comparison
N’westernMichigan Rank Opponent Rank
Points Per Game 28.0 | 35.1 T73 | 31 26.0 | 25.9 62 | 61
Rushing Yards 1,7001,218 1,513 | 969
Rush Avg. Per Game 188.9 | 135.3 47 | 97 168.1 | 107.7 70 | 13
Avg. Per Rush 4.5 | 3.2 4.1 | 3.2
Passing Yards 1,8942,250 2,248 | 2,185
Pass Avg. Per Game 210.4250.0 82 | 51 249.8 | 242.8 97 | 88
Total Offense 3,5943,468 3,761 | 3,154
Total Off Avg. Per Game 399.3 | 385.3 74 | 83 417.9 | 350.4 81 | 22
Kick Return Average 22.4 | 22.6 51 | 44 18.9 | 22.0 28 | 73
Punt Return Average 7.3 | 6.9 76 | 82 3.8 | 7.6 15 | 58
Avg. Time of Possession 28:2632:28 95 | 21 31:34 | 27:32
3rd Down Conversion Pct 40% | 42% 66 | 55 43% | 41% 92 | T76
Sacks Allowed-Yards/By-Yards 32-166 | 26-190 118 | 105 19-127 | 18-132 T51 | T57
Touchdowns Scored 30 | 40 30 | 26
Field Goals-Attempts 14-16 | 12-18 9-15 | 18-23
Red Zone Scores (34-35)97% | (32-38)84% 2 | T55 (27-30)90% | (26-30)87% 107 | 91
Red Zone Touchdowns (21-35)60% | (26-38)68% (19-30)63% | (16-30)53%

Much of Northwestern’s downturn has been a result of injuries. During their bye week this past Saturday, head coach Pat Fitzgerald said that if they would have played they would have been without 13 injured players and several others would have been limited. No team in the Big Ten has been hit harder by the injury bug.

A large part of Northwestern’s success last season was a result of just the opposite: avoiding injuries. Only two teams in the country (Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State) had fewer starters miss games due to injuries than the Wildcats. This season, they’re making up for it.

Electric running back Venric Mark has played just one full game all season and is likely headed for a medical redshirt. Versatile quarterback/running back/receiver Kain Colter has missed time. The Wildcats lost starting cornerback Daniel Jones to a season-ending knee injury and the team’s best defensive tackle, Sean McEvilly has played only three games. Linebackers Collin Ellis and Jaylon Prater, safety Jimmy Hall, cornerback Nick VanHoose, defensive tackle Will Hampton, defensive ends Tyler Scott and Dean Lowry, receiver Tony Jones, and running backs Treyvon Green, Mike Trumpy, Stephen Buckley and Warren Long all would not have played this past Saturday.

Pat Fitzgerald has had to deal with a rash of injuries that have derailed Northwestern's season (NUSports.com)

Their statuses for the Michigan game will be determined in the coming days, but it’s safe to say Michigan won’t be facing the same Northwestern team that started the season.

With the injury disclaimer in mind, there isn’t much that this Northwestern team is very good at this season. The running game ranks 47th nationally and that’s the highest-ranked unit on the offensive or defensive side of the ball. And even that ranks just eighth in the Big Ten with an average of 188.9 yards per game on the ground. Heading into the Michigan State game two weeks ago Michigan’s running game ranked 49th nationally, averaging 183.9 yards per game and no one considered it to be anything to write home about.

The Northwestern passing game is even worse, ranked 82nd nationally and sixth in the Big Ten with an average of 210.4 yards per game. In five of nine games, Northwestern has finished with less than 200 passing yards, four of those with less than 140. Against Nebraska two weeks ago Northwestern completed just 8-of-21 passes for 81 yards.

Northwestern averages 28 points per game which ranks 73rd nationally and ninth in the Big Ten. But since conference play has started, the Wildcats have averaged just 17.4 points per game. The primetime showdown with Ohio State was surprisingly one of Northwestern’s best offensive showings of the season. The Wildcats scored 30 points and racked up 437 yards of offense including 343 through the air. But that was before many of the injuries.

