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Posts Tagged ‘Venric Mark’

Big Ten power rankings: Week 1

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014


Power Rankings_header

Week 1 could have been an outstanding start for a conference that really needs a lift. Rutgers, perhaps the worst team in the league, kicked the season off with a road victory against Washington State, and Wisconsin held a 24-7 lead over LSU in the third quarter.

Unfortunately, a couple games went south. Northwestern couldn’t hold on against California and Wisconsin hit a brick wall, handing the league a deceptive 12-2 start to the 2014 campaign. The league did pick up a few quality wins: Penn State beat UCF, the defending Fiesta Bowl champions; Ohio State beat a solid Navy team; and Rutgers picked up a road win. But the Big Ten is fighting an uphill battle to regain some respect, and another loss to the SEC won’t help the conference gain any ground.

The East Division certainly looks to be the stronger half of the Big Ten, as all seven teams took care of business to open the season. Here are the power rankings after the first week of college football.

East Division
1. Michigan State – Even
Last Week: Beat Jacksonville St 45-7 This Week: Sat. at #3 Oregon 6:30pm, FOX

If there were any questions about Michigan State’s defense after it lost Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, the Spartans took the first step toward answering them on Friday. Mark Dantonio’s team shut down the Gamecocks, allowing just one score. If fans think the performance was a fluke, a nationally-televised test against Oregon on Saturday should settle the matter.

2. Michigan – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Appalachian St 52-14 This Week: Sat at #16 Notre Dame, 7:30pm, NBC

The most important takeaway for Michigan at the start of 2014 was the improvement of an absolutely porous offensive line from a year ago. On Saturday the offense not only looked strong up front, it rushed for 350 yards, including over 100 each for Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith. Appalachian State’s defense may not be the best measuring stone, but Michigan running backs never averaged more than 10 yards per carry in a game last year. In week 1, both sophomores blew that number out of the water.

3. Penn State – Up 1
Last Week: Beat UCF 26-24 This Week: Sat. vs Akron, 12pm, ABC/ESPN2

When Penn State scheduled a game against Central Florida to begin the 2014 season, the team never imagined it would match up with a school coming off a Fiesta Bowl championship. But a last-second field goal gave the Nittany Lions a 26-24 win in Ireland and the most impressive showing for the conference last week.

4. Ohio State – Down 2
Last Week: Beat Navy 34-17 This Week: Sat. vs Virginia Tech, 8pm, ESPN

Experts have already started making excuses for Ohio State. After a close call in Week 1, the Buckeyes were praised for fighting through adversity against an underrated Navy team. In reality, Ohio State is supposed to be the best team in the conference, and shouldn’t struggle with the Midshipmen, with or without Braxton Miller. The effort was reflected in the most recent rankings, in which OSU fell below Michigan State to No. 8 overall.

5. Rutgers – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Washington St. 41-38 This Week: Sat. vs Howard, 12pm, Big Ten Network

Rutgers was one of the few Big Ten teams to challenge itself during week 1, heading across the country to battle Washington State. A balanced offensive attack helped the Scarlett Knights hang on for a 41-38 victory in their first game as a Big Ten school.

6. Indiana – Down 1
Last Week: Beat Indiana St. 28-10 This Week: Bye (9/13 at Bowling Green)

The Hoosiers put on a rushing show against Indiana State on Saturday, posting 455 yards on the ground and only attempting 18 passes. The electric offense seems to have returned from a year ago, but the defense will have to improve to help Indiana compete during Big Ten play.

7. Maryland – Down 2
Last Week: Beat James Madison 52-7 This Week: Sat. at South Florida, 3:30pm, CBS Sports Network

Maryland put on an impressive offensive show Saturday, scoring 52 points against James Madison. Fans won’t really know what to expect of Maryland until week 6, when it gets its first challenge against Ohio State.

West Division
1. Nebraska – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Florida Atlantic 55-7 This Week: Sat. vs McNeese State, 12pm, ESPNU

Florida Atlantic didn’t provide a huge test for Nebraska on Saturday, but the Cornhuskers still impressed by rushing for 498 yards and scoring a league-high 55 points. During a week in which much of the division struggled, Nebraska took care of business and landed in the top spot.

2. Minnesota – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Eastern Illinois 42-20 This Week: Sat. vs Middle Tennessee, 3:30pm, Big Ten Network

One year after breaking out for eight wins, Minnesota can keep the momentum rolling with four wins before the start of the Big Ten season. The Gophers cruised to a 22-point win in Week 1, despite a mediocre performance in the passing game.

3. Purdue – Up 4
Last Week: Beat Western Michigan 43-34 This Week: Sat. vs Central Michigan, 12pm, ESPNews

How did Purdue land in the top three of the West Division? Two Big Ten teams lost in Week 1 and two more struggled with FCS opponents. Meanwhile, the Boilermakers tied their win total from last season with a victory over Western Michigan.

4. Wisconsin – Down 3
Last Week: Lost to #13 LSU 24-28 This Week: Sat. vs Western Illinois, 12pm, Big Ten Network

Fans in Madison have to be pulling their hair out in frustration after the Badgers blew a 17-point halftime lead to LSU. Wisconsin faces just one more ranked opponent this season when Nebraska comes to town, but visions of an undefeated season vanished with the collapse.

5. Iowa – Down 3
Last Week: Beat Northern Iowa 31-23 This Week: Sat. vs Ball State, 3:30pm, ESPN2

Iowa is favored by many to be the stiffest competition to Wisconsin in the West Division. But the Hawkeyes were underwhelming in Week 1, struggling to take care of the lowly Northern Iowa Panthers at home. Luckily, Iowa escaped with a win, but a defense that surrendered 23 points will have to figure things out before the conference season starts.

6. Illinois – Even
Last Week: Beat Youngstown St. 28-17 This Week: Sat. vs Western Kentucky, 12pm, Big Ten Network

Illinois also struggled with a FCS opponent, beating Youngstown State 28-17. If the offense can only rush for 78 yards against this type of competition, then the Fighting Illini stand little chance against talented Big Ten defenses.

7. Northwestern – Down 4
Last Week: Lost to Cal 24-31 This Week: Sat. vs Northern Illinois, 3:30pm, Big Ten Network

Another season got off to a disappointing start in Evanston Saturday, when Northwestern dropped the opening game to California 31-24. Coach Pat Fitzgerald felt the absence of Venric Mark right off the bat, as his offense rushed for just 108 yards.

