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Preview: Northwestern Wildcats

Coming into this year, Michigan and Northwestern had similar expectations. Both were projected to finish near the upper-middle of the conference, and perhaps even both make it to January bowl games. Of course, things didn't exactly turn out that way. Northwestern has perhaps exceeded expectations, its only losses so far coming to Ohio State, Michigan State, and... er... Indiana. Michigan's season has unfolded in the opposite direction. After reaching 2-2 on the season, back-to-back demoralizing losses against Illinois and Toledo initiated a tailspin that halted only this past week, with a win at Minnesota. Next year, look for Michigan to try to replicate the Northwestern model for success (ridiculously easy OOC schedule).

The 'Cats are hurting on this side of the ball, with their top two running backs lost for the year. Tyrell Sutton (2005 Big Ten Freshman of the Year) and Omar Conteh (who stepped in for Sutton much of last year, including a 115-yard day against Michigan) will be replaced by sophomore Stephen Simmons and recently-converted WR Jeravin Matthews, a true freshman. Even before the top two went out for the year, Northwestern was near average in rushing, and that production can be expected to decrease without two talented players. In the passing game, Northwestern has relied on both CJ Bacher and Mike Kafka. Kafka has been more dangerous as a runner than a passer in his time filling in for an injured Bacher. Speaking of Bacher, there's always the Official CJ Bacher Interception Statistic to draw on: when he starts and throws 1 pick or less, the Wildcats win. However, it is unclear exactly how healthy Bacher will be this weekend, though he should be available. Northwestern's top 3 receivers are Eric Peterman, Ross Lane, and Rasheed Ward. All have seen their production decrease sans Bacher.

To me, it looks like a Minnesota to me. Without a credible running threat in the backfield, Northwestern's offense looks a lot like that of the Gophers. That, of course, brings up the question of which quarterback starts for the Wildcats. With Kafka, they have a mobile signal-caller that isn't the passing threat (and we saw how much success Michigan had defending against Justin Siller), and with Bacher, they have... GopherClone. That team spread the field and passed, without much of a run threat (though their offense is based on the RR spread, and we all know that Rodriguez would love to run the ball as much as possible). Either way, it looks like Northwestern's options are limited. I'd like to think Michigan will be able to dial up a similar gameplan to last week, and trust their guys to man up on wideouts that aren't as athletic.

Northwestern partisans have been hailing new defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz as the second coming of Christ. Of course, the pragmatist would note that his early-season numbers were built up against the #111 offense (Syracuse), the #87 offense (Duke), the #49 offense... in 1-AA (Southern Illinois), and the #71 offense (Ohio). Two of Northwestern's top defenders, Malcolm Arrington and Vince Browne, have been lost for the season. The Wildcats shouldn't be expected to get tons of stops against any offense with legitimate threats on the ground and through the air.

That brings us to the Michigan offense, whose best threat through the air so far this season has been Steven Threet. When he missed time last week, Nick Sheridan filled in most competently. However, whoever ends up getting the start for Michigan this week will likely be operating without the services of Brandon Minor, who has emerged as Michigan's best threat of moving the ball on the ground. Michigan's offense might be something of a mirror image of Northwestern's at this point, though I think Sam McGuffie and Michael Shaw bring something to the table that Northwestern's third-string running back may not. However, last week's performance by the quarterback was probably a one-time deal, and the offense should regress this week.

Other Stuff
On top of injury news, this week may hinge on intangibles more than any other so far this year. Was Michigan's performance last week the sign of better things to come with gained confidence, or just a one-week anomaly? Will the weather have an adverse effect on either team's offense? These can't be accounted for in a preview, however comprehensive it may be (and I'm under no illusion that this is a comprehensive preview).

At least 3 (but probably 4) players take snaps for Michigan.
Northwestern has trouble moving the ball on the ground with anyone other than Mike Kafka, but they have a successful game through the air.
Michigan drops one to the Wildcats, 24-10.

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“Preview: Northwestern Wildcats”

  1. Anonymous Anonymous Says:

    No reasonable human being expected a January bowl game for Michigan..

  2. Blogger UofMSnowboarder Says:

    I mean, if a BigTen team goes to the national championship game, 4 teams play in January. Michigan finishing in the top 4 wasn't far from what we (foolishly) expected.

    Also: This is a Golden Gopher flute, that has been passed down for thousands of years from my great grandfather... who's scandinavian.