Defensively, Northwestern hasn’t fared well in either phase, but has been slightly better against the run. The Wildcats give up 168.6 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 70th nationally and ninth in the Big Ten. Ohio State rushed for 248 yards and Wisconsin gained 286 on Northwestern’s run defense.

The pass defense is one of the worst in the country, ranking 97th nationally and 11th in the conference. Only two opponents, Minnesota and Iowa, have thrown for fewer than 200 yards against Northwestern and the Gophers threw it just 14 times all game.

As far as intangibles go, Northwestern is second in the nation in red zone scores, having scored on 34 of 35 red zone trips. The Wildcat defense, however, is 107th nationally in the red zone, allowing opponents to score 90 percent of the time. Northwestern converts 40 percent of its third downs (compared to Michigan’s 42 percent) and ranks 92nd nationally by allowing a 43 percent conversion rate on third downs (compared to Michigan’s 41 percent). If you think Michigan’s 26 sacks allowed are bad consider the 32 that Northwestern has given up, which is the most in the Big Ten and 118th nationally.

Perhaps the best phase of the game for Northwestern this season is its kick and punt coverage units which rank 28th and 15th in the nation, respectively. By comparison, Michigan ranks 73rd and 58th.

Northwestern will be hungry for its first conference win of the season and looking to avenge last season’s improbably loss to Michigan in which Devin Gardner found Roy Roundtree on a bomb in the closing seconds to set up a game-tying field goal. Michigan then won in overtime. But depending on which injured players are able to suit up Michigan could be facing a shell of the Northwestern team that started the season.

Key Players
Passing Comp-Att Yards TD INT Rating
Trevor Siemian 102-181 1,349 7 6 125.1
Kain Colter 58-74 545 4 3 150.0
Rushing Attempts Yards TD Long Avg/Carry
Treyvon Green 94 612 8 55 6.5
Kain Colter 94 409 4 33 4.4
Mike Trumpy 61 270 2 28 4.4
Venric Mark 31 97 0 23 3.1
Receiving Receptions Yards TD Long Avg/Game
Tony Jones 38 492 4 47 61.5
Christian Jones 31 389 2 36 43.2
Rashad Lawrence 19 307 0 67 38.3
Dan Vitale (FB) 26 298 2 53 33.1
Defense Solo Assisted Total Tackles TFL-Yds Sacks-Yds
Damien Proby (LB) 48 32 80 5.0-16 (1INT) 1.0-6
Chi Chi Ariguzo (LB) 50 29 79 4.5-6 (4INT) 1.0-2 (1FR)
Tyler Scott (DE) 24 10 34 9.0-48 (1INT) 5.0-33 (1FR)
Deonte Gibson (DT) 9 10 19 6.0-24 2.0-15
Kicking FGA FGM Long XPA XPM
Jeff Budzien 16 14 43 30 30
Punting Punts Yds Avg. TB In 20
Brandon Williams 50 1,856 37.1 5 14
Full Stats

Big Ten power rankings: Week 8

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013


1. Ohio State (7-0, 3-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Iowa 34-24 This Week: Saturday vs Penn State (4-2, 1-1), 8pm, ABC

Fans in the Horseshoe got an unexpected scare on Saturday when the reeling Hawkeyes forced the Buckeyes to rally in the fourth quarter to stay undefeated. Though the Ohio State defense yielded three passing touchdowns, Braxton Miller’s efficiency through the air was enough to overcome that, as the junior completed 22 of 27 passes for two touchdowns.

2. Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1) – Even
Last Week: Beat Illinois 56-32 This Week: Bye (11/2 at Iowa)

The Melvin Gordon show was on full display in Champaign this weekend as the running back scored three times and totaled 142 yards. James White and Corey Clement jumped in to give Wisconsin a total of six rushing touchdowns on the day and Joel Stave led a turnover-less offense to another easy victory.