Big Ten power rankings: Preseason

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014


Power Rankings_header

Three days from now we’ll be settling into our seats at the Big House or our favorite couch or chair getting ready to watch the Maize and Blue run out of the tunnel, leap up and touch the banner, and begin their quest toward a Big Ten championship. The bad news is that we all still have to make it through three more days. Welcome to our first Big Ten Power Rankings of the season, where we rank each team in the conference. Since no games have been played yet, this week’s power rankings are essentially predictions of where each team should be ranked. Beginning next week, and continuing throughout the season, the power rankings will be reflective of each team’s performance in the game(s) they have played.

As the dawn of college football season draws ever nearer, the Big Ten finds itself facing low expectations once again. Largely considered a three-team league, the Big Ten suffered a huge blow with the news that Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller would miss the entire 2014 campaign.

Now, teams on the brink of breaking through have to step up and help the Big Ten resurface as a power conference. Gone are the days when the automatic bid to the Rose Bowl would give the Big Ten a chance to shine on the national stage, because now the four-team playoff will act as the means by which conference strength is measured. Teams like Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan have to take that next step and give the conference the boost it needs to send a representative into that playoff.

If the Big Ten gets left out of the playoff this season, it will set the tone for a format that figures to rule the sport for the foreseeable future. At least six teams have a realistic shot at winning the Big Ten, and the conference needs each of them to perform in 2014.

East Division
1. Michigan State
Last Week: N/A This Week: Friday vs Jacksonville State, 7:30pm, BTN

The defending Big Ten champions became heavy favorites to repeat in 2014 after Ohio State’s Braxton Miller went down for the season. Michigan State lost plenty of talent to the NFL, but that defense still figures to be the best in the league.

2. Ohio State
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Navy, 12pm, CBS Sports Network

Miller’s season-ending injury put a damper on Ohio State’s championship aspirations, but Urban Meyer’s team is still strong enough to compete for the first Big Ten East Division championship. The Nov. 8 game in East Lansing is the biggest speed bump on the Buckeyes’ road to Indianapolis.

3. Michigan
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs. Appalachian State, 12pm, ESPN2

If Michigan finishes outside the top three in the division, then things need to change in Ann Arbor. Four straight years of strong recruiting has left Brady Hoke with a talented enough roster to win nine or more games. An underrated defense should give Michigan a chance in all 12 games.

4. Penn State
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs UCF, 8:30am, ESPN2

The Nittany Lions still can’t play in a bowl game this season, but new head coach James Franklin managed to hang on to talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg and a team that won seven games last year. Penn State could make a big splash in the standings on Oct. 25 when Ohio State visits Happy Valley, one of the hardest places for visiting teams to win at night.

5. Indiana
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Indiana State, 12pm, ESPNews

Much like they were last year, the Hoosiers are expected to be a group led by an elite offense. Unfortunately, the Big Ten is a difficult conference to win without a strong defense, and the Hoosiers gave up 38.8 points per game last season, good for 117th in college football.

6. Maryland
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs James Madison, 3:30pm, BTN

Maryland joins the Big Ten after a mediocre 7-6 record in the ACC last year. The Terrapins’ 85th-ranked offense will have a tough time scoring enough points in the Big Ten against defenses like that of Michigan State and Michigan, so don’t expect Maryland to compete for a division title in year one.

7. Rutgers
Last Week: N/A This Week: Thursday at Washington State, 10pm, FoxSports1

A 2-6 finish to the 2013 season will set the tone for Rutgers’ first season in the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lost six games by double digits last year during an average year in the ACC, so the powerful Big Ten East could be a rude awakening in 2014.

West Division
1. Wisconsin
Last Week: This Week: Saturday vs LSU, 9pm, ESPN

With Ohio State moving over to the East Division, Wisconsin sits firmly in the driver’s seat to represent the West in Indy this year. Melvin Gordon became the top Heisman candidate in the Big Ten after Miller’s injury and should lead a prototypical Wisconsin running attack that will tear apart opposing defenses.

2. Iowa
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Northern Iowa, 12pm, BTN

Iowa played good enough defense in 2013 to win the Big Ten and play in the Rose Bowl, but an inconsistent offense held the team to an 8-5 overall record. If the Hawkeyes post another top-10 defensive effort this season, they could find themselves matching up with Michigan State in Indianapolis in a low-scoring game.

3. Northwestern
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Cal, 3:30pm, ABC

Every season Northwestern looks primed for a breakout, but this year their talent is nowhere near the level of teams like Wisconsin or Iowa. The Wildcats lost four games by one possession last season, so they were close to living up to the preseason hype. But the loss of Venric Mark and a tough conference schedule will make things tough on Northwestern this year.

4. Nebraska
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Florida Atlantic, 3:30pm, BTN

The nation is expecting big things out of Nebraska after finishing a disappointing finish to the conference season last year. If this offense can rush for over 200 yards per game again this season, it has a chance to put the Cornhuskers in the hunt for the title.

5. Minnesota
Last Week: N/A This Week: Thursday vs Eastern Illinois, 7pm, BTN

Minnesota was one of the quietest surprises in the country last season, starting 8-2 before three hard-fought losses to end the year. This season will be a real test for the Gophers as they try to build off of what they started in 2013 and break a decade-long streak of irrelevance.

6. Illinois
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday at Youngstown State, 12:05pm, BTN

It could be another tough year for Illinois after finishing 4-8 with just one conference win last season. After a nonconference schedule that features three easy wins, the Fighting Illini will only be favored in one conference game: at home against the Purdue team they beat in 2013.

7. Purdue
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Western Michigan, 12pm, ESPNU

2013 was an abomination for Purdue, as it went 1-11 with a six-point victory over a division 1-AA opponent. Illinois was the only team that Purdue was within 10 points of beating. It won’t get any easier for the Boilermakers in conference this year.

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.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Running backs (part one)

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-RB

Last week, we introduced Maize and Go Blue’s series that will rank the best Big Ten football players at each position in 2014. Each week until Michigan’s season opener in late August, one position will be previewed. The analysis provided will be thorough and in-depth, not just a brief summary, so each position preview will be split into two parts. I kicked off the series last week by ranking the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. If you missed it, you can catch up with Part One and Two here. This week, I take a look at the quarterbacks’ buddies in the backfield: the running backs.

10. Mark Weisman, Iowa | 5th-yr Senior – 6’0”, 240 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 975 4.3 8 75.0 41 0
2012 815 5.1 8 81.5 90 1
2011 0 0 0 NA 0 0
Career Totals 1,790 4.6 16 77.8 131 1
(Iowa Athletic Communications)

(Iowa Athletic Communications)

The Big Ten will have a deep stable of running backs this upcoming season, making the cuts for this list particularly difficult. One running back that was a candidate for this spot was Rutgers’ Paul James. In 10 games last year, James earned 156 carries for 881 yards, an above average 5.65 yards per carry, and nine touchdowns. James actually was well on his way to a much better season, rushing for 573 yards and six touchdowns in his first four games, before missing several weeks with a leg injury. James is a back who can raise eyebrows in his Big Ten debut, but health concerns and a lackluster Rutgers offensive line kept him off the list.

