Game Preview: Michigan vs. Northwestern

Michigan and Northwestern both harbor hope (slim as it may be) of representing the Legends Division in the Big Ten Championship. For either team to remain in that race, it has to win Saturday.
Top Storyline
"Devin did a nice job of managing the offense," head coach Brady Hoke said. "He made some plays, extended some plays, did a great job in that area. The one pick was one he'd like back and we'd all like back. He learned from it and took care of the football."
Yes it was Minnesota, but junior Devin Gardner played extremely well last weekend in leading Michigan to a 35-13 win over the Golden Gophers, and his performance has spurred considerable conversation this week about what is best for the Wolverines going forward.
What is best is for a healthy Denard Robinson to line up under center tomorrow, but an ailing Robinson creates a scenario in which Gardner could be the preferred choice. If it comes to that, he'll be ready after proving to himself that he is capable of being the QB Michigan needs him to be.
"There are always doubts or questions," he said. "It's easy to do things in practice, but in live action, when the bullets are truly flying, is when you can prove you can truly do things."
On the opposite sideline, Northwestern has used two quarterbacks this season, but by design - junior Kain Colter and redshirt sophomore Trevor Siemian.
Colter was Dan Persa's backup in 2011 and was poised to take over permanently this fall, but Siemian showed off a stronger, more accurate arm in preseason camp, and the coaches created a game plan to best utilize his skill set.
During the first six weeks of the season, with Northwestern going 5-1, Siemian attempted 120 passes, throwing for 808 yards, while Colter had 68 pass attempts and rushed for 439 yards and seven scores.
Problem was, the Wildcats didn't know what they were. Half the time they were a passing offense without a rushing attack, and half the time they were a read-option offense. A few weeks ago, head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff decided the Purple and White would focus on one identity and not the split personality that was threatening to unravel the team.
"As we went back and kind of evaluated some of the things we were doing very well, and some of the things we obviously struggled with, we felt like if we could control the line of scrimmage, we'd give ourselves a great opportunity to win," said Fitzgerald.
"We are going to do everything we can to win. Some of the things that we have done well have had Kain there at quarterback so we made some decisions to kind of focus on that."
"We're running the ball well and that's the key to victory," Colter added. "When you can dominate the line of scrimmage and control the clock that's always a good thing.
"We also have unselfish receivers on the outside that might not be catching passes but they're blocking and helping us out."
What it's led to is this: in the last three games, Northwestern has generated 737 yards on the ground and scored eight touchdowns, with just 272 yards and three TDs through the air. The Wildcats are 2-1 in those three games, having blown a late lead to Nebraska, but despite that setback, they are committed to their "new" approach.
Game Particulars
Kickoff: 12:01 p.m.
Radio-TV: ESPN will broadcast the game. The contest can be heard on the Michigan Sports Network (950 AM in the Detroit area, SiriusXM (channel 196) and Armed Services Radio (channel 92).
Coaches: Michigan leads the series with Northwestern, 53-15-2, last beating the Wildcats 42-24 in 2011.
Northwestern Notes: Pat Fitzgerald, with 47 career victories, needs three more wins to become the first coach in Northwestern history with 50 ... Over the last four seasons, NU is 10-5 in November, and is 13-8 all-time in November under Fitzgerald ... The Wildcats became the first bowl eligible team in the Big Ten with their 21-13 win over Minnesota Oct. 13, and are one of four current programs already eligible for the postseason ... Northwestern's senior class has posted more wins (37) than any senior class in program history.
By The Numbers
5-8 - Wide receiver Jeremy Gallon's height; with a team-high 22 receptions, the redshirt junior is on pace to become only the fourth Wolverine under 6-0 to lead U-M in receiving during the past 20 years (Martavious Odoms, 5-8, 2008; Chris Howard, 5-11, 1997; and Mercury Hayes, 5-11, 1995).
7 - Opponents this season that Michigan's defense has held below 4.0 yards per rushing attempt after Minnesota averaged just 3.4 yards on 38 attempts.
9-1 - Record of Michigan's No. 2 quarterbacks in their starting debuts dating back to 1984.
10 - Tackles fifth-year senior linebacker Kenny Demens has recorded in each of the past two games, marking only the second time in his career, and the first time since 2010, he's had double-digit stops in back-to-back contests.
12 - Big Ten-best tackles for loss for redshirt sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan, who is seeking to become the first U-M defender since Brandon Graham (26 in 2009) to lead the Big Ten in TFL.
48.4 - Michigan's third-down conversion percentage this year after a 7 for 12 showing (58.3 percent) at Minnesota. The U-M single-season record is 49.6 percent in 1986. Game Week Poll Results
Would you start Devin Gardner over a healthy Denard Robinson the rest of the year?
Yes - 27 percent
No - 73 percent
465 votes
When Northwestern has the Ball
By this time in a season, every team has identified what its strengths are and what its weaknesses are, and for the Northwestern, the strength is junior tailback Venric Mark.
The 5-8, 175-pounder became the first rusher in the Big Ten this season to hit the 1,000-yard mark, and he currently ranks third overall among conference ball carriers with 1,077 yards and nine touchdowns on 166 carries (6.5 yards per rush).
