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Northwestern vs. Michigan preview: Wildcats and Wolverines are basically the same team

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These week's version of "Three things to know" follows a different format...

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Northwestern travels to No. 18 Michigan this weekend for a battle of top-20 teams, one that suddenly contains far more intrigue and importance than originally thought. The No. 13 Wildcats enter the game undefeated at 5-0, and both teams will be looking to announce themselves as Big Ten contenders. Both also pitched shutouts in their Big Ten openers.

Jim Harbaugh's first season at Michigan has followed an interesting trajectory. Preseason hype was mitigated by plenty of anti-hype-machine opinions, and even rational analysis couldn't definitively figure out what to make of the Wolverines.

Then, after one week, everybody buried them. A loss at Utah and three Jake Rudock interceptions were validation for the doubters. But suddenly, a loss at Utah doesn't look all that bad — the Utes won 62-20 at Oregon — and the Wolverines' four-straight wins, including a 31-0 demolition of then-No. 22 BYU, have Michigan squarely in the Big Ten East race and No. 3 in S&P+ after Week 5.

Northwestern's trajectory has been far more linear. With each win, the Wildcats earn more respect, and look to be a contender in the Big Ten West.

While their trajectories thus far are different, both teams will arrive at Saturday's game at a similar point. Take away the players' names along with Michigan's winged helmets and Northwestern's purple, and these two teams are eerily similar.

Both defenses are outstanding

Entering the season, defense was projected to be the strength of each team. But neither was supposed to be this good. Northwestern is No. 1 nationally in scoring defense, No. 6 in S&P+, No. 2 in third down defense and No. 1 in opponent points per trip inside the 40-yard line. Michigan is No. 2, No. 3, No. 1 and No. 6 respectively:

Opponent PPG rank S&P+ Defense rank Opponent 3rd Down Conv. Rank Opponent Points Per Trip Inside 40 rank
Michigan 2 3 1 6
Northwestern 1 6 2 1

The statistical comparison doesn't end there. Both teams have recorded two shutouts so far in 2015. And in the games in which they did give up more than a handful of points, both defenses were put in tough situations by their offenses.

The secondaries are suffocating

It's not just that both defenses are good. It's that they have similar identities, and similar formulas for success. Both teams have talent at all three levels, but to find the reason they've been so successful, look towards the back end.

The secondaries are the best units on their respective teams. Both have depth and athleticism. And because they've been playing at such a high level, they've allowed their defensive coordinators to get more creative and aggressive with the front seven.

For Northwestern, it starts with cornerbacks Matt Harris and Nick VanHoose, who have been asked to play more one-on-one coverage this year, and have only really been beaten by one player, Ball State's Jordan Williams. Traveon Henry has also been much improved at safety. His partner, Godwin Igwebuike, has been a game-changer for Northwestern with his ball pursuit and free-lancing ability at free safety. But it's the press coverage that, indirectly, has taken responsibility away from the defensive line and linebackers, and freed them up to make plays.

For Michigan, the story is nearly identical. Corners Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark combine to possess a menacing blend of size and athleticism. Add versatile sophomore safety Jabrill Peppers to that mix, and you can see why opponents haven't had success throwing downfield against the Wolverines.

And as is the case with Northwestern, the talent on the back end has allowed defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin to put his corners in press coverage. This gives Michigan an advantage up front, which presents a gluttony of talent.

Both offenses depend on the running game

Neither offensive line is dominant. In fact, Northwestern's has been a major question mark at times early in the season. But despite issues up front, both Northwestern's and Michigan's lines have depended on a consistent rushing attack.

Both teams have depth at running back. Northwestern can spell Justin Jackson with Warren Long and Solomon Vault. Michigan has Ty Isaac, Drake Johnson and Derrick Green to compliment De'Veon Smith, who missed last week's game vs. Maryland with an injury, but could be back this weekend. The Wolverines' top three backs, Smith, Isaac and Johnson are averaging 4.8, 7.2 and 5.2 yards per carry respectively.

Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno have opened up the passing game more than Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mick McCall have so far this season. But neither team has a great set of wideouts (though both have a good tight end/superback), and both teams are most effective on the ground, mainly because of the talent they have in the backfield and the coaching staffs' commitment to running the ball.

Both quarterbacks are mediocre

You might not really think of fifth-year senior (and graduate transfer) Jake Rudock and freshman Clayton Thorson as similar. But let's take a look at their stats through five games:

Comp-Att Comp % Pass Yards YPA Pass TDs INTs Rush Att Rush Yards Rush TDs QB Rating
Jake Rudock (MICH) 89-148 60.1 956 6.5 5 6 25 73 2 117.4
Clayton Thorson (NU) 64-113 56.6 711 6.3 4 3 41 165 4 115.9

There are a couple noticeable differences. First, Rudock has 35 more attempts, or seven more attempts per game. Rudock threw the ball 43 times against Utah with Michigan in comeback mode, but other than that, has been in the 20s and low 30s. Thorson has only once eclipsed 25 attempts in a game.

Second, Thorson is a better athlete than Rudock. Michigan's signal-caller can actually move around a bit, but Thorson's legs have to be accounted for, whereas Rudock's won't be a focus of Northwestern's defensive game plan.

The roles of the two are similar though. More often than not, Thorson and Rudock haven't necessarily had to win games; they've just had to not lose them. The relatively low yards per attempt marks show that neither has been asked to throw the ball downfield often.

The general conception is that Rudock is what he is. He's an average Big Ten quarterback with a decent arm. But he's also had to come in and learn a new playbook right away after transferring from Iowa. His development is ongoing.

So is Clayton Thorson's of course. Thorson has a chance to be a far better QB than Rudock is or will ever be, but he has had growing pains. However, those growing pains showed signs of softening against Minnesota on Saturday. If that's a real trend, Northwestern has the advantage at the quarterback position. If Thorson goes back to square one, Rudock's experience may win the day. Either way, the quarterback dynamic could be the biggest factor in who comes out of Ann Arbor with a victory.