This created a duel for the final spot between Iowa’s Mark Weisman and Penn State’s Zach Zwinak. Weisman and Zwinak had very similar numbers last season. Weisman posted 226 carries for 974 yards—4.31 yards per carry—and eight touchdowns, while Zwinak had 210 carries for 989 yards—4.71 yards per carry—and eight touchdowns. Not only were their statistics similar, their running styles are similar, too. Both are built like fullbacks, listed at 6’0” or 6’1” and 240 pounds. Both compensate for their lack of agility and lateral quickness with their strength and ability to push the pile forward consistently. Neither has the breakaway speed to be a touchdown threat on any given play, but they are scoring machines once they are in the red zone. All 20 of their combined touchdown runs last year were no longer than 12 yards. They are bulldozers. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Despite having fewer rushing yards, yards per carry, and touchdowns than Zwinak in 2013, Weisman has the edge here in 2014. Weisman always starts the season on a strong note. In 2012, he totaled 98 carries for 623 yards, 6.36 yards per carry, and eight touchdowns in his first four games of extensive action. The next year, in the first five contests of the season, he recorded 119 carries for 615 yards, 5.17 yards per carry, and three touchdowns. Early in the season, Weisman is at full strength and uses his power to punish defenses.

However, Weisman was unable to maintain his power throughout the course of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. After the first four to five games of each season, his carries began to have diminishing returns. In 2012, Weisman produced only 3.12 yards per carry in Iowa’s final six games, two of which he missed due to an ankle injury. In 2013, Weisman managed only 3.36 yards per carry in the Hawkeyes’ final eight contests. His body could not handle the sustained beatings he took week in and week out, and wore out by the end of the year. For Weisman to remain effective for an entire season, he must share the load.

Weisman finally will have that opportunity. For the first time in what feels like an eternity, Iowa has a talented and, most importantly, healthy corps of running backs. Fellow Iowa backs Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock will take much of the pressure off of Weisman. This may mean fewer carries for Weisman, but he will be as much of an effective bruiser at the end of the season as he generally is at the start. This will not drop Weisman below Zwinak on this list either because Zwinak also shares carries with two other running backs at Penn State. Additionally, Zwinak will be lined up behind an offensive line with only one returning starter, while Weisman will be lined up behind arguably the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman in Brandon Scherff. Then, once Iowa’s commitment to pounding the rock under head coach Kirk Ferentz is considered, all signs point to Weisman having his best season yet in Iowa City.

9. Corey Clement, Wisconsin | Sophomore – 5’11”, 210 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 547 8.2 7 68.4 9 0
Career Totals 547 8.2 7 68.4 9 0
(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

There are very few places in the nation where a second-string running back can produce a 1,000-rushing-yard season, but one of those places certainly is Wisconsin. Since 2009, only four times has a school had two running backs each gain 1,000 yards on the ground. To be clear, this is not two 1,000-yard rushers, but two 1,000-yard running backs. Quarterbacks are excluded. Of those four times, Wisconsin is the only school to achieve the feat twice, doing it in 2010 and 2013, while Alabama and Kent State both accomplished it in 2012. Further, in 2010, Wisconsin was only four yards away from having a third running back top 1,000 yards. Absurd. With the evolution of the read-option and advanced passing schemes, this type of production from the depths of the running back position nearly is extinct in this day and age. Currently, there are only two locations where it remains alive and well. One is Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The other is Madison, Wisconsin.

In the offseason, last year’s starting running back, James White, graduated, taking his 221 carries, 1,444 rushing yards, and 13 rushing touchdowns with him. Accordingly, Melvin Gordon, whom we will discuss a bit later on this list, was promoted from second string to the top of the depth chart. Given Wisconsin’s inclination to run the football and even feed the backup tailbacks, there are about 125 to 175 carries available for the Badgers’ second-string running back this fall. Enter: Corey Clement.

Last season, as a true freshman, Clement capitalized on the few touches he received as Wisconsin’s third-string running back by showcasing his speed and big-play ability. Despite toting the rock only 67 times in 11 games, he still gained 547 yards. In fact, Clement’s 8.16 yards per carry were the best in the Big Ten among players who averaged a minimum of four rush attempts per game played. Additionally, Clement crossed the goal line seven times for touchdowns. His touchdown rate of 10.45 percent was the second-best in the conference among those who averaged four carries per game played, behind only Nebraska’s Imani Cross. Do not forget that Clement did all of this with only 67 carries. Imagine what he can do with 100 more carries behind an offensive line that returns four starters.

Yet, despite this glowing report and the situation Clement will enter in 2014, he is only No. 9 in these rankings. Why? His 547 rushing yards and 8.16 yards per carry are a mirage to a certain extent. He received almost all of his carries when Wisconsin already had secured a victory. Of Clement’s 67 carries last season, 65 were in the second half and 64 were when Wisconsin led by no less than 15 points. At that point, the opposing defense had either little left to fight for or had substituted in the second-stringers. Clement has yet to prove he can be effective against a first-string defense in a competitive contest. If he cannot, Wisconsin will not feel pressured to continue to feed him the ball regularly. Instead, those carries will be allocated to Gordon. This is why Clement sits so low on this list, even though he likely will be part of the third Wisconsin running back duo in the past five seasons to have each member rush for 1,000 yards in the same year.

8. Josh Ferguson, Illinois | RS Junior – 5’10”, 195 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 779 5.5 7 64.9 535 4
2012 312 4.2 0 31.2 251 0
2011 52 3.7 0 17.3 14 0
Career Totals 1,143 5.0 7 45.7 800 4
(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

If there is one running back that has been unfairly left off of multiple preseason All-Big Ten lists or Big Ten running back rankings, it is Illinois’ Josh Ferguson. He is one of the best all-around running backs in the conference, and, yet, no one seems to notice. The reasons for his exclusion are not difficult to decipher. Illinois had the third-worst rushing offense in the Big Ten last season, averaging only 139 yards per game and 4.06 yards per carry. Naturally, as the starting running back, much of the blame for these woes is shifted to Ferguson. His 779 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns are viewed as not being enough for Illinois to have a successful ground game. Fans and media alike want to see Ferguson up those rushing statistics before they consider him to be one of the better Big Ten running backs.

