Friday, October 7, 2011

Preview: Northwestern

Important Author Side Note: Is "persa" a word? Or a type of cat? Because if you Google Image Search without the "Dan", like I just accidentally did, you get a bunch of cats. So here's the first one I found:

Michigan walks into Evanston tomorrow night with a chance to prove a lot: can they hold up in their first road test?; is the secondary for real?; can Denard throw consistently?; can they live up to their rankings?; And above all, why this year is different? Hoke has all but skipped down a gold brick road to 5-0 but with Michigan's history in mind, he knows what a big hurdle it would be to clear, even if mentally, to reach 6-0. Michigan hasn't experienced such a start since 2006. And though I'm not quite up to heading-to-Ohio-at-11-and-0-level expectations, their performance thus far has definitely warranted raising the bar.

Don't let the 2-2 fool you: Northwestern is a much better team than their play and record suggests. With Persa back, their 106th ranking in passing offense doesn't mean squat. Having said that, a road loss against Army, with or without Persa, does say something about the rest of the team. Persa elevates the Wildcats from a poor to good team, not a good to great team. Michigan, despite the 58-0 bludgeoning of Minnesota, isn't exactly flirting with greatness either so it should be a good matchup tomorrow night. With Northwestern finally coming off the road and back to Ryan Field--3 of their first 4 games were away--you can bet they'll be fired up to play under the lights (side note: NW's home schedule this year is us next year: Eastern Illinois, Michigan, Penn State, Rice, Minnesota, Michigan State. Ew. They went on the road for BC, Illinois, will go on the road for Iowa, Nebraska, and don't draw Ohio State or Wisconsin).

THE OFFENSIVE MATCHUP I'M WATCHING IS... Vince Browne vs. Lewan/Hugye/Koger. Keep an eye out for #94, the Wildcats' 6'5", 265lb senior DE. He's their Craig Roh--quick to get upfield for TFLs, sometimes sacks and sound in run support. I imagine a lot of the carries will be coming his way on Lewan's side; he needs to pick up his game from last week and make sure he seals Browne. Lewan--knock on wood--has been penalty-free this year. If we don't hear his or Browne's name tomorrow, it should be a good day on the ground.

THE DEFENSIVE MATCHUP I'M WATCHING IS... Where Michigan defenders will be coached to follow at the mesh point during zone reads. While I don't think it's safe to assume Persa is not 100%, I do believe that Michigan come out testing his foot injury and daring him to keep the ball and run. It'll give Mattison a chance to see a) how fast he is with his Achilles' injury and b) if he's willing to take the risk of getting hit. By stuffing the RB (starting RB Mike Trumpy injured last week and out for the season) consistently, it will change the dynamic of how Northwestern calls the ground game. Or force them to go air altogether.

IF I HAD ONE WISH ON SPECIAL TEAMS IT'D BE... Nothing past the 35 on kickoff coverage. Michigan's return coverage has been an increasingly worrisome issue over the last few weeks. If there was any dark spot during Minnesota, it was consistently poor coverage, including one return-for-TD that was luckily called back by a flag. Hagerup will do his thing. Even Gibbons might do his thing. But Michigan needs to improve on return coverage to give their defense as much bend-but-don't-break room as possible.

I AM WORRIED ABOUT...
Michigan's run game. I know, the last thing I should be worried about probably. But I think people underestimate Northwestern's front 7. I know they rank 10th in the Big Ten in rushing defense at 175 yards/game, but they still return a core group of experienced starters. Michigan will be able to move the ball on the ground but it won't be met without resistance. Borges must make sure Michigan stays ahead of the downs and keeps the chains moving. Will he be so daring as to allow Denard to throw on 1st-and-10s again? Probably less so against the Wildcats. While it's important to build a rhythm for Denard's arm, this offense is predicated on rhythm in the run game; it'll be up to Fitz and Smith to maintain a balanced attack.

I AM COMFORTABLE WITH... Nothing. I am a nervous wreck. Always.
I AM EXCITED ABOUT... Under The Lights. It's just cool. As I mentioned before, this is by far Northwestern's biggest home game. Those nerds will be amped. As will we as I expect Michigan fans to travel in full force, especially considering the huge alumni base in Chicago. These type of games always produce memorable moments and tomorrow night should be no different.

BOLD PREDICTION... Denard hits Hemingway/Roundtree on a deep ball. Borges will work to stay within the offense--running the ball, short throws for Denard--but he's shown he's willing to take some shots downfield. The flip side, of course, is Denard maintaining his footwork and delivering an accurate throw--something he's struggled with all year and frankly his entire career. But the opportunity exists as Northwestern's passing defense, ranked 9th in the Big Ten at 239 yards/game, shows.

ALMOST FORGOT... Those of you in the Twitter world probably already heard about Denard's little Twitter fiasco yesterday, when his (obviously upset) ex-girlfriend got a hold of his account for about a half hour. The result? As you would imagine. Here's DocSat's take and EDSBS take. The account was deleted shortly after and my bet is Hoke has since shared his thoughts on password security with Denard. The damage is done though. And the signs will be out in full force. Personally, as long as he rushes for 150+ yards, I don't care.

GAME PREDICTION... I just think Michigan's scheduling RPS +3 trucks on. Push this game another week or 2 and I might be singing a different tune but I'm skeptical Persa's healthy to enough pull out a victory for Northwestern. Michigan is a 60-minute football team--how sweet is it to say that--and they will get after you. While I don't wish injury on anybody, I think Persa is in-and-out of this game after getting knocked down a few times and reaggravating his injury, allowing Michigan to hold up defensively. I said 7-5 preseason and here I am, predicting 6-0. Let's do this. With a safety. Michigan 33-27.

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