3. Penn State (4-2, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday at #4 Ohio State (7-0, 3-0), 8pm, ABC

Following a huge quadruple-overtime win against Michigan on homecoming, Penn State had a bye week to prepare for another huge game in Columbus. If the Nittany Lions can pull another upset on Saturday night then the season will be a success regardless of the current bowl ban. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg will need to be almost perfect for Penn State to have a chance against the Buckeyes.

4. Indiana (3-4, 1-2) – Even
Last Week: Lost to Michigan 63-47 This Week: Bye (11/2 vs Minnesota)

No matter what happens to the Hoosiers, their offense is always explosive. After dropping 28 points on a Michigan State defense that ranks among the best in the country, Indiana walked into Ann Arbor and scored six touchdowns and 47 points in the rain. Unfortunately, the defense had a record-breaking day en route to allowing 751 yards. Indiana’s fast drives allowed the Wolverines to possess the ball for almost 40 minutes.

5. Illinois (3-3, 0-2) – Even
Last Week: Lost to #25 Wisconsin 56-32 This Week: Saturday Michigan State (6-1, 3-0), 3:30pm, ABC

Despite scoring 32 points against a top-10 defense, Illinois got blown out by 24 at home on Saturday and remain winless in the conference. No matter how well Nathan Scheelhaase plays, Illinois needs to gain more than 72 yards on the ground and 2.5 yards per carry to control the clock and give their defense a chance.

6. Purdue (1-6, 0-3) – Even
Last Week: Lost to Michigan State 14-0 This Week: Bye (11/2 vs Ohio State)

Purdue put up its most valiant Big Ten effort on the road this weekend, holding Michigan State to 14 points. It’s impossible to win without scoring, however, and when a bad offense meets a great defense things can get ugly. The Boilermakers had just 66 yards rushing and completed only 14 passes; failing to put anything on the scoreboard.

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1. Michigan State (6-1, 3-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Purdue 14-0 This Week: Saturday at Illinois (3-3, 0-2), 3:30pm, ABC

Nobody expected Michigan State to get much resistance from the lowly Purdue Boilermakers on Saturday, and despite the meager 14-point victory, there were no surprises. The Spartans had control of the game from the moment they scored their first touchdown, but concerns arose in the bigger picture. The offense failed to score a touchdown on a terrible Purdue defense, and quarterback questions continue to be a problem for Mark Dantonio heading into the most crucial part of the schedule.

2. Michigan (6-1, 2-1) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Indiana 63-47 This Week: Bye (11/2 at Michigan State)

Coming off a close loss in one of the toughest atmospheres in the nation, Michigan used an offensive onslaught to get back on track. Quarterback Devin Gardner broke Michigan’s total yards record with 584 and helped Jeremy Gallon set the Big Ten receiving yards record with 369. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint woke up and had his best game at Michigan, piling up 151 yards and four touchdowns. Michigan has another week off to figure out what went wrong on defense before traveling to East Lansing to take on in-state rival Michigan State.

3. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday at Minnesota (5-2, 1-2), 12pm, ESPN

Nebraska had an off week in the middle of a three-week stretch in their schedule that includes Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota. The Cornhuskers have won the first two of those games handily and haven’t had much competition six games into 2013 besides losing to UCLA 41-21. Nebraska is a top-10 team in terms of points scored and boasts one of the strongest rushing attacks in the conference.

4. Iowa (4-2, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Lost to #4 Ohio State 34-24 This Week: Saturday vs Northwestern (4-3, 0-3), 12pm, BTN

Despite suffering their second straight conference loss, Iowa looked strong in Columbus and took a tie into the fourth quarter against No. 4 Ohio State. A stagnant offense got back on track after faltering against Michigan State last weekend as Iowa looks to play spoiler in a division that is likely out of reach with two losses.