However, Ferguson’s rushing totals are down not because he was ineffective, but because he had so few opportunities to run the football. Last year, Illinois was one of only three Big Ten teams that attempted more passes than runs. Naturally, Ferguson did not have as many carries as the other starting tailbacks in the Big Ten. In fact, Ferguson’s average of 11.75 carries per game was the second-fewest among starting running backs in the conference. Yet, he performed very well when given the opportunity. Ferguson’s 5.52 yards per carry was more than solid and the eighth-best among Big Ten players with a minimum of 100 carries last year. Ferguson actually was the one bright spot in Illinois’ ground game in 2013. The reasons why Illinois struggled running the ball were its reliance on the pass and then-starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase earning the second-most carries on the team despite averaging only 2.40 yards per carry. Ferguson does not deserve the blame here.

Further, not only is Ferguson much better at running the football than a quick glance at his numbers would indicate, he is by far the best receiving tailback in the conference. Last season, in offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s first year at Illinois, Ferguson led all Big Ten running backs in receptions (50), receiving yards (535), and receiving touchdowns (four). No other Big Ten running back approached those totals. The second-most catches by a Big Ten running back was 39; the second-most receiving yards by a Big Ten running back was 382. Ferguson is a completely different breed of running back.

Ferguson’s ability to make plays with both his feet and his hands propelled him to 1,314 yards from scrimmage, 6.88 yards per carry or reception, and 11 total touchdowns last season. These are the statistics that one of the best running backs in the Big Ten produces. Expect him to do it again in Year 2 of Cubit’s passing spread offense. Not only will Ferguson continue to catch three to six passes out of the backfield every week, he will see more carries, too. No longer will Ferguson need to worry about his quarterback cannibalizing his rush attempts. With pocket passer Wes Lunt replacing the graduated Scheelhaase, Scheelhaase’s carries will be given to Ferguson, not Lunt. These additional carries will give Ferguson the chance to generate 1,500 yards from scrimmage next season. Ferguson would be one of the best playmakers in the Big Ten, even if he does it a bit differently than his running back-brethren.

7. David Cobb, Minnesota | Senior – 5’11”, 225 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 1,202 5.1 7 92.5 174 0
2012 8 8.0 0 8.0 3 0
2011 57 5.7 0 19.0 0 0
Career Totals 1,267 5.1 7 74.5 177 0
(Hannah Foslien, Getty Images)

(Hannah Foslien, Getty Images)

Entering the 2013 season, David Cobb was an unknown commodity. In high school, Cobb was an unheralded recruit to say the least. According to 247’s Composite Rankings for the 2011 class, he was ranked outside the top 1,000 nationally and the No. 72 running back. With these (lack of) recruiting accolades, very little was expected of Cobb once he arrived on campus at Minnesota. And Cobb produced very little in his first two seasons, running the ball only 11 times for 65 yards and zero touchdowns. Cobb seemed to be a running back who would ride the pine most of his career except during garbage time.

However, when Minnesota’s starting running back  Donnell Kirkwood went down with an ankle injury in the season opener, it gave Cobb the opportunity to share meaningful snaps with second-string running back Rodrick Williams, Jr. Cobb capitalized on the opportunity and slowly began to assert himself as the best tailback on the roster. By the second half of the season, Cobb was Minnesota’s go-to back, earning no less than 17 carries in each of the Gophers’ final seven games. During that seven-game stretch, he had 169 carries for 828 yards, 4.90 yards per carry, and two touchdowns, and posted five games with 100 yards rushing. Cobb did not do it with speed, but with a physical running style that slammed away three to six yards at a time. By the later stages of games, defenses were worn out, as his yards per carry jumped from 4.40 in the first half to 5.69 in the second half. With this surge in the second half of the season, Cobb finished with 237 carries, 1,202 rushing yards, and seven touchdowns, and became Minnesota’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Amir Pinnix in 2006.

Cobb is no longer an unknown commodity. He now is one of the better tailbacks in the Big Ten and will have a splendid chance to duplicate last season’s performance. Minnesota has established an offensive identity under head coach Jerry Kill that it will pound the football, pound the football, and pound it some more. This will not change next year. In the offseason, quarterback Philip Nelson transferred to Rutgers, where he then was dismissed from the program due to legal troubles, thrusting Mitch Leidner into the starting role. Leidner is a rudimentary passer, but a skilled runner for a quarterback. Working behind an offensive line that loses only one starter from last year, the Gophers will once again rely on Cobb and Leidner to carry the offense each week. Although there is the possibility that Cobb will have less room to work with because defenses will stack the box against Minnesota, Cobb’s running style still likely will allow him to churn out four to five yards each play en route to another 1,000-yard season.

6. Venric Mark, Northwestern | 5th-Yr Senior – 5’8”, 175 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 97 3.1 0 32.3 48 0
2012 1,366 6.0 12 105.1 104 1
2011 104 6.9 1 8.0 4 0
2010 63 7.9 0 4.8 43 0
Career Totals 1,630 5.8 13 38.8 199 1
(Dave Stephenson, Icon SMI)

(Dave Stephenson, Icon SMI)

There is no Big Ten running back more difficult to rank on this list than Venric Mark. There are rational arguments for him to be the second-best running back in the conference. There are also rational arguments for him not to even be in the top 10. Let me explain. In 2012, Mark put together a wonderful season. In 13 games played, he accumulated 226 carries for 1,366 yards, 6.04 yards per carry, and 12 rushing touchdowns. His 1,366 rushing yards were the third-most in the Big Ten that season. He also added 104 yards through the air and a receiving touchdown. Mark was a scatback that thrived in the read-option offense with Kain Colter and used his elusive speed to gain yards in a flash. Mark has proven that he has the ability to be an elite running back not only in the Big Ten, but also the nation.

However, it is unknown if we will ever see the 2012 version of Mark again. He was plagued with injuries all of last season that rendered him ineffective. A hamstring injury limited Mark in Northwestern’s season opener against California and forced him to miss the next three non-conference games. Mark then returned for the conference opener against Ohio State. But, one week later, he suffered a broken ankle against Wisconsin which sidelined him for the remainder of the 2013 season. Mark finished with only 97 rushing yards and lots of questions about his health for 2014. Because Mark sat out Northwestern’s spring practice to continue rehabbing his ankle, very few of those questions have been answered.

So where to rank Mark for 2014? Will he return from his injuries with a vengeance and take the Big Ten by storm like he did in 2012? Or will he still be hampered by the lower-body injuries he suffered in 2013? The odds are in Mark’s favor that he will be ready to go for Northwestern’s opener in Week 1. Yet, even if so, Mark will be splitting carries with Treyvon Green, who filled in for Mark last year with 736 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Green will not be relegated to the bench just because Mark is back. Plus, there will be less read-option for Mark with Trevor Siemian at quarterback. Mark will not have the same space to operate without the speedy Colter by his side and may see his production suffer consequently. All scenarios are realistic, so I split the difference and listed Mark at No. 6. Although it is hard to discount a player who was on the All-Big Ten second team in 2012, no player recovering from a serious ankle injury can be considered one of the top five tailbacks in this year’s Big Ten.

