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Michigan vs. Northwestern Preview

October 7, 2011
         Quote That Most Represents This Game
“If I could, baby I’d give you my world..
Open up… everything’s waiting for you..
       You can go your own way
      Go your own way….”
           — Fleetwood Mac, song “Go Your Own Way”

Names To Know

1. Dan Persa (QB #7) — Persa is a true duel-threat quarterback who took over in 2010 as the starter for Northwestern and exceeded all expectations.  He had 2500+ yards passing, including a 73% completion percentage and 15 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions, to go with 500+ yards rushing.  He also had added 9 rushing touchdowns, which is only five fewer than Denard Robinson’s total of 14 for the same season.  The most amazing part about those stats was that he only played 10 games because he tore his Achilles while throwing a game-winning touchdown against Iowa.  Northwestern went 7-3 with Persa in 2010 and 0-3 without him. He was out for the first three games this season, still recovering from his injury, but returned last week against Illinois and threw for 4 touchdowns before tweaking his injured leg and missing the 4th quarter.  He will start this week against Michigan, but nobody knows how much he really has recovered.  

 2. Kain Colter (QB #2) —  Starting RB Mike Trumpy tore his ACL in the Illinois game and will miss the rest of the season, which puts Northwestern in a bit of a dilemma.  Trumpy was the second leading rusher for the team behind QB Kain Colter who showed he was primarily a running threat through the first 3 games, throwing for only one touchdown while running for 266 yards and 4 touchdowns. With Dan Persa starting it means Colter is on the bench, and with Trumpy out it means Northwestern’s top two running threats this season won’t be on the field.  Pat Fitzgerald won’t like removing two of his best players, so I’m guessing we see a lot of 2-QB formations with Colter lining up at receiver or in the backfield for sweeps and handoffs. 

3. Jeremy Ebert (WR #11) — As I mentioned before, Dan Persa threw four touchdowns in three quarters of play against Illinois last week.  Three of those touchdowns went to Ebert, who has been the favorite target of whoever is throwing the ball for Northwestern.  In the last two weeks, Ebert has 11 catches for 184 yards and 5 touchdowns.  He’s not a big target standing at 6’0″ 195lbs, but does have some speed.  It will be interesting to see if the staff puts Troy Woolfolk, who has struggled this season, on him or if they go with JT Floyd who has been our most consistent corner, but it slower.  Only two other receivers have caught a touchdown pass this year, and none have more than 82 yards total receiving this season, so Ebert is the threat.

Offensive Strength
Northwestern is a very different team with Dan Persa at quarterback.  If he wasn’t playing, the clear strength and focus of their offense would be the rushing attack.  With Persa back and Mike Trumpy out this becomes a passing team, and judging from Persa throwing four touchdowns in three quarters in his first game back, it’s a pretty good passing team.  I think the offense Northwestern will show will be similar to what we saw against Western Michigan and Notre Dame with it being better than the Broncos, but not as good as the Irish.  Persa will be in the shotgun almost all the time with a 3, 4, and 5-WR sets trying to capitalize on quick passes.  I also expect a lot of motion, especially when Kain Colter is in as a WR, to allow Persa to option between runs and passes.  These will not be long-developing plays, which will make it hard for the Michigan defensive line to create a ton of pressure without some blitzes.

Offensive Weakness
The running game is an unknown for Northwestern heading into this week.  Their best rusher is now the backup QB and the guy who won the starting job through fall camp is now out with an injury.  Persa was a big threat to run last season, but only had 9 rushes for -3 yards last week, and after missing the last quarter because he thought he re-injured his Achilles, I don’t expect him to be carrying the ball a ton this week.  The Wildcats will need to show a threat to run this week, and are going to need to be creative to do it. 

Defensive Strength
 This is going to sound a lot like the Minnesota report last week because it appears Northwestern has a better defense than the Gophers, but maybe not by that much.  The run defense appears statistically solid, allowing Illinois only 82 rushing yards over 38 attempts last week for a measly 2.2 yards per carry.  In week one, Boston College only had 104 yards on 30 carries for a 3.5 yards per carry average.  Eastern Illinois had 132 yards on 26 carries in week two, but if you take out the one 76 yard run they had, it turns into 56 yards on 25 carries, or just over 2 yards per carry.   That’s pretty good, right?  I’m going to ignore Army running for 387 yards because that’s just what Army does with their triple-option offense, but it is worth noting a chink in the Northwestern run defense is that they allowed the Army option to gain 5.1ypc over their entire 75 attempts, which is something Michigan will try to exploit with their read-options. 