5. Minnesota (5-2, 1-2) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Northwestern 20-17 This Week: Saturday vs #24 Nebraska (5-1, 2-0), 12pm, ESPN

The Golden Gophers were the surprise talk of the Big Ten Saturday when they beat Northwestern in Chicago. Minnesota’s defense led the charge, holding Northwestern to 17 points and forcing three turnovers. James Manuel’s pick six in the third quarter helped cover up for a weak offensive effort.

6. Northwestern (4-3, 0-3) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Minnesota 20-17 This Week: Saturday at Iowa (4-3, 1-2), 12pm, BTN

Things have spiraled out of control for Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats after entering the conference schedule with more promise than any other season in recent memory. Northwestern let Minnesota get away with 89 yards of penalties and a 4-of-13 third down conversion rate. Three losses has pushed this team way out of contention for the conference championship, and it will have to overcome the disappointment to become any kind of threat to the rest of the division in 2013.

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Big Ten power rankings: Week 5

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013


1. Ohio State (5-0, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat #23 Wisconsin 31-24 This Week: Saturday at #16 Northwestern (4-0), 8pm, ABC

Braxton Miller’s return to the offense was a seamless transition against Wisconsin, which allowed four touchdown passes to the junior quarterback. Urban Meyer has installed his go-for-it-all every play style of offense and Miller embraced that; launching deep balls seemingly every other play. Fortunately his wide receivers are far more athletic than Wisconsin’s secondary and this strategy paid off. Ohio State has now knocked off their only competitor in the Leaders Division and can basically coast to Indianapolis barring losses in both Chicago and Ann Arbor.

2. Wisconsin (3-2, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Lost to #4 Ohio State 31-24 This Week: Bye (10/12 vs Northwestern)

Saturday was the best chance for the Badgers to win the Leaders Division. Now they will have to win out and get help from two Legends teams against Ohio State to have a chance at winning the conference. Wisconsin was resilient in Columbus, mounting a late run that made the final score look respectable, but their vaunted rushing attack was shut down and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis’s heroics weren’t enough to overcome it.

3. Illinois (3-1, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Miami Ohio 50-14 This Week: Saturday at Nebraska (3-1, 0-0), 12pm, ESPNU

Nathan Sheelhaase continued to dominate the preconference schedule Saturday, throwing as many touchdowns (five) as incomplete passes (19/24). Illinois recorded 601 yards of total offense; 289 on the ground and 312 through the air. This balanced attack makes them a scary matchup for defenses, but unfortunately the Illini will have trouble keeping Big Ten teams out of the end zone.

4. Penn State (3-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday at Indiana (2-2, 0-0), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Though the Nittany Lions were idle in week four, their loss to Central Florida looks a little more acceptable after the Knights pushed No. 12 South Carolina to the brink on national television.  The NCAA also announced that Penn State would have some of their scholarships restored early as a sign that changes had already begun to take place within the football program.

5. Indiana (2-2, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday vs Penn State (3-1, 0-0), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Indiana didn’t get a chance to add to their top-10 passing total last week as they joined the majority of the Big Ten in a bye week. When the Hoosiers welcome Penn State to town Saturday expect quarterback Nate Sudfeld to come out firing. Indiana will simply have to win six shootouts this season to get to a bowl game.

6. Purdue (1-4, 0-1) – Even
Last Week: Lost to N. Illinois 55-24 This Week: Bye (10/12 vs Nebraska)

If there were a way to drop Purdue to seventh in these rankings it would be a done deal. The 1-4 Boilermakers were embarrassed in West Lafayette in week five, losing to the pride of the MAC 55-24. Northern Illinois completed its nonconference domination of the Big Ten by breaking Iowa’s heart in week one and rolling Purdue on Saturday. Purdue’s schedule might not have another win on it.

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1. Northwestern (4-0, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday vs #4 Ohio State (5-0, 1-0), 8pm, ABC

Pat Fitzgerald couldn’t have asked for a more conveniently placed bye week as he tries to figure out a way to slow down the No. 4 Buckeyes. The next two weeks will be crucial for the promising Wildcats as they face the top two teams in the Leaders Division. If Northwestern can take down Ohio State on Saturday they could move into the country’s top 10.