Part Two of Maize and Go Blue’s preview of the best Big Ten running backs in 2014 will be posted tomorrow. We will unveil the five top running backs in the conference. Which running back do you think will be No. 1? Do you agree or disagree with the ranks of the five running backs listed in Part One? Do you think a Michigan running back will be in the top five? Do you think a Michigan running back should be in the top 10? Please let us know in the comments.

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 6

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013


1. Ohio State (6-0, 2-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat #16 Northwestern 40-30 This Week: Bye (10/19 vs Iowa)

Carlos Hyde and the Buckeyes earned their top-five ranking on Saturday by storming into Chicago and beating Northwestern 40-30 on national television. In potentially the biggest game in recent program history, the Wildcats shut down star quarterback Braxton Miller but couldn’t quiet the Ohio State running game. Hyde showed how dangerous the balanced Buckeye offense can be by rushing for 168 yards and three touchdowns. Though the defense gave up over 400 total yards, Ohio State took care of a tough road challenge and remains the top team in the Leaders Division.

2. Wisconsin (3-2, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday vs #19 Northwestern (4-1, 0-1), 3:30pm, ABC

Following a loss in Columbus, Wisconsin had a bye week to prepare for Northwestern during week six. The 3-2 record is deceiving for the Badgers considering the manner in which they lost both games. Wisconsin was one final drive away from forcing overtime against Ohio State and the questionable clock management by officials cost them the game against Arizona State. Though the gap between the two is considerably large, Wisconsin seems to be the second-toughest team in the division.

3. Indiana (3-2, 1-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Penn State 44-24 This Week: Saturday at Michigan State (4-1, 1-0), 12pm, ESPN2

The Hoosiers had an impressive showing in their Big Ten opener, dropping 44 points and 486 yards on the Penn State defense. Indiana continues to showcase an explosive offense, controlling the ball for under 25 minutes yet managing to score on seven separate drives. Nate Sudfeld leads a formidable passing attack that put up 336 yards through the air on Saturday. The most welcome sight for Indiana fans was the 150 yards on the ground, which gave the offense a balanced attack through running back Tevin Coleman. In order to have a real chance to win the division, the Hoosiers will have to better control the clock and hide a porous defense.

4. Illinois (3-2, 0-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Nebraska 39-19 This Week: Bye (10/19 vs Wisconsin)

Illinois lost their conference opener to Nebraska by allowing well over 300 yards on the ground. With star quarterback Taylor Martinez sitting out, the Illini had a chance to challenge Nebraska on the road. Unfortunately, the defensive line forgot to show up. Ameer Abdullah shredded Illinois with 225 yards and two touchdowns on the ground and gave the rest of the Big Ten a nearly-full-proof template of how to dominate the Fighting Illini.

5. Penn State (3-2, 0-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Indiana 44-24 This Week: Saturday vs #18 Michigan (5-0, 1-0), 5pm, ESPN

It was a unique recipe for disaster in Indianapolis for Penn State: they dominated the time of possession, gained over 400 yards and their freshman quarterback had three touchdowns to zero interceptions. Alas, the Nittany Lions lost by 20 to Indiana. Penn State players already know they can’t go to a bowl game this season, and so far their play hasn’t been consistent enough to warrant one anyways.

6. Purdue (1-4, 0-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday vs Nebraska (4-1, 1-0), 12pm, Big Ten Network

The Boilermakers took a much needed hiatus Saturday after losing two straight games by 31 points. In week seven the drubbings should continue, however, as Purdue welcomes a hot Nebraska offense to West Lafayette.

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1. Michigan (5-0, 1-0) – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Minnesota 42-13 This Week: Saturday at Penn State (3-2, 0-1), 5pm, ESPN

The Wolverines shoot up the rankings after finally showing that the offensive line can produce a running game. Though the rushing numbers don’t jump out, the offense was consistently able to pick up first downs on the ground and avoid negative plays for the first time in 2013. As a result, quarterback Devin Gardner ended his nine-game interception streak and used play action and bootlegs to pick up two total touchdowns and complete 13 of 17 passes. If the defensive line can manage to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks Michigan will be in business.

2. Nebraska (4-1, 1-0) – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Illinois 39-19 This Week: Saturday at Purdue (1-4, 0-1), 12pm, Big Ten Network

The Cornhusker offense is the real deal. Similarly to when Kenny Guiton starred in Columbus, the Nebraska offense went off against Illinois with Taylor Martinez on the sideline. Ameer Abdullah allows Nebraska to control the trenches and the clock; which he showcased with over 200 rushing yards on Saturday. When Taylor Martinez returns to the field this offense is one of the best in the country.

3. Northwestern (4-1, 0-1) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to #4 Ohio State 40-30 This Week: Saturday at Wisconsin (3-2, 1-1), 3:30pm, ABC

Wildcat fans took a tough loss Saturday night with the eyes of the nation on Ryan Field. In the first half, Northwestern looked poised to upset the powerhouse Buckeyes, but they fell apart at the end and allowed four touchdowns in the final 20 minutes. Venric Mark couldn’t get going against Ohio State’s defense and the entire offensive load fell on the shoulders of quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter. The two signal-callers answered with 343 yards on a 81 percent completion rate, but couldn’t match the 40 points Ohio State dropped on their defense.

4. Michigan State (4-1, 1-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Beat Iowa 26-14 This Week: Saturday vs Indiana (3-2, 1-0), 12pm, ESPN2

Michigan State went into Ames, Iowa to face a team that was feeling extremely confident off of a four-game winning streak. Then they hit the brick wall that is Michigan States’ defense. Iowa failed to pick up a first down in the first 20 minutes of the game and besides back-to-back touchdowns late in the second quarter, couldn’t move the ball at all. The Spartans held Iowa to 23 total rushing yards.

5. Iowa (4-2, 1-1) – Down 3
Last Week: Lost to Michigan State 26-14 This Week: Bye (10/19 at #4 Ohio State)

The Hawkeyes put themselves back in the picture with four wins to follow an opening loss, but for a team that was a long shot to win the division in the first place, it has to win home games to have a chance. Unfortunately, Mark Weisman, who had been carrying the offense, disappeared and Iowa couldn’t move the ball. It’s a real uphill battle for the Hawkeyes following this loss.