A dynamic punt and kickoff returner (Michigan has to watch out for him in the punt return game this weekend), Mark is all speed. He has some wiggle in his game too, and while he doesn't shy away from contact, he won't be confused with a power back like MSU's Le'Veon Bell.
Mark has seven rushes this season of 30 yards or more (comparatively, Denard Robinson has nine), and needs just a small window at the line of scrimmage to slip through a front seven and accelerate.
Mark is afforded those opportunities because Colter executes the QB read-option superbly, recognizing when to keep the football and when to hand it off to his tailback. Colter has rushed for 622 yards and 11 touchdowns, including a 166-yard effort the last time Northwestern played Oct. 27.
Michigan's defense sees the read-option in practice defending Robinson and Fitz Toussaint so the Wolverines are better prepared for it than most defenses. Like in cases like this, U-M has to maintain its gap discipline with each defender handling his responsibility. Someone along the front seven will have the quarterback and someone will have the running back.
Of course, if it was that easy to defend, NU's rushing game would be going nowhere and that's not the case. With three seniors among its offensive line, Northwestern blocks the read-option well, and Colter offers just enough of a passing threat - he's 62 of 89 (70.0 percent) on the year - to keep defenses honest.
In an ideal world for the Wildcats, we might never seen Siemian this weekend. He had just one pass attempt in the 28-17 victory over the Hawkeyes and only seven attempts in a 21-13 victory over Minnesota Oct. 13 in which Mark had 182 yards rushing, but if the Purple and White fall behind or are stymied by the Maize and Blue defense, we likely will.
Michigan knows what's coming and is being challenged to stop it. It's not "old-school" smash-mouth football but a variety of that, and U-M will either win or lose tomorrow based on its ability to keep Northwestern's ground game in-check.
When Michigan has the Ball
Michigan's offensive game plan will be dictated heavily by who lines up under center - Robinson or Gardner.
That could be an advantage over Northwestern, though, because the Wildcats themselves have no idea what to expect.
If it's Robinson, they have to prepare for a read-option attack that relies primarily on the running game and less on the passing attack, as U-M attempted 281 runs and threw the ball just 163 times in Robinson's first seven starts. Of course, the Wolverines may try to protect their senior QB too, thus limiting the number of carries he gets Saturday. However, that approach doesn't bode well for a Michigan offense that struggles when Robinson drops back to throw.
With that in mind, there's a good chance we see Gardner because U-M can attack Northwestern with both the run and the pass. It may not be successful running the football without Robinson, but it can at least try.
The strength of the NU defense is in its front seven. An experienced defensive line and linebacker corps with five juniors and seniors has controlled the line of scrimmage and rallied to ball carriers this fall, yielding only 121.3 yards per contest to rank 23rd in the NCAA. The Wildcats have held eight of nine opponents to fewer than 200 yards on the ground. Overall, rivals have averaged just 3.5 yards per carry.
The secondary, which is expected to be down starting cornerback Nick VanHoose tomorrow, is awful. The Wildcats rank 107th in the country, allowing 272.4 yards per game. They were torched by Syracuse (482 yards), Boston College (291 yards), Penn State (282 yards) and Nebraska (342 yards), and considering the abundance of pass attempts against them (373), the Purple and White haven't taken advantage of mistakes, picking off only three throws this year.
Of course, if Robinson plays and Michigan doesn't pass the football, it plays right into NU's hands. That's another good reason we could see Gardner if Robinson is not 100 percent - with him in the game, U-M can go after the Wildcats' defensive backfield.
Three Wildcat Players to Watch
Junior defensive end Tyler Scott: The 6-4, 265-pounder has exploded in production this season, already setting career highs in sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (8.5). He leads the Big Ten in quarterback takedowns despite the lack of a bookend that also puts fear into opposing signal-callers. Scott's effort this season has raised the play of the entire defensive line, and has put him in position to contend for Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Sophomore safety Irbaheim Campbell: The 5-11, 205-pounder was a Freshman All-American in 2011 after recording a team-high 100 tackles. He had two picks, both coming against Michigan. The Philadelphian has taken a step forward this year, and continues to be a menace, leading the Wildcats in pass breakups with nine while ranking third among NU defenders with 67 stops.
Senior wide receiver Demetrius Fields: The Wildcats rarely feature a game-breaking receiver but thought in sophomore transfer Kyle Prater - a former five-star recruit - they had finally landed one. However, Fields, and not Prater, has emerged NU's top target, catching a team-high 26 balls for 216 yards and a touchdown. The 6-0, 210-pounder has seen his opportunities dwindle the past few weeks, though, with Northwestern committing heavily to the run, making just two grabs since Oct. 13.
Whether Denard Robinson or Devin Gardner is under center, the Maize and Blue should be able to put up points on NU. Northwestern should score some too, and this one will be close through three quarters, with U-M clinging to a lead, but the Wolverines will put the 'Cats away in the decisive fourth.
Score: Michigan 31, Northwestern 21.
Against the Spread (-10): Push.
Over/Under (52.5): Under.
Michael Spath's record this year: Result: 7-2; Against the Spread 4-5; Over/Under 7-2.