Last Saturday, Northwestern got its first Big Ten win of the season in its third try, taking down the Rutgers Scarlet Knights by a margin of 21-7 for homecoming at Ryan Field. Their reward for the feat? A weekend trip to Ann Arbor to face undefeated No. 6 Michigan and its crowd of fans — the largest in the nation — at Michigan Stadium.
We checked in with Trevor Woods, an editor at Maize N Brew, the SB Nation site for the Wolverines, to learn more about the tough test NU will face tomorrow in this week’s edition of Interviewing the Enemy:
Inside NU: Michigan comes into this one 6-0. After a down season last year, how much/little was this type of a bounce back anticipated, and do you think the Wolverines’ current record is more a reflection of a relatively weak schedule thus far or their quality as a team?
Trevor Woods: I don’t think many pundits or fans thought Michigan would be 6-0. While none of Michigan’s opponents have been world class, you can’t blame them for who’s been on their schedule to this point. This is a good Michigan team, but they’ll be defined by the toughest games on their schedule — Michigan State, Penn State, and Ohio State. Further, they can’t slip up against Northwestern, Indiana, or Maryland. In short, it was a good first half of the season for Michigan with more cohesion and execution, but things are very much TBD.
Inside NU: It’s hard to talk about Michigan this year without mentioning their two leading rushers, Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins. The two backs have been similarly successful this season, but what are the differences in how they are utilized in the Wolverines’ offense and which of the two do you think will be a larger factor against NU?
Woods: It’s hard to predict who will be the bigger factor. There have been games where Corum has taken on more of a lead role, and then against Nebraska it was the hard running of Haskins that stood out the most. In terms of how they are utilized, Corum runs between the tackles but has more shiftiness, speed and elusiveness to his game than Haskins. However, Haskins has impressive brute force, good vision, patience, and makes some solid cuts in the open field, as well. Haskins and Corum have been impressive, big kudos to them and the Michigan O-line for being ranked seventh in rushing offense.
Inside NU: Cade McNamara has been the starter under center this season for Jim Harbaugh, and leading a team to an undefeated first half of the season is certainly nothing to scoff at. That said, there’s been concern about the lack of elite play at the quarterback position creating somewhat of a ceiling on UM’s accomplishments in Ann Arbor for years. Is McNamara the guy to lead Michigan to bigger and better places than they’ve already reached in recent memory?
Woods: McNamara doesn’t make many mistakes — he’s got only 1 interception and 1 sack on the year. He has a willingness to go vertical and has missed some of those shots, but has made a handful of great strikes of over 20 yards as well. Where McNamara excels is his pre-snap recognition, getting the team lined up correctly. Much of football is won and lost before the ball is snapped, and this is something McNamara understands well. With that said, he needs to up his accuracy a bit or five-star freshman J.J. McCarthy, who’s received playing time in key spots this year, will continue to push him for playing time.
Inside NU: Let’s shift to the defense. Obviously defensive lineman/nightmare fuel-generator Aidan Hutchinson has gotten the most attention of Michigan’s defenders in the national media. Aside from him, though, who are the main defenders Northwestern fans should be worried about this Saturday?
Woods: Michigan’s defense is much improved. Look out for safety Daxton Hill, who’s as hard a hitter as Michigan has on the team and loves to blitz, but is also a ball hawk. Linebacker Josh Ross also plays a smashmouth brand of football and always seems to be by the ball. Hutchinson has gotten the most attention as you noted, but David Ojabo has been very impressive as a pass-rusher as well and could ultimately be the name you hear the most on Saturday.
Inside NU: Let’s face it: while Michigan fans and the media covering this team have tried to focus on the matter at hand, the next game on the Wolverines schedule — a clash with undefeated rival Michigan State — has been mentioned plenty. Do you have any worries about the team itself overlooking Northwestern with the matchup against Sparty looming?
Woods: I think Michigan is playing angry and they’ve kind of been looking ahead all year. This is something they haven’t done in prior years, it’s always been the “one game at a time” cliche. This year, Michigan has put more of an emphasis of beating Ohio State, and even have a “Beat Ohio” drill in practice. Their reasoning is that if they’re always preparing to beat the best, then they can beat the rest of the teams on the schedule. I think overlooking Northwestern is a concern, as Michigan State is certainly a huge game looming large. But I think this team is too focused to not prepare for Northwestern adequately and give Pat Fitzgerald’s club the respect they deserve. I think the trap game stuff is more of a fan thing than anything else. Michigan has been watching Northwestern film this week.
Inside NU: What is your prediction for this game?
Woods: Northwestern has one of the worst rushing defenses in all of college football statistically, and if that trend continues, it should be a Michigan blowout. I also believe the lack of mobility from Northwestern QB Ryan Hillinski could prove to be disastrous for the Wildcats, as the Michigan pass-rush is going to test his ability to throw on the run. Michigan 31, Northwestern 10.