6. Minnesota (4-2, 0-2) – Even
Last Week: Lost to #19 Michigan 42-13 This Week: Bye (10/19 at #19 Northwestern)

Just when the Golden Gophers were starting get excited, they hit a two-game losing streak and find themselves in last place in the Big Ten. Between the now-struggling offense and Head Coach Jerry Kill’s frequent game day seizures, Minnesota has too many issues to count.

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2013 opponent preview: Northwestern

Monday, August 12th, 2013


The fifth-toughest opponent on the schedule really shows how tough Michigan’s schedule is this season. The Northwestern Wildcats enter the season with soaring expectations thanks to 12 returning starters. But they rank just fifth in our opponent countdown, ahead of Akron, Central Michigan, UConn, Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, and Penn State.

Overview

Pat Fitzgerald has done a great job building the Wildcats program (Terry Gilliam, AP)

For 64 years, the Northwestern football program stared down an embarrassing streak similar to that of the most famous team the Wildcats share a city with. Like the Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series since 1908, Northwestern hadn’t won a bowl game since the very first one it ever played in – in 1948. Nine straight bowl losses – two in overtime – hung over the program, but optimism remained due to the transformation head coach Pat Fitzgerald was making in Evanston.

Northwestern finally broke through in convincing fashion, topping SEC foe Mississippi State 34-20 in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day. That means that for the first time in a long time the Wildcats will enter a season with momentum – and it’s not likely to stop there. Fifteen returning starters give Fitzgerald one of the most experienced teams in the Big Ten and make the Wildcats a contender to win the Big Ten title – something that hasn’t been done since 2000.

Offense

Of the 15 returning starters, eight are on offense, most notably the quarterback tandem of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Colter is the more athletic of the two, having spent time at receiver in 2011, where he caught 43 passes. Last season, he took over the starting quarterback job, which he ended up sharing with Siemian. He completed 68 percent of his passes for 872 yards and eight touchdowns, but was even more effective with his legs, rushing for 894 yards on 5.3 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns.

Siemian, meanwhile, was the better passer, throwing for 1,312 yards and six touchdowns. But he’ll have to improve his completion percentage this season for the Wildcats to continue to improve. While the two-quarterback system worked pretty well last season, Fitzgerald will need to make sure there’s enough balance between the two that the offense isn’t predictable.

The backfield may be where the Wildcats’ best player resides. Venric Mark is the league’s top returning running back after a 1,312-yard season that ranked fifth in the Big Ten. His yards per carry of 6.1, however, led all running backs and was second only to Denard Robinson’s 7.2. Senior Mike Trumpy is his backfield mate and is capable of gaining yards as well, as evidenced by his 106-yard performance against Boston College last season.

Good depth returns at the receiver position with the top three all back for more. Slot receiver Christian Jones led the team with 35 receptions and 412 yards, while Tony Jones led the group with four touchdowns. Rashad Lawrence ranked second on the team in receptions with 34, though none went for six points. He’ll be expected to increase his production in his senior season. Superback Dan Vitale caught 28 passes – two for touchdowns – as a true freshman, including a nine-catch, 110-yard outing against Michigan State.

The offensive line is the one area of concern for the Wildcats after the graduation of left guard Brian Mulroe – a second-team All-Big Ten selection, – left tackle Patrick Ward, and right guard Neal Deiters. Center Brandon Vitabile has started the past two seasons and will become the leader of the group, while right tackle Jack Konopka figures to slide over into the left tackle spot. Fitzgerald has been recruiting the line well and will look to plug in some of that depth. Geoff Mogus, Matt Fraizer, and Shane Mertz will all compete for the remaining spots.

Defense

Northwestern’s defense was hot and cold last season, ranking third in the conference against the run, allowing just 127.6 yards per game, but dead last against the pass, giving up a whopping 250.5 per contest. Fortunately, three starters return in the secondary, including safety Ibraheim Campbell, who ranked seventh in the Big Ten in passes defended, and cornerback Nick Van Hoose, who picked off three passes and recovered three fumbles. The other returning starter is Daniel Jones, who took over the starting job for the Minnesota game and maintained it for the rest of the season. At the vacant safety position, sophomore Traveon Henry looks to fill the void after a strong spring.

The best player on the Wildcat defense is likely defensive end Tyler Scott. The junior tied Ohio State’s John Simon for the most sacks in the conference in 2012 (nine), including two in the Gator Bowl. Fitzgerald signaled him out after the spring as “taking (the) next step,” which could be a nightmare for opposing offensive linemen. But how much help will he have along the line?

Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 31 @ California
Sept. 7 Syracuse
Sept. 14 Western Michigan
Sept. 21 Maine
Oct. 5 Ohio State
Oct. 12 @ Wisconsin
Oct. 19 Minnesota
Oct. 26 @ Iowa
Nov. 2 @ Nebraska
Nov. 16 Michigan
Nov. 23 Michigan State
Nov. 30 @ Illinois

Former four-star recruit, Ifeadi Odenigbo, hopes to grab the other starting end spot, though he’ll have to fight off Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson. Regardless, all should be in the rotation and will give Northwestern a solid pass rush. It’s the middle of the line that is the question. Sean McEvilly started 10 games last season and Will Hampton also has starting experience.

Two of the three starting linebackers are back, led by Chi Chi Ariguzo, who broke out with 10.5 tackles for loss and a Big Ten-best four fumble recoveries a year ago. Senior middle linebacker Damien Proby is also talented. He finished seventh in total tackles (112), but sat out the spring with an injury. Collin Ellis and Drew Smith will battle it out for the other outside starting spot.

Special Teams

Jeff Budzien returns as Northwestern’s kicker. The senior made 19-of-20 field goal attempts with a long of 44. It was good enough to earn co-Big Ten Kicker of the Year honors along with Nebraska’s Brett Maher. Punter Brandon Williams has three years of starting experience. He ranked seventh in the Big Ten with a 39.9-yard average.

Mark is the league’s best punt returner. He returned two for touchdowns last season, earning first team All-America honors in that regard.

Outlook

Northwestern travels to California for the season opener and if the Wildcats come away with a win, they should be unbeaten when Ohio State comes to Evanston on Oct. 5. They also host Michigan and Michigan State, but the conference schedule didn’t give them any breaks with trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska. If the pass defense is better than last season, Northwestern can contend for the Legends division title, but a more realistic goal should be to continue the bowl-winning momentum.

What it means for Michigan

Michigan heads to Evanston to culminate a brutal three-week stretch with Michigan State and Nebraska preceding the Wildcats. Win all three and Michigan should win the Legends, but it will be far from an easy task. Michigan basically stole the game last year in Ann Arbor, so Fitzgerald’s squad will have this once circled on their calendar for revenge.