Defensive Weakness
 Just like Minnesota last week who had held some teams to low rushing numbers, the teams who couldn’t run absolutely abused them in the passing game.  Illinois couldn’t move the ball on the ground and ended up falling behind 28-10 in the third quarter.  They opened up the passing game at that point in their comeback 38-35 win and totaled 391 yards in the air.  Illinois decided to just throw the ball to receiver AJ Jenkins as much as possible, and the Northwestern secondary couldn’t do anything about it while he caught 12 passes for 268 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Boston College also put up 375 yards passing and one receiver, Ifeanya Momah, had 8 catches for 157 yards.  This is going to be a problem for Northwestern this week because they will need to sell out to stop Denard and the running game, but their secondary isn’t strong enough to cover the Michigan receivers in one-on-one matchups the whole game.  Expect a similar game plan to last week for Michigan where they go for short passes early to put pressure on the secondary and open up the run.

My Game Expectations
After Michigan fired Rich Rodriguez in January, it was assumed their number one coaching target was Jim Harbaugh.  After things started to look bad to get Harbaugh though, rumors surfaced that Dave Brandon next turned to Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and told him that everything in the Michigan world was open and waiting for him.  Those were the only two coaches to supposedly get offers before Brady Hoke got the call, and no I am not forgetting Les Miles.  Just Google Gary Moeller’s wife, like Les apparently did, and you’ll know he was never going to be offered the job.  Pat Fitzgerald was asked about this during his press conference this week and tried to play it off, but his aggressive “We never talked, buddy” response to the reporter didn’t exactly convince people.  You’ll never hear Coach Hoke say it, but I know I wouldn’t want to lose my first game against a guy that my boss maybe wanted before me, especially when he doesn’t have as good of a team.  So I surely would keep my team focused and prevent them from looking ahead to Michigan State.

Dan Persa was cleared medically to play this week after missing the fourth quarter against Illinois and the doctors told him he showed no signs of re-injury.  That means he may be physically recovered, but obviously is not mentally recovered if he kept himself out of a game when his team lost the lead even though he was physically fine.  I wonder how he will do this week with Mike Martin barreling down on him, or when Jake Ryan and Jordan Kovcas blitz free off the edge.  I also wonder how effective option plays will be if Michigan doesn’t believe he’s a threat to run. My guess is Michigan is going to force Persa to run before they believe he is a threat, and they will bring pressure early to try to make him nervous about getting hit so he makes some mistakes.  A healthy Dan Persa would be the best QB we have faced so far this year.  A mostly-recovered one who maybe still has some mental recovery to do is a threat, but not somebody we can let beat us. 

Al Borges was masterful against Minnesota last week, showing more of the playbook, getting Denard comfortable, and not relying on Denard’s legs to be the primary weapon.  Northwestern knows they can’t stop Denard, and they even admit it.  At their press conference this week, somebody asked one of the players, “How do you stop Denard Robinson” and his response was, “Ah, shit, I don’t know.” This was the response from a Northwestern player who used the word “meticulous” in his next answer.  Expect the same game plan as last week until Northwestern shows they can stop it.  Short passes to get Denard comfortable and a lot of plays that use the same formation/execution, but have a run-pass option depending on what the defense does after the snap.  Northwestern is a much better team than Minnesota, so I also expect more Denard running this week because we’ll need it.

It’s too bad transitive closure can’t be applied to football because otherwise we could just chalk this up as a win since Michigan beat San Diego State who beat Army who beat Northwestern.  That was pre-Persa though, and this is Michigan’s first road game, so we unfortunately will need to play the game before being given the W.  Having been to games at Northwestern though, it’s not exactly on the level of playing a road game in the Horseshoe.  A lot of Michigan fans typically represent, and the scariest thing the fans do is cheer after the annoying wildcat roar that gets played after first downs and other big plays, so it really is a great first road test for this team before heading to East Lansing. 

We’ll never know if Pat Fitzgerald was really talked to about, or offered, the Michigan head coaching job.  He is a very good coach though and will have his team fighting to win, and if Persa and Ebert are connecting on passes they could move the ball down the field and keep this game close.  Coach Hoke has proven he and his staff will have Michigan ready to fight too, so I expect them to be ready for this game and come out looking to build on what they’ve accomplished so far this season.  I am extremely happy with what Coach Hoke, Coach Mattison, Coach Borges, and the rest of the coaches have done so far, so if Pat Fitzgerald really was offered the job first, I’m glad he decided to go his own way and turn it down.

Michigan wins 35-24

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