Yesterday we caught up with Brian Cook of MGoBlog to get some inside intel on Michigan. It’s rare the ‘Cats enter this match-up ranked while Michigan is not, but even more crazy is the fact we’re such big underdogs. Let’s learn some more about Michigan through the eyes of MaizeNBrew’s Zach Travis. Also, I paid a road visit to MaizeNBrew which you can read here.
LTP: By now you know that our coaching staff has been fighting itself all season long from a personnel standpoint and not enabling our QBs to get much of a flow going (see: Penn State, Nebraska). Furthermore, Kain Colter who is completing nearly 70% of his passes (albeit few attempts) has been predictable in running the zone read option with the surprise of the year, RB Venric Mark. How has Michigan handled the zone option to date? What, if anything gives you concern assuming we go with the Colter/Mark gameplan?
ZT: Michigan’s run defense has been incredibly sound this year. After getting burned by the pretty-much-professional-level Alabama run offense, then the always tough to plan for Air Force triple option, Michigan has shut down basically all comers on the way to the best rush defense in the Big Ten (if you look at just conference games). Michigan has done so against teams like Purdue, Illinois, and Nebraska — all of which employ spread elements. So I’m not too worried. Colter is dangerous and Mark has shown an ability to blow past people in the open field, but Michigan’s defensive front is playing about as well and cohesive as you could ask, and there aren’t many breakdowns in gap responsibility and edge contain. The Wildcats will break one or two, but overall I think Michigan shuts down Northwestern as well or better than any defense the Wildcats have seen this year.
LTP: The ‘Cats are having a bizarr0 season. The areas we thought we’d be bad (ex – run defense, rushing offense) we’ve been great and vice versa. We are 7-2 and fans are downright pissed still at the way we’ve blown 2 double-digit 4th quarter leads (Penn State, Nebraska). We as fans feel disappointed and that we’ve yet to come close to playing a complete game. Meanwhile, it appears as though Michigan is pretty simple – if Denard gets his yards, you win. Add some color to what has made Michigan successful aside from Denard?
ZT: Again, this goes back to the defense. If you want to look at bizarro seasons, Michigan is currently in the midst of one itself. The defense was supposed to be a big question mark as the defensive line was all new and the linebackers had yet to play up to the potential. Meanwhile the secondary was supposed to be the strength of the defense. Instead, the defensive line has come together and done the yeoman’s work holding gaps and occupying blocks, which has allowed the linebackers to have a breakout year. In fact, the secondary has been the shakiest unit, but since this is the bizarro Big Ten and Taylor freakin’ Martinez is looking like the best QB in the conference, none of this has mattered.
Meanwhile the strength of Michigan was supposed to be its offense — especially the run game that featured two returning thousand yard backs. Denard has been Denard so far this year, but he hasn’t gotten any help. The interior offensive line is getting battered inside, the running backs have been unable to create anything on their own, and because of all this Michigan’s offense has been an inconsistent mess that has been held out of the endzone in one-third of its games.
The only reason Michigan is where it is is thanks to a defense that has just flat out controlled games for long stretches. Without the defense playing out of its mind, Michigan would be a whole lot closer to .500.
LTP: Which unit concerns you the most against Northwestern?
ZT: Mark and Colter. I know they aren’t really a position group, but Mark has been one of the best backs in the Big Ten this year and I have always been a big fan of all the things Colter is able to do. I don’t know if Colter taking charge of quarterback duties full time means anything for the outside receivers, but I am still somewhat scared of Kyle Prater even though he has yet to do anything this year. Five-star talent and all.
LTP: Northwestern has failed to even resemble NU offenses of recent vintage as we barely pass. If we are to increase pass attempts, where should we be targeting for maximum success?
ZT: If Northwestern wants to win it is going to have to target the outsides with vertical passing. Michigan lost its best cover guy in the Alabama game to an ACL injury, and the rest of the unit has gotten by on the fact that nobody can throw the ball down field with any consistency. Both guys are decent, but will leave windows for receivers to catch things over the top. If Colter can drop fade routes in, his receivers should have space to make catches and rack up big plays on a defense that otherwise doesn’t allow many.
LTP: Michigan and Northwestern are both still in contention for the division title with the loser of this game being essentially eliminated. Does this game have a must win feel to it from your perspective?
ZT: Yeah, for the reason you mentioned. I’m not all that sold on Northwestern’s chances at a Big Ten title game appearance because it involves Nebraska losing two games — something that isn’t going to happen with only PSU being a competent challenger down the stretch. Michigan is back in the driver’s seat with a Nebraska loss, and controls its own destiny. All due respect to Northwestern, but Michigan is closer to the title game and therefore needs this one more.
LTP: Which under the radar players should NU fans know about that we don’t know much about?
ZT: The fact that I can still call SLB Jake Ryan an under the radar player is a damn crime, but the fact is that he is still in that breakout phase where only Michigan fans really know how good he is. That is starting to change as he repeatedly makes the kinds of plays that it doesn’t seem physically possible for him to make. He is a terror rushing off the edge, a sure tackler out in space, and he has an uncanny ability to either elude blocks or get blocked and still somehow make the tackle. He is the best player on Michigan’s defense and should make a quiet push for all-Big Ten this year before spending the next two — he is only a redshirt sophomore by the way — laying wasted to the conference. He’s seriously good, yo. Be afraid.
ZT: Low scoring. Both teams stay under 20 points and a lot of drives stall at or around midfield. Northwestern will break a big play, but otherwise will have to work for yards. Michigan will move the ball in fits and starts which should be enough for a few points. Final score ends up around 20-18 with Michigan pulling it out at the end.
LTP: Zach, thanks for playing. I recently read that Brady Hoke is 16-0 when Michigan scores 20 or more points. I’m not afraid to admit I’m hoping for a slightly gimpy Denard as Gardner’s passing ability scares me. It’s hard to imagine the back-up to the most electrifying Michigan and Big Ten player in recent memory is someone I’m hoping to face, but we shall see. This is one of those perception changers. The ‘Cats are ranked, Michigan is not and the line is huge in favor of Michigan, so a win here will really legitimize the ‘Cats season and really put us in a unique position to get to the land we rarely ever get to – a 10 win season. The expectations for 2013 are going to be sky high for this Northwestern team, but man would it feel great to get another win in the Big House.