Gameday is just a few days away. So with Saturday looming, it's time to start digging a little deeper into the intricacies of the contest. Football, at its core, is a game of individual matchups that all work together to form one play. All individual showdowns are crucial. But there are still some that are more important and influential than others. Let's look at the three matchups that may decide Northwestern's game against Michigan.
0. HARBAWWWWWWW vs. Fitz
Is this a real matchup? No. Will it be talked about nonstop for the rest of the week? Yes.
Advantage: The media
1. Jake Rudock vs. The Sky Team
This is the most obvious matchup to watch, and for good reason. The biggest weakness for Michigan coming into the season was quarterback Jake Rudock, and that weakness reared its ugly head back in Week 1 vs. Utah. Rudock threw for 279 yards and 2 touchdowns but was picked off three times. Since then, he has played much better, but still wasn't great on Saturday against Maryland (180 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception). So far through five games, the Iowa transfer has been average at best.
On the other side, we have "The Sky Team," the self-given nickname of the Northwestern secondary which has been a lot better than average. Northwestern has the ninth-best pass defense in the country, according to S&P+, and has yet to give up more than 200 yards through the air in any game. The Wildcats defense has also been more opportunistic this year, with four interceptions as a unit — three by Matthew Harris alone. Also, as we saw this past week against Minnesota, the secondary has the awareness to jump routes and, at the very least, break up passes. To boot, Rudock has a tendency to telegraph his passes, which has resulted in costly interceptions.
This matchup may very well decide the game, but on paper it's not very close. Rudock has been average at best and Northwestern's secondary has been one of the stingiest in the country. The one x-factor here is that Rudock absolutely torched Northwestern last year when he was still at Iowa — a performance which spawned this oddly named highlight video. Granted, Northwestern's secondary was banged up, and Iowa ran for 221 yards, but last year's debacle is not irrelevant.
Putting the past aside, Northwestern's secondary is just simply better than Jake Rudock at the moment. However, all Michigan needs is for Rudock not to make any dumb mistakes and the Wolverines may still be alright.
Advantage: The Sky Team
2. Justin Jackson and the offensive line vs. Michigan's front seven
If Northwestern can run the ball on Saturday, NU will remain undefeated, plain and simple. On the passing side of things, this is only Thorson's second real road test of the season, so don't be surprised if the first offensive drive is three straight runs. The Wildcats are going to run the ball a lot, and they need the offensive line to be up to the challenge.
Northwestern has had some injury problems along the line the last couple of weeks, and it looks like Blake Hance and Matt Frazier may start on the left side this week. But Michigan is dealing with injury problems as well. The Wolverines lost senior hybrid linebacker/defensive end Mario Ojemudia — who was third on the team in tackles (19), and second in tackles for loss (6.0) and sacks (2.0) — for the season. Look for Northwestern to test replacement Royce Jenkins-Stone early to see if he can be taken advantage of in the running game.
Even with the injuries to both sides, the advantage goes Michigan's way. First, the Wolverines still own the 10th-best rushing defense by S&P+, which owes to linebackers Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan and their ability to slow down the opposition's running game. Also, if Thorson isn't playing well, Michigan will be able to key in on Jackson and stack more players in the box.
Advantage: Michigan front seven
3. Clayton Thorson vs. 100,000-plus fans at the Big House
You can pretty much take everything from the first matchup and copy and paste it for Clayton Thorson. Star safety Jabrill Peppers and company will be a handful for the redshirt freshman throughout the afternoon up in Ann Arbor. The biggest difference is that this will be the first truly intense road atmosphere Thorson has ever played in during his young college career (and just second road game overall). No offense to Duke, but a half-filled Wallace Wade Stadium doesn't exactly compare to Michigan Stadium, which has a capacity of 109,901 loud fans, especially on Homecoming.
There will be some Northwestern fans at the Big House, but there'll easily be over 100,000 Michigan fans, and they are going going to be loud. This might be Michigan's biggest non-Ohio State and non-Michigan State game in three years.
Thorson looked flustered at times against Duke, but has appeared much more confident the last couple games. That being said, he has never experienced anything like the conditions he's going to be playing in on Saturday. One can only hope that he keeps a cool head and doesn't make too many mistakes.
Advantage: The Big House