2. Iowa (4-1, 1-0) – Up 4
Last Week: Beat Minnesota 23-7 This Week: Saturday vs Michigan State (3-1), 12pm, ESPN2

Though it was against an unproven Minnesota team, Iowa did something that can often be difficult in the Big Ten: win a road game. Following a devastating loss to Northern Illinois to start the season, the Hawkeyes have won four straight games and completely dominated a previously undefeated Gopher team. Minnesota finished the game with just 165 total yards, 30 of them on the ground. Iowa allowed just 1.1 yards per rush and picked off Philip Nelson two times. With a top-20 defense in the country, Iowa has reestablished itself as a dangerous team in the division.

3. Michigan State (3-1, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday at Iowa (4-1, 1-0), 12pm, ESPN2

The Spartans are exactly who we thought they were. Heading into the conference slate, they boast one of the top defenses in the nation at 13.3 points allowed per game and struggle with offensive inconsistency. The offensive explosion against Youngstown State was proven to be a fluke when Notre Dame held Michigan State to just 13 points in week four.

4. Michigan (4-0, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday vs Minnesota (4-1, 0-1), 3:30pm, ABC

Unfortunately for the Wolverines, a win that looked so good at the time is beginning to lose some of its glamour. After two tough wins against inferior opponents, the last thing Michigan needed was for Notre Dame to drop out of the top 25, but that’s exactly what the Fighting Irish did after their home loss to No. 14 Oklahoma on Saturday. Michigan still has the highest ceiling in the Legends Division, and their tendency to play to the level of their competition gives them a chance to win any game, but consistency needs to prevail. Brady Hoke is undefeated in the Big House since taking over as the top dog in Ann Arbor, and maybe the bye week will help his team get back on track.

5. Nebraska (3-1, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday vs Illinois (3-1, 0-0), 12pm, ESPNU

Nebraska has a chance to get their defense solidified early in Big Ten play, as their first three opponents are Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota. A formidable rushing attack that has helped the Cornhuskers put up 43.3 points per game so far will allow them to control the clock and avoid turnovers. If the defense can improve (currently 75th nationally) then Nebraska could find itself back in Indianapolis this December.

6. Minnesota (4-1, 0-1) – Down 4
Last Week: Lost to Iowa 23-7 This Week: Saturday at #19 Michigan (4-0), 3:30pm, ABC

Everyone knew the streak had to end sometime for the 4-0 Golden Gophers, but the way Iowa completely halted the Minnesota rushing attack was shocking. An offense that was averaging over 280 yards per game on the ground was held to just 30 on Saturday. Jerry Kill is probably realizing that Big Ten defenses aren’t as porous as those of San Jose State, Western Illinois, New Mexico State and UNLV. If this is a sign of things to come for Minnesota, it’s going to be a long conference season.

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Half of the conference was inactive during week five, but the teams that did play provided little in terms of surprises. Ohio State proved they’re the team to beat in the Leaders Division while Wisconsin played ugly and managed to hang around as they always do. Purdue and Minnesota established themselves as distinct underdogs with embarrassing performances and Iowa jumped back into the mix with a scary rushing attack and stingy defense.

Next week will be much more interesting as Iowa hosts Michigan State and the Buckeyes travel to Chicago.  Minnesota will be the third straight opponent that Michigan expects to blow out as the Wolverines frantically try to create an identity before entering the hostile boundaries of Happy Valley in week seven.

Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin will be the teams that determine the strength of the conference as a whole in 2013. Ohio State will be a national contender, and if two of these four teams can add themselves to the mix then it will help regain the Big Ten’s reputation as a top power conference. The Legends Division race should be fun to watch; it seems to be wide open thus far. In contrast, anyone but the Buckeyes winning in the Leaders Division would be a surprise, and their game in Ann Arbor on November 30th could be the final audition for a trip to Indianapolis or Pasadena. No matter what Michigan does in the weeks leading up to The Game, the Maize and Blue will be tough to beat in the Big House, where they haven’t lost under Head Coach Brady Hoke.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 4

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013


1. Ohio State (4-0, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Florida A&M 76-0 This Week: Saturday vs #23 Wisconsin (3-1), 8pm, ABC

Does Ohio State have a quarterback controversy? Unbelievably, Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller may be in a fight for his job after Kenny Guiton’s performance Saturday against the lowly Florida A&M Rattlers. The senior threw for a school record six touchdowns on Saturday, and the Buckeyes won by a score of 76-0. This team has firmly established itself as the squad to beat in the Big Ten so far.

2. Wisconsin (3-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Purdue 41-10 This Week: Saturday at #4 Ohio State (4-0), 8pm, ABC

Wisconsin was the first team in the Big Ten to get a conference win when they throttled Purdue on Saturday. The Badgers failed to have three 100-yard rushers in this game, but made up for it by picking up a total of 388 yards on the ground. At 7.5 yards per carry, the Wisconsin rushing game allowed the offense to dominate the time of possession and run Purdue right out of Madison. Though all five touchdowns were on the ground, Joel Stave was efficient in the passing game going 12-for-19 for 183 yards. This team should be undefeated, and has the best chance to unseat the Buckeyes, and they will attempt to do so this weekend in Columbus.

3. Penn State (3-1, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Kent State 34-0 This Week: Bye (Sat. 10/5 at Indiana)

Christian Hackenberg finally had a bad game for Penn State, going 13-for-35 and only one touchdown. Even with the freshman’s struggles, the Nittany Lions dominated Kent State 34-0 and go into conference play boasting a strong defense and riding on the coattail of a talented freshman quarterback. Teams traveling to Happy Valley will have their work cut out for them even though Penn State can’t win the conference in 2013.

4. Illinois (2-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday vs Miami OH (0-3), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Being idle during week four wasn’t the worst thing in the world for a Big Ten week this season. Illinois didn’t join the teams that struggled for the conference this week, as they used their first bye week to prepare for Miami (OH) this Saturday. The Fighting Illini are 2-1 with a loss to Washington and will ride the arm of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase this season because of a weak defense and questionable rushing attack.

5. Indiana (2-2, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Missouri 45-28 This Week: Bye (10/5 vs Penn State)

The Hoosiers got trounced by Missouri at home this week, as the defense continued to give up yards on the ground. Mizzou rushed for 280 yards and the potent Indiana offense couldn’t get on the field enough to keep the team in the game. Unfortunately for Indiana, this game revealed the perfect game plan for their defeat: run the ball and let the clock run to keep the ball away from their offense. With a sieve of a defense, Indiana stands basically no chance to win more than a few Big Ten games.

6. Purdue (1-3, 0-1) – Even
Last Week: Lost to #24 Wisconsin 41-10 This Week: Saturday vs N. Illinois (3-0), 12pm, ESPN2

Fresh off a strong showing in its loss to Notre Dame, Purdue reverted to old ways on Saturday and dropped the Big Ten opener to Wisconsin. The Boilermakers gained just 180 total yards and one touchdown. Running back Rob Henry had the 22-yard touchdown run, yet still managed to finish the game with seven carries and zero total yards. Things could get even uglier for Purdue during the conference schedule following a 1-3 start. They will take on a Northern Illinois team that beat Iowa earlier in the year in their final preconference game this Saturday.

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1. Northwestern (4-0, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Maine 35-12 This Week: Bye (10/5 vs #4 Ohio State)

Maine gave Northwestern more than they bargained for on Saturday, as the previously-undefeated Black Bears outgained Pat Fitzgerald’s team in total yardage. Two defensive touchdowns saved the Wildcats, as Damien Proby and Dean Lowry each returned interceptions for touchdowns. Northwestern’s offense was incredibly one-dimensional as they ran the ball 49 times and threw only 17 passes while still losing the time of possession battle. This team enters Big Ten season as the highest-ranked Legends team in the polls and should be considered the favorite based solely on preconference play.

