Last week Kain Colter spoke out to ESPN.com’s Adam Rittenberg claiming the offense had “no identity”. The most common meme in the wake of the ‘Cats somewhat dominant win over Iowa was that Colter had delivered the missing identity with his B1G Offensive Player of the Week performance, highlighted by 166 rushing yards on 26 carries and accounting for all four NU TDs. Still, as we sit on the sidelines for week 10 of the season, this season feels like it is missing something, not only for NU, but for the much maligned Big Ten Conference as a whole. By this point in the year, you usually have an excellent feel for which teams will win and which ones won’t. however, in part because of the conference’s mediocrity and in part because of the individual teams’ inconsistent play, no one really knows what to expect, aside from the train wreck that is Illini football.
Northwestern, as you know, plays at Michigan a week from Saturday, then returns to the Wolverine State to play Michigan State on the 17th before closing out at home with woeful Illinois. I think most Wildcat fans look at those three and see one definite win (Illinois) and a likely loss at Michigan (assuming Denard is healthy) with Michigan State being a coin flip. The Wolverines are a very beatable team, however, and I’m loving the timing of our bye week, despite the stat that JHodges or NUHighlights threw out yesterday – NU is 0-7 after bye weeks under Fitz. If there is a year to be different and break the trend, this is it. This season defies logic conference-wide.
As we look ahead to Michigan, there are some telling stats that should telegraph our game plan. First, Michigan is a mirror image of Northwestern on offense. The Wolverines offer a high-powered rushing attack thanks to Denard, with the 27th best rushing game at 206 ypg, even after their stats took a hit with his injury in the loss at Nebraska. The Wolverines are almost as woeful as we are in passing with a 172 ypg in the air (11th B1G, 108th in FBS). Conversely, they boast the #1 ranked pass defense in the nation. As you know, we’re dead last in the B1G in passing (163 ypg, 110th FBS), so it doesn’t get much more mismatched than this. Michigan has a slightly above average rush defense (146 ypg, 6th B1G, 46th FBS), but an overall top 10 total defense (9th) giving up only 291 ypg along with a scoring defense that surrenders only 17.3 ppg good enough for 14th in the land. The bottom-line is that we’ll have to take our strong running game, with Kain in the shotgun, and beat them on the ground with the occasional keep them honest pass, just like we did against Iowa.
Michigan State, meanwhile, really terrifies me from a match-up standpoint. If you watched them against Wisconsin, you say to yourself “how are we going to get yardage against these guys?”. They are an elite defense. This is by far the best defense we’ll face all season and even in a bowl game. They simply don’t give up rushing yards – just 91 per game – and rank 7th in the country. They give up only 176 ypg in the air and boast a top 5 total defense and 10th in the country in scoring with just 15 ppg. You wonder how a team that is so stellar on “D” can have such an average record. You watch them hold Montee Ball to 16 yards and think there is no way we’ll move the ball against them, but then you remember this very team lost to Iowa. At home. The Spartans can’t score. They struggle mightily to move the ball at all and Andrew Maxwell has had a terrible season, yet, they still average 229 ypg, which is 3rd in the B1G – I expected to see them near the bottom in passing since every game I watch they can’t seem to get a first down in the air. Even their highly touted feature back in Le’Veon Bell, who is a beast (averages 118 ypg), has Michigan State averaging only 131 ypg as a team on the ground – dead last in rushing in the conference. They muster only 19 ppg, which is highly inflated by one non-conference win. Consider this – Sparty has scored more than 16 points in a B1G just once (31 vs Indiana). On the flip side, they’ve given up 17, 19 and 12 in their three B1G losses. Northwestern’s string of nearly 70 straight double-digit scoring games could be in jeopardy. I had Sparty as good as dead this season, thinking they’d lose to Wisconsin, drop to 4-5 and be mailing it in by the time we came to town. Now, we’ve got to root for them this week to knock off Nebraska, which isn’t out of the question, except for the fact I don’t know how they’re going to score points. Should they beat Nebraska, this team will be playing for something – bowl positioning, and have some life in them and we know how much they’ve mastered us since our last win in the series – 2007.
And then, there is Illinois. I’m really starting to believe Tim Beckman may actually get fired after one season. The Illini AD’s stubbornness is likely the best job security he has going, though. He may be gone as well, though. The program is an absolute train wreck with zero signs of progress, and worse, a significant regression after a 7-win season and bowl win that you know has the Zookster just chuckling some place. I know you’ll warn me about overlooking an Illini team that will have our game as their bowl game, and you may be right, but man am I excited to play them. I want this one badly after the past few years of losing to them and then watching their sophmoric stunts in the wake of victory.
I believe we’ll win two out of three, but I’m starting to like our match-up with Michigan better than Michigan State, at least on paper. I really wouldn’t be surprised to see us win all three – I think the difference between Michigan and us is negligible at best and I think we’re better than Michigan State this year, but I fear a Penn State reprise with our “D” being on the field all day. I’m feeling good about our chances with the Illini and can’t wait.
Now, a couple stat notes to keep you going today…
- Venric Mark is now 13th in the country and 2nd in the B1G in rushing with 119.7 ypg, only 2 ypg behind B1G leader Braxton Miller.
- Venric is 6th in the country in all-purpose yards with 184 ypg and he’s tops in the B1G. UNC’s Giovani Bernard is #1 with 214 ypg.
- You need 1.2 punt returns per game to qualify, therefore Venric doesn’t qualify, otherwise he’d be #1 in the country.
- The ‘Cats are 2nd in the B1G in sacks allowed with just 1.3 pg, obviously in part due to the preponderence of rushing plays.
- Who would have thought that after 9 games, Tony Jones would lead NU’s receivers with a mere 29 ypg receiving?
- Imagine if you had said that going in to week 10 NU would have as many B1G wins as Iowa, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana combined?
Michigan Gametime Set
The ‘Cats-Michigan game gets the 11 am ct slot and will be on either ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 pending the outcomes of this weekend’s games.
‘Cats on Deadspin
I’m not going to link to it, but by now you’ve likely seen the photo of a student at Saturday’s game reading a book in the student section which has fanned the flame of the nerd perception of NU around the Big Ten Bloggetariat.