Make no mistakes about Northwestern’s matchup against Michigan: the ‘Cats are the underdogs. It doesn’t matter that Northwestern is No. 24 in the BCS rankings, or that Michigan is having a mediocre season after ranking No. 8 in the AP preseason poll.
Michigan’s home stadium, The Big House, is one of, if not the most feared places to play in college football. Northwestern has faced a similar demon at Penn State this season, but this week’s matchup has much higher stakes. Hopes of a Big Ten Championship game appearance are dwindling for both teams. With wins over both Michigan and Northwestern, Nebraska is in the driver’s seat of the Legends Division. However, if Nebraska loses to an underrated Penn State squad on Saturday, it would leave the doors open for the ‘Cats or Wolverines.
In other words, neither team can afford to lose another conference game. Here are the key matchups that will decide the all-important contest.
Michigan’s fans vs. Northwestern’s offense
Can the ‘Cats win in a hostile environment? So far, the answer is no. Early on against Penn State, the ‘Cats were looking excellent – and then the fourth quarter happened. Beaver Stadium erupted once Penn State started to make a comeback. With thousands of fans screaming at the top of their lungs, the offense looked disheveled.
Northwestern fans felt some déjà vu two weeks later against Nebraska. In no way shape or form was that matchup a home game for the ‘Cats. Ryan Field was a screaming sea of red, and the Northwestern offense was certainly affected.
As Kain Colter would point out in a post-game press conference, “We didn’t prepare for [the silent count] all week.” Northwestern wasn’t ready for such a loud visiting section, but this week Pat Fitzgerald will ensure that his ‘Cats know what’s in store for them.
The Big House has a capacity of just fewer than 110,000 people. That’s a lot of screaming fans. The Northwestern offense will have to stay disciplined in such a chaotic environment.
Northwestern defense vs. Michigan quarterbacks
After missing the last six quarters of play with a nerve injury in his elbow, Denard Robinson has a few question marks against Northwestern. Will he play, and, if so, will he be at full capacity? In his absence last week, backup quarterback and receiver Devin Gardner looked phenomenal. The junior threw for 234 yards and two scores. Yes, his stellar performance was against lowly Minnesota, but keep in mind that Gardner played better than Northwestern's quarterbacks did against that same Golden Gophers defense. Gardner did have one good outing, but Robinson has had a lackluster year throwing the ball. With nine interceptions on the year, Robinson is on pace for his lowest quarterback rating since his freshman year.
Michigan head coach Brady Hoke hasn’t addressed Robinson’s injury at all, but this is the biggest game of the year for both teams. The quarterback will most likely not be 100 percent come game day, but expect Robinson to take about 80 percent of the snaps.
Robinson brings a unique dynamic to the field. Almost an exact physical replica of Kain Colter, the 6-foot, 197-pound senior is wicked fast. While Robinson’s speed and quickness should not come as a surprise to any team, the quarterback is still the 12th leading rusher in the nation, even after recently missing a large chunk of game time.
However, people tend to forget that Northwestern has a top 25 run defense, only allowing 121 yards on the ground per game. On the three occasions Robinson has faced a top 25-rush defense this year, he has failed to gain 100 yards running the ball.
Northwestern shouldn’t be too concerned about Gardner’s ability to run the ball because he only averages 2.1 yards per carry.
Northwestern DE Tyler Scott vs. Michigan O-line
With the exception of Notre Dame’s defensive end Stephon Tuitt, Tyler Scott is the best pass rusher Michigan has faced this year. Averaging almost one sack per game, Scott ranks fifth in the nation with seven solo sacks.
Northwestern’s odds skyrocket if the team is able to put pressure on the already error-prone Denard Robinson.
Northwestern red zone offense vs. Michigan’s red zone defense
Scoring about 91 percent of the time they are in the red zone, the 'Cats rank eighth in the nation in red zone efficiency. On the other side of the spectrum, Michigan allows opponents to score 85 percent of the time they get inside the 20-yard line, which is an underachieving 87th in the nation.
The ‘Cats should have an easy time racking up some points provided they can reach the red zone. However, it will not be an easy task, as the Wolverines only allow 288.67 yards per game to opposing offenses, which ranks them seventh in the nation.
Game prediction: Northwestern 23, Michigan 21
Each year, every team has that signature win – that one win that wasn’t supposed to happen, that one upset. Northwestern’s time is now to show the country Wildcat football hasn’t been a fluke in 2012. Right now, it seems as if Pat Fitzgerald is leaning towards a one-quarterback system with Kain Colter, which ends the formerly predictable Wildcat offense. The two weeks of preparation should help the Wildcats a lot against a tough opponent.
As long as Northwestern protects the ball like it has all season and takes advantage of some Michigan mistakes, the ‘Cats should win this one in a good old-fashioned Big House nail-biter.