by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
When Northwestern Has the Ball…
The effectiveness of Kain Colter during Northwestern’s 28-17 win over Iowa two weeks ago would lead one to believe Colter will command the lions share of snaps Saturday against Michigan. There was no confusion at the quarterback position, and the result was prolific for Northwestern: four touchdowns, 246 yards of total offense for Colter. Continuing that torrid pace against Michigan, whose 4.6 yards per play ranks second among Big Ten defenses, will no doubt require flawless execution and focus. The Wolverines will not be phased by Colter’s dual-threat potential, largely because they face a quarterback of similar ilk (Denard Robinson) every day in practice. The Wildcats will need to be inventive with the way they draw up Colter option reads and protections schemes against this defense.
Against Iowa, NU was content to run the ball most plays. The gameplan made sense; NU was dominating the line of scrimmage, and it doesn’t make sense to pass when 1) you don’t need to put yourself at undue risk and 2) you’re trying to eat game clock. Michigan will demand a more diverse offensive package. The option may not generate the same success it did against the Hawkeyes, which means the passing game needs to live up to its lofty preseason billing. The question is whether Pat Fitzgerald and staff will opt to use Trevor Siemian on passing plays, or if Colter, who went 6-for-9 with one touchdown and one interception last time out, will remain under center irrespective of play type. I’ve long believed the offense functions best under Colter’s lead, whether in passing or running situations. And after his efforts two weeks ago, perhaps the frustration of two-quarterback system is officially behind us.
In an essential Legends Division elimination game, Colter needs to be given the reins, and not just on a part-time basis – he deserves the opportunity to command this offense the way he’s proven he can. If that happens, NU will score enough points to hang around until the final moments. If not, the Wolverines defense will feast on the disruptive QB rotation and clamp down on whatever scheme the Wildcats use to combat one of the Big Ten’s better defenses.
When Michigan Has the Ball…
After scoring a combined 19 points in consecutive games against Michigan State and Nebraska, Michigan’s offense came to life against Minnesota last week under backup quarterback/wide receiver Devin Gardner, who filled in for the injured Robinson. Brady Hoke deflected speculation by calling the quarterback situation “day-to-day”, which is to say he has no intentions on revealing how he plans to split snaps between Robinson and Gardner. My guess is that Robinson will assume control of the offense, with Garnder potentially rotating in on obvious passing situations. In any case, that is a difficult scenario to prepare for, if only because Robinson – though clearly limited as a passer – is one of the most dynamic athletes in the Big Ten at any position, and NU is yet to face a player with his speed and explosiveness. The threat Gardner poses as a passer is an added bonus.
In the end, the extent of Robinson’s elbow injury will dictate his passing attempt limitations. If he’s unable to pass with any measure of consistency or accuracy, the Wolverines can go to the ground. We all remember what Robinson did against NU last season (17-for-26, 337 passing yards and three touchdowns; 25 carries for 117 yards and two touchdowns). Reigning in Shoelace will be a challenge, just as it was last season. While he may have regressed as a passer, Robinson remains one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous playmakers. His ingenuity will trouble NU’s defense, even if Robinson’s passing abilities are limited due to injury and even more limited due to awkward mechanics and an inability to dissect coverages. The defensive line will struggle to corral Robinson in the backfield, which will allow him to break contain and pick up first downs on the run. The Wildcats will limit Robinson’s damage (as will his injury), but the dual-threat QB will prove difficult to defend for a D-line that has struggled to generate consistent pressure at the line of scrimmage for much of this season.
As punt returners go, there are few as dangerous as Venric Mark. In nine games this season, Mark is averaging 25.10 yards per runback and two touchdowns. He is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. This is nothing new. What’s interesting about Mark’s return exploits is the sheer lack of productivity on kick returns. The Wildcats are the only Big Ten team yet to produce a run back of 30 or more yards. Whether that’s a product of fearful kickers steering balls to prevent runbacks or a conservative approach on Mark’s part or some combination of the two is an open question, but it’s clear the success on punt returns has not translated. Mark may get the chance to reverse that trend Saturday. Michigan’s 38.89 touchback percentage means Mark, if probability holds, will have the opportunity to extend his return brilliance to the kickoff sector. We’ve seen what he can do on punt returns. Bringing that same explosiveness on kick runbacks is the next step, and one Mark is fully capable of making.
Michigan 23, Northwestern 21 – The above analysis defies this prediction – if you win two of three phases, victory is expected. I think Northwestern will give Michigan all it can handle on its home field, where it is yet to lose this season. This is one of the most evenly matched Big Ten games to date – at least in my eyes. Both teams have struggled offensively at various points of the season, and both found themselves with strong offensive efforts in recent games. When in doubt, taking the home team feels like the safest option. NU will keep it interesting deep into the fourth quarter, but Robinson and the Wolverines will kill the clock and keep NU’s offense on the sideline with a strong ground attack to put the game out of reach.