Saturday, October 8, 2011, 6:00 CST (BTN)
|Ryan Field at Night -- danonartframes.com|
Ryan Field, Evanston, Illinois
Saturday night fans will see one of the most anticipated one-on-one matchups of the season as reigning Big Ten Players of the Year Dan Persa and Denard Robinson will face each other for the only time in their careers. Northwestern is coming off a heartbreaking loss to their in-state rival. Michigan is coming off a rout of Minnesota, but is playing their first road game of the season after spending all of September in Ann Arbor.
|As seen on BTN Greatest Games|
Northwestern is 4-8 against Michigan since 1995; 2-4 at Ryan Field. The Cats last beat Michigan at home in the famous 2000 game – 54-51. Michigan won the last meeting in Evanston in 2007 28-16, in a game that Northwestern controlled for three quarters before giving way in the fourth. Northwestern won the last meeting between the two schools in 2008, a 21-14 win in Ann Arbor.
Northwestern and Michigan both have dynamic rushing offenses – NU with a multi-player attack and UM based around Robinson. The Cats have a very efficient passing game, which has not thrown an interception since the first quarter of game one. Michigan’s passing attack has been inconsistent from an accuracy standpoint, but faces a secondary that was blistered for almost 400 yards against Illinois. Much has been made of the Michigan defense, but they gave up chunks of yards and points against their only true test – Notre Dame. There is a lot for both of these teams to prove on Saturday.
As a side-note unrelated to the game, four-star linebacker Quanzell Lambert (Sickerville, NJ – Timber Creek) makes his official visit to Evanston this weekend. Lambert is the 8th ranked LB in the country according to rivals.com. He is also making official visits to Iowa, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Alabama. It is clear that Northwestern in the lost shot here, but there has to be a reason that the Cats are in the mix. The Cats have three New Jersey players on the roster currently, including freshman center Brandon Vitabile.
Northwestern lost tailback Mike Trumpy for the year with an ACL tear last week. Expect Treyvon Green to carry the load along with Adonis Smith, who should be back to full strength and playing time after his leg injury caused him to miss the majority of two games. Dan Persa is listed on the injury report as probable, and there is no indication that he will not be on the field as he has practiced all week. Other less significant injury news is that LB Roderick Goodlow is questionable as he continues to nurse his leg injury; wideout Tony Jones is out and has yet to play this season because of his leg injury; and DT Brian Arnfelt will miss another game with a foot injury that has kept him from pushing for the starting job alongside Jack DiNardo.
Michigan’s report is relatively clean as well. Left Guard Ricky Barnum has an ankle injury and is questionable – leaving Michael Schofield or Elliott Mealer to play in his place. Both Schofield and Mealer are bigger than Barnum, but may not be able to match his agility. Meanwhile, linebacker Cam Gordon continues to struggle with a back injury. Gordon was fourth on the team in tackles in 2010, redshirt freshman Jake Ryan is listed as Gordon’s backup as the strong-side linebacker.
Weather Report: Tomorrow will be a perfect day for tailgating as Evanston is expecting a high of 81, with mostly sunny conditions during the day. Winds at 10-20 mph will keep the day refreshing. Kickoff temperature should be around 73, with the temp dropping to the mid-sixties by the end of the game. Do not leave your jacket in the car. Check with the Weather Channel for updates on the weather.
Inside the Matchups
The return of Dan Persa was certainly the jump start that the Wildcat offense needed after a sluggish performance against Army. While Kain Colter led a drive for what should have been the game-winning touchdown, it was Persa that was the difference maker, throwing a career high four touchdown passes. But Persa’s stats demonstrate that it was not so much his performance as his presence that changed the game. He only threw 14 passes and did not have a single designed run – although he was credited with 9 rushes, four of which were sacks. In other words, the mere fact that Persa was on the field made the offense better, as the offense played efficiently against one of the better defenses that it will face all year.
The Michigan defense has been given a lot of credit for its improvement over last season, and for good reason. In four of their first five games, UM has given up one score or less. But there are some aspects of the UM defense that the Cats can exploit. For instance, UM game up 198 yards on 6 yards-per-carry to Notre Dame. Now, NU’s running attack is probably not as good as Notre Dame’s but the Cats’ backs are certainly better than Eastern Michigan, who ran for 207 yards. Northwestern is averaging well over 200 yards rushing per game, and put up very nice rushing numbers over Boston College and Illinois (227 and 169 respectively), two of the better run defenses in the country. Northwestern’s hurry up offense could be a key in the matchup as the hope to catch the young Michigan defense out of position.
The Northwestern passing game has played a support role in the offense thus far, and if Treyvon Green and Adonis Smith can get things going, this should continue Saturday night. The Cats have only attempted 86 passes this season – compared to 199 rushes. But the cats use their passing attack very efficiently. The team has a 67% completion percentage, including Dan Persa’s 10-14 effort last week. Michigan Strong Safety Jordan Kovacs has started in 26 consecutive games, and will need to hold down the fort against the NU receivers. Jeremy Ebert had no problem getting open against Illinois, scoring three touchdowns and re-emerging as Persa’s favorite target. Michigan has four interceptions on the year, but only 1 since the Notre Dame game on September 10. Three of the four starting DBs have picks for Big Blue. Superback Drake Dunsmore will continue to be a size mismatch for the Michigan defense at 6’3” / 235.