The Wolverines have had success in Evanston over the years with so many alums living in the Chicagoland area and turning Ryan Field into a de facto home game. Northwestern is hoping its new “purple pricing” ticket-selling module will keep some of tickets from winding up in the hands of the maize and blue, but that’s unlikely to stop Michigan fans from flooding Evanston, especially if the Legends division title is within reach. Michigan should have enough offensive firepower to win a shootout.

M&GB Pick’em: Northwestern staff predictions

Friday, November 9th, 2012


Last week, none of us expected Denard to miss the entire game, but regardless it went about as expected. Katie picked up her first win of the season, nearly getting the score exactly right. Her 38-13 prediction was just three off of the 35-13 result. The rest of us were all close as well. This week, Michigan returns home to face Northwestern. Denard’s status is up in the air once again, but that shouldn’t change the outcome too much in this one.

M&GB PREDICTION SUMMARY

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Justin: Michigan 28 – Northwestern 17

Chris: Michigan 27 - Northwestern 18

Josh: Michigan 31 – Northwestern 17

Sam: Michigan 27 – Northwestern 17

Katie: Michigan 30 – Northwestern 24

Matt: Michigan 35 – Northwestern 10

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Average: Michigan 30 – Northwestern 17

Justin (1): Northwestern will put up its best effort, but Michigan will be too much in this one regardless of who pilots the offense. Look for more passing than usual, especially if Devin Gardner is behind center. Big games from Jeremy Gallon, Drew Dileo, or Devin Funchess are in the crystal ball. The Wildcats will hang tough into the third quarter before Michigan seals the deal.

Check out the game preview, Friend vs Foe and First Look for more.

Michigan 28 – Northwestern 17

Chris (2): Northwestern enters this game with two losses (both in the Big Ten) and, like Michigan, is looking for help to make it to the Big Ten Championship.  If they lose on Saturday, their chances of winning the conference are gone.  Similarily, Michigan is also needing a win to stay in contention for the Big Ten title.  However, the Wolverines only need Nebraska to lose one of its remaining games for them to make it to Indianapolis.  So there is a lot on the line for both teams.

The strength of this Northwestern team is its rushing offense.  They are ranked 13th nationally in total rushing behind Junior running back Venric Mark and dual threat quarterback Kain Colter.  The passing game is a different story, however.  The Wildcats rank #113 overall.  So given this, the key for Michigan will be to stop Northwestern from moving the ball on the ground.  I see Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison committing a safety down into the box to provide some extra run support and force Northwestern to the air where the Michigan defense excels.

Defensively, Northwestern is right in the middle of the pack in the NCAA total defense rankings at 60th.  They do give up over 3 touchdowns per game and a lot of yardage through the air.  This should bode well for either Michigan quarterback that starts the game.  We know that Devin Gardner throws a nice ball and if Denard Robinson’s elbow is healthy, he will benefit from a young secondary which has been susceptible to the big play.  Michigan will need to run the ball to win though.  As we’ve seen with these guys, relying on only the pass to win is not a winning strategy.  A good mix of run and pass should open up more plays and help move the ball down the field for the Wolverines.

Colter doesn't pass often, but completes a high percentage (photo by Nam Y. Huh, AP)

On another note, expect an aggressive defensive game plan from Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald, especially after seeing some of the holes which both Nebraska and Minnesota exposed in the Michigan offensive line.  The line must play better than they have the last two weeks and keep the pressure from reaching either Denard or Gardner in the backfield before they can make a play.

I expect this game to be close as both teams are fighting for their seasons.  I expect that the Michiagn defense will give up some points, but not more than what the much weaker Northwestern defense will.  Northwestern will play on emotion and look to try to create some big turnovers to give their offense some extra possessions.  But in the end, Michigan will win.

Michigan 27 – Northwestern 18

Josh (2): Pat Fitzgerald has done a great job in Evanston and Northwestern is not the pushover they once were. However, Michigan still has the better team and better coaching staff. Under Hoke Michigan is undefeated in the Big House and that trend should continue.

Northwestern doesn’t pass the ball much (just under 140 yards per game) but they have a versatile QB in Cain Kolter and they can run the ball very well. Kolter does not present the same type of threat Denard does but he is deadly with the ball nonetheless. His backfield mate, Venric Mark, is built from the Vincent Smith mold; small and quick but with more strength than you’d think.

It is yet to be determined if Denard will resume his duties in the backfield, but Devin Gardner is a capable backup and it shouldn’t matter which QB takes the field. If I had to guess, I’d say Gardner gets the nod as Hoke rests Denard for another week just to be safe. If that is the case look for Borges to try to air it out. This Northwestern defense allowed Taylor Martinez to go 27/39 for 342 yards and while improved he is not considered a great passer. Thomas Rawls should play more of a role as Michigan is still looking to get someone other than Denard going on the ground.

Michigan needs to win this game to stay in the hunt for the Big Ten title game. Nebraska has Penn St. at home today, Minnesota next week and must travel to Iowa to end the season. Not the toughest road, but anything can happen.

Michigan takes control of this game late and pulls away in a closer than expected battle.

Michigan 31 – Northwestern 17


Matt (2): This game is going to be a good one. It scares me a little. To tell you the truth, it has scared me since the beginning of the season. I knew Northwestern would be good this season. Pat Fitzgerald is doing good things there. He’s a good coach. I knew he’d be able to build them up and make them a player in the Big Ten, something that Northwestern hasn’t been in a while.

Tyler Scott leads the Big ten with seven sacks

Northwestern has only lost two games this season. One to Penn State at Beaver Stadium, and one to Nebraska in Ryan Field. Of course we all know who Michigan has lost to, so let’s not even go there…

Michigan is ranked a little higher in passing than Northwestern, but the Wildcats are ranked higher in rushing. Northwestern has a duo of running backs that are really tearing up defenses. However, Michigan’s defense has turned into a beast this season. After playing horribly against Alabama, and not great against Air Force, our D has really stepped up. I don’t see it being any different this Saturday.

I think that Northwestern will come out being able to move the ball a little at the beginning of the game, but Michigan’s defense is going to wear them out. No matter how many running backs they want to use.

A big question about this game is, will Denard Robinson play? Last week we heard he was going to play. However he did not. Devin Gardner started in his place…and kicked some serious Golden Gopher tail. I heard Denard is day-to-day, which could mean anything. Will we see him Saturday? Not sure. But honestly, if Devin Gardner has to take the snaps as quarterback again, you won’t hear me complaining. But that’s just me.

Michigan comes off of an awesome victory against Minnesota, come into the Big House pumped, take down one of the best in the Big Ten, and never looks back. I predict Michigan will shut down Northwestern’s offense, only allowing a few scores.

