Every Thursday during football season, we'll be presenting reasons why Northwestern will or won't come away from its Saturday game victorious. It's not so much an argument for or against either result as it is envisioning the scenarios in which the Wildcats come away from the game with a win or a loss.
This week, the Wildcats travel to Ann Arbor, Michigan for their first Big Ten road game of the season. They will take on the Wolverines, who have won four straight games after losing to Utah in Week 1, 24-17. Michigan has climbed as high as No. 18 in the most recent AP poll, and is now considered by many to be one of the elite teams in the Big Ten.
Saturday's game will be Northwestern's biggest test thus far, and it will take place in what is arguably their toughest road venue of the season. A win could vault the Wildcats into the top 10 in polls while a loss could set them back in the race for the Big Ten West title.
Here are the reasons NU will or won't win on Saturday.
Why Northwestern will lose to Michigan...
1. The Harbaugh/Big House combination may be too much to overcome
Meet Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, one of the most polarizing coaches in college football. While he is known for his impressive coaching record in both college and the NFL, he is also famous for providing us with many of his flamboyant temper tantrums such as the one shown below.
Many projected the first year of the Harbaugh regime to be a rebuilding year, considering the fact that he's coaching a team that looks largely similar to the one that finished 5-7 (3-5 in the Big Ten) last season. However, Harbaugh has worked wonders thus far for the Wolverines. Since their opening loss to Utah, Michigan has outscored opponents by a score of 122-14, including back-to-back shutouts in its last two games against BYU and Maryland. Harbaugh has fans of the Wolverines once again believing that they are relevant national contenders, and their performance over the last four games has backed up that mindset.
Furthermore, Saturday's game will likely be played in front of over 100,000 people at Michigan Stadium. The Wildcats' trip to The Big House will be their first major road test this season in an imposing environment, and will serve as a challenge to the offense. So far this season Michigan is 3-0 at home, including a 31-0 victory over No. 22 ranked BYU two weeks ago. U-M fans are going to be even more fired up for the No. 13 ranked Wildcats, and will undoubtedly make it difficult for the Northwestern offense and its freshman quarterback.
2. Clayton Thorson could struggle
Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson will make his second career start on the road Saturday. In his first road start against Duke, Thorson had his worst performance of the season, going 9-for-23 while throwing for just 70 yards and two interceptions. And while the Blue Devils have a solid defense this season, the Wolverines' has been even better thus far.
The Michigan passing defense is ranked No. 3 in the nation in passing yards allowed per game, allowing a mere 112.6 yards on average; in comparison, Thorson is averaging just over 142 yards per game so far this year. If the Wolverines jump out to an early lead, Thorson and NU could be in trouble. They will be forced to go into catch-up mode, a role the signal-caller is unfamiliar with, and h will be expected to make big throws at critical points in the game in order for the Wildcats to have a chance. He might not be able to do that.
3. Michigan's defense could dominate
Will this year be different?
Will this year be different?
Northwestern's offense will have its work cut out for it as it faces a defense that has been strong in almost every facet this season. So far, the Michigan defense, with the exception of the season opener against Utah, has been nearly flawless. In their Big Ten opener last week, Michigan held Maryland's offense to just 105 total yards in a 28-0 shutout, came up with three interceptions, and held the Terrapins to 1-of-18 on third down conversions. The defense is currently ranked near the top of almost every defensive category this season: total yards per game (No. 2), passing yards per game (No. 3), rushing yards per game (No. 5), scoring defense (No. 2), third down defense (No. 1) and S&P+ (No. 3).
Why Northwestern will beat Michigan...
1. Northwestern's defense could be even more dominant
So far this season, there's no question that the Wildcats' biggest strength has been their defense. Northwestern has faced tougher competition than Michigan, and still managed to stay undefeated thanks to stellar play on the defensive end. The Wildcats have the No. 1 ranked scoring defense in the country, averaging only a touchdown allowed per game, and have multiple playmakers. Players like Dean Lowry, Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike have been able to force key turnovers during crucial points in games. As was the case at Duke, Northwestern's defense will have to win the turnover battle once again this week if the Wildcats want to come out with a victory.
2. Jake Rudock will struggle
As mentioned earlier in the week, Northwestern and Michigan have very similar teams; one of these similarities is the subpar quarterback play for both teams. Michigan starting quarterback Jake Rudock has underperformed thus far, completing 89-of-148 passes while throwing for 956 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions.
Rudock has faced Northwestern each of the last two years when he was starting for Iowa, going 2-0 in those games. Last season, he threw for 239 yards and a touchdown in the Hawkeyes 48-7 blowout over the Wildcats. But he's had his fair share of struggles throughout his career.
In Michigan's loss to Utah, Harbaugh relied heavily on Rudock. The fifth-year senior threw the ball 43 times, easily his highest attempts total this season. But as his usage increased, Rudock did not perform well, throwing three interceptions including a costly pick-six in the fourth quarter. Northwestern's secondary, led by big playmakers like Igwebuike, Traveon Henry, Matt Harris and Nick VanHoose, will be the best defense Rudock has faced to date, and if Michigan falls behind early and more is asked of Rudock, he could have problems once again.
3. The trio of running backs, led by Justin Jackson, will carry the team to victory
I think we will see both defenses come ready to play and the game could ultimately turn into a battle for field position. If that is the case, a lot of pressure will be heaped on Northwestern's running backs to break off a few big runs to flip that field position, or perhaps get NU in field goal range.
Justin Jackson will be relied upon heavily at the beginning of the game until Thorson is able to settle in, and as long as the Wildcats are within a score, the playcalling will remain conservative. The advantage Northwestern has is that it will be able to wear the Michigan defense down with a healthy dose of Jackson early, and then the fresh legs of Solomon Vault and Warren Long late. Both of the latter two are capable of breaking off big plays. Also, like last game, don't be surprised if Thorson gets a fair share of carries himself. Northwestern will have to keep Michigan's defense off balance.