The Michigan pass rush has been moderately effective, recording seven sacks in their five games. Leading the charge are Kovacs, coming off the safety blitz, and Junior DE Craig Roh, who will likely draw the assignment opposite Al Netter. Roh, at 6’5” / 269 is big and fast and will be a problem for the NU line, which has given up 10 sacks this season. It will be interesting to see whether Persa has re-gained his confidence in running the ball, or if he will remain hesitant, which he appeared at times against Illinois. Michigan’s ability to put pressure on Persa should be a major key to this game, especially if the Cats are put in a position where they have to throw the ball.
When Michigan has the ball, all eyes will be on Denard Robinson, and for good reason. Robinson is unlike any player that NU will face all season, and probably the best athlete at quarterback that the Cats have seen since Indiana’s Antwaan Randle-El. Robinson has 603 yards rushing, and averages 7.8 yards per carry, including six runs of over 20 yards. Robinson’s passing, however, has been inconsistent. He is 50-91 for eight touchdowns, but has thrown six interceptions. His accuracy has been the biggest problem – both missing open receivers and throwing the untimely pick. In order to contain him, the Cats will likely need to challenge Robinson to throw and hope for the best.
Which is a tall order, because the Wildcat secondary has been thrashed so far this season. The Cats have giving up 240 yards passing per game – which is not a horrible amount, except when you consider that Army had only six. Instead the true average is 317 per game. Cornerback Jeravin Matthews has been burned by opposing receivers, especially, most recently, A.J. Jenkins. Oddly, Matthews has been drawing the taller receivers this season, which means he will likely be covering 6’1” Junior Hemmingway, who is Michigan’s receiving yardage leader. Jordan Mabin, on the other side however, has been the shutdown corner everyone has expected. He recorded an interception and broke up a pass against Boston College – but has otherwise been avoided like the plague. Expect to not hear his name much again this weekend as an inaccurate Robinson would be wise not to look his way.
|NU Linebacker Bryce McNaul|
Again, if Robinson is moderately accurate, Big Blue will be able to move the ball through the air. But they are going to have to run the ball in order to win, in order to keep an equally potent Wildcat offense off the field. This will probably be the most appealing matchup of the game because it is truly strength against strength. The NU run defense is vastly improved from last year – but they have the tendency to give up the big play. Again, removing the Army game – where Army ran the ball 75 times – NU has given up 318 yards rushing to the three conventional offenses it has played. It has given up rushes of 69 yards (on the first play of the season) and 76 yards (with one minute left against Eastern). But otherwise, it has been very stingy. But including Robinson, Michigan has five players with more than 10 carries who are averaging more than 6.4 yards per carry. If Michigan can establish the run game early, it will not need to throw and this game could get ugly. If NU can contain the run and force Robinson to pass, the Cats put the game on his inconsistent arm, which looks like a much better scenario.
NU’s defense has played very well against the spread attack this season. Most of Illinois’ big plays last week came when Scheelhaase took the snap from under center and used play action to free up A.J. Jenkins. BC’s Chase Rettig also took most of his snaps the conventional way, on his way to a 350-yard passing game. But when the QB is in the shotgun, the Cats secondary has played much better – and there has been success against the run as well.
|NU DE Vince Browne|
The main question that any defense has to ask when playing Michigan is whether to put pressure on Robinson – or just to try to contain him. Robinson’s best threat is the designed QB run. Most players are accustomed to looking for a handoff or a pass. But by the time they make that decision against Robinson, he is already hitting the hole. The linebackers and safeties will need to look sharp, but not sell out the pass. The defensive line will need to put some pressure on Robinson, but be careful not to force him out of the pocket, where he is a threat to run and is a more accurate passer. Sacks like the Cats made against Scheelhaase will be key, where the pocket simply collapses around him. Shockingly, all four of NU’s sacks against Illinois were with only a four man rush.
Finally, the turnover battle will be key. NU and Michigan are the top two teams in the conference in turnover margin at +5 and +7 respectively. The Cats only have the one interception from the first half of the BC game and the intentional fumble lost during the Stanford Band play at the end of the Illinois game. Michigan likely would have not beaten Notre Dame had it not forced five turnovers. Both of these teams have vulnerabilities on defense, so the ability to hold on to the ball – or take it away – could play a major role in this one.
EVR expects this to be a high scoring affair. Each offense has multiple dimensions to throw at the opposing defense. Persa vs. Robinson should be as entertaining of a show as Cat fans have seen in years – and it may come down (again) to the last team with the ball.
|Fitz, beating Michigan|
Expect Michigan to be able to move the ball very effectively and score on most of its possessions – although I think NU will hold a lot of these to field goals. NU will get its points, but not as consistently. Both teams will have the ability to enjoy long sustained drives as both defenses will focus on avoiding the big play.
Michigan scores on all five possessions of the first half yet can only muster a 23-14 lead. This continues in the third quarter, but Blue is unable to pull away and leads 40-28. Michigan gets a little frustrated and starts taking some risks to put the game away and this opens the door for Persa and company. NU outscores Michigan 14-0 in the final stanza and pulls out a thrilling 42-40 Wildcat Victory.