Michigan by 25. And they are starting to get pumped for The Game in Columbus…

Michigan 35 – Northwestern 10

Sam (1): This Saturday’s Michigan-Northwestern football game is one big question mark as far as I’m concerned. Sure, Michigan has more talent overall, is the home team, and is playing for a conference championship. At the same time, however, Northwestern is a tough team to figure out, Denard Robinson’s status is up in the air, and the Wildcats won the last matchup between these two teams at the Big House back in 2008.

Still, the oddsmakers give the Wolverines nearly a double-digit edge for this weekend, perhaps because of Northwestern’s inability to close out the big game. And while Northwestern sits at 7-2 overall, with one loss coming at Penn State and another in a one-point heartbreaker against Northwestern, the best team they have beaten is one of Indiana, Vanderbilt, or Iowa – certainly no powerhouses this season. Nebraska and at Penn State are not bad losses for an average team by any means, but the fact that Northwestern blew fourth quarter leads in both of those games raises serious question marks about their ability to stay with and finish off better opponents.

The diminutive Venric Mark is always dangerous

Pat Fitzgerald’s team is quarterbacked by the dual-threat speedster Kain Colter, who has actually run for 100 yards and eight touchdowns more than he has thrown for. The likely reason for that, however, is Northwestern’s other quarterback, Trevor Siemian, who has attempted almost twice as many throws as Colter has but doesn’t have the legs to scare the defense. Fitzgerald will often utilize both of these guys on the field at once to maximize their speed of play and to give defenses a couple drastically different looks using the same exact personnel. Expect more of Colter than Siemian throughout, but I think we will see a decent dose of each.

In the backfield, the cat-like Venric Mark has been remarkable for the Cats, running for 1,072 yards on 166 carries (6.5 ypc) and nine touchdowns. As you may have guessed by now, Northwestern is a team that will keep the ball on the ground, having attempted exactly 150 more rushes than passes through nine weeks. Interestingly, their yards per attempt running (5.3) and passing (5.78) are very similar, hinting that Fitzgerald does a great job of spreading the field. In a running-spread offense, the point is to neutralize defenders and win the numbers game when pounding the rock, which Northwestern has clearly succeeded at so far. More yards per attempt passing would be ideal, but Northwestern just doesn’t have that go-to guy on the outside.

Four receivers for Fitzgerald have recorded at least 200 yards through the air, but no one has more than 266 yards or 26 catches, both fairly low numbers through nine games. Obviously the advantage in using this approach is that defenses need to focus on stopping the run first and cannot key in on any receiver when Colter or Siemian drop back to pass, but the disadvantage is that there isn’t that one reliable guy that can be counted on every night to have a serviceable game.

For Michigan, the receiving woes are quite familiar, as Jeremy Gallon leads the team with merely 22 receptions for 390 yards. The next-leading receiver is Devin Gardner with 16 catches. And Gardner will probably be throwing the balls instead of catching them this Saturday.

The big if for the Wolverines couldn’t be more obvious. If Denard Robinson can safely go, Michigan should have no problem running the ball, and the run should clear up the passing lanes a little bit. If Robinson cannot play, Gardner will step in at quarterback and likely throw and handoff a majority of the time despite his athletic ability because the coaches will do everything in their power to keep him protected; an injury to Gardner in the case of Robinson’s absence would likely see the non-fictional Jack Kennedy taking snaps.

Gardner, of course, will hand the ball off plenty, but the running backs haven’t exactly been a strength for the Wolverines either, as the once-touted Fitz Toussaint has yet to eclipse 100 yards a game, senior Vincent Smith averages just 2.8 yards per carry, and the remaining backs behind them are wildly unproven. This game plan could get very interesting very fast.

Pat Fitzgerald hopes to keep his Wildcats in Big Ten title contention (photo by Terry Gilliam, AP)

With all the uncertainties, a prediction is hard to come up with, but I suppose it’s a requirement to write for this blog. Northwestern has done an above-average job of stopping the run this season and only gives up a tick more than 22 points per game, but Michigan’s defense will be the difference in this game. Neither Colter nor Siemian are big enough passing threats to keep Michigan from stacking the box and slowing the effectiveness of the run. If Denard is back, Michigan has the game in hand going into the fourth quarter. If Gardner is quarterback, this game will come down to the last 10 minutes. Either way, Michigan wins.

Michigan 27 – Northwestern 17

Katie (1): This is where things get interesting. Nebraska and Michigan are tied for first in the Big Ten Legends division, but Michigan, having lost to the Huskers, needs to stay at one loss and see their rival at the top of the standings lose one of its next three conference games. This could very well be a problem if Nebraska goes to 5-1 this weekend by beating Penn State. After that they face a weak opponent in the Golden Gophers before going on the road to Kinnick Stadium to go up against a mediocre Hawkeye team that will likely be looking to play spoiler, and perhaps fighting to remain bowl eligible. That’s also saying that Michigan will finish the season with three more wins against Northwestern, Iowa, and Ohio State, which makes the loss to Nebraska look more and more like the crack that eventually leads to the breaking of the dam, and the washing away of the dream of a conference championship.

But there are still three weeks left of football to be played, and anyone who watches the top 25 rankings knows just how much can happen in one week, let alone three.

Northwestern is 7-2 (3-2) with losses to Penn State and Nebraska. They have yet to play a ranked team, and have built a record on beating Vanderbilt (the academic pride of the SEC), South Dakota, and a down and out Boston College team.  However, their offense has been able to put up at least 21 points in every game.  Defensively they have three linemen and a safety who all have more than 65 tackles, a pretty impressive statistic even when considering the caliber of teams they have faced.  It’s those assessments that is likely why Northwestern has clawed its way into the AP polls at number 24.

The Wildcats also play two quarterbacks, and seem to do it relatively well.  Mark Venric, their running back, has gone over a thousand yards on the season and has scored nine touchdowns, and their four top receivers are all over two hundred yards.  Other than having a glorified running back as a QB who makes up much of our offense, Michigan fairs about the same statistically.  However, with Hoke being tight lipped about who the starter will be in this weeks game, my vote is for Gardner who showed real determination and poise, albeit against Minnesota.  It can’t be natural to switch position from game to game, and I want to give credit where it is due.  That being said I think that either player will be able to do well under the helm, but as for passing ability I wouldn’t put the ball back in Denard’s hands just yet.  I want to see what Gardner can do, especially when there seems to have been an agreement that he could shift back to the quarterback position next year.  An offensive struggle seems to be in the cards this week.

This one should be close, and as the schools are academic rivals as well as athletic this match up should be fun to watch.

Michigan 30 – Northwestern 24