2. Minnesota (4-0, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat San Jose State 43-24 This Week: Saturday vs Iowa (3-1), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

While by no means should fans consider Minnesota a real threat to win the Legends Division, they were the second-strongest team during non-conference play, winning games by an average of 21.75 points and absolutely dominating in the running game. Minnesota’s most recent game against San Jose State was a prime example of how proficient they have been on the ground, as they gained over 350 yards on 67 attempts. If Minnesota finds semblance of a passing threat, they could be very pesky in the Big Ten.

3. Michigan (4-0, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Beat UConn 24-21 This Week: Bye (10/5 vs Minnesota)

The Maize and Blue have a very important question to answer during the next two weeks before their conference opener: who are they? The team has dropped in the polls two straight weeks after scares against Akron and Connecticut, two of the worst teams in the country. But does this really mean that Michigan can’t contend for a conference championship? So far, the Wolverines have played to the level of their competition in almost every contest, which means that although some wins may look ugly, they can’t be counted out of any game. Brady Hoke needs to find a way to help the offensive line, which not only has trouble keeping quarterback Devin Gardner protected but also can’t open up any holes for the running game. One the other side of the trenches, the defensive line will have a hard time getting into Big Ten backfields after struggling to do so against Akron and for the majority of the game in Connecticut.

4. Michigan State (3-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to #22 Notre Dame 17-13 This Week: Bye (10/5 at Iowa)

Despite looking offensively inept for the first two weeks of the season, Michigan State has looked strong two weeks in a row. Last Saturday they dropped 55 points on Youngstown State and this weekend they proved that their defense is legit. In their first real contest, the Spartans held Notre Dame to 17 points and made a statement that they will be a tough opponent in the Big Ten. If this team can support the defense with even a slightly below-average offense then it could have a chance to play Ohio State in Indianapolis this December.

5. Minnesota (3-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Beat San Diego State 59-20 This Week: Bye (10/5 vs Illinois)

Following a tough home loss to UCLA, Nebraska bounced back to roll South Dakota State 59-20. The Cornhuskers showcased their potent balanced offense by gaining over 300 yards both on the ground and through the air. Ameer Abdullah lead the charge on Saturday, rushing for 139 yards, one touchdown and an average of over nine yards per carry.

6. Iowa (3-1, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Western Michigan 59-3 This Week: Saturday at Minnesota (4-0), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

The Hawkeyes have now won three games in a row to establish themselves before conference play. This weekend, Iowa got huge contributions from B.J. Lowery and Kevonte Martin-Manley. Lowery had two interceptions and returned them both for touchdowns while Martin-Manley returned two punts for touchdowns in under a minute! Obviously these types of contributions are unlikely to happen very often, but the past few weeks have restored confidence to a program that expects to play spoiler in the Big Ten.

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Most of the nonconference games are over in the Big Ten with the exception of a few teams that have one more remaining. It was a rough year for the conference as a whole, as only four teams remain undefeated. Wisconsin fans will argue that they should have beaten Arizona State, which is probably true, but many teams showed that their preseason rankings were far too high. Nebraska lost a tough game against UCLA at home, but it was the 38 straight points they gave up that made it look so bad. Teams like Indiana, Illinois, Purdue and Iowa look weak this year and take away from the depth that the conference can usually boast, while Minnesota and Penn State remain relatively unproven.

Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin will be the teams that determine the strength of the conference as a whole in 2013. Ohio State will be a national contender, and if two of these four teams can add themselves to the mix then it will help regain the Big Ten’s reputation as a top power conference. The Legends Division race should be fun to watch; it seems to be wide open thus far. In contrast, anyone but the Buckeyes winning in the Leaders Division would be a surprise, and their game in Ann Arbor on November 30th could be the final audition for a trip to Indianapolis or Pasadena. No matter what Michigan does in the weeks leading up to The Game, the Maize and Blue will be tough to beat in the Big House, where they haven’t lost under Head Coach Brady Hoke.