The final installment of our 2021 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s schedule week by week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
Next up is Michigan, a team that had an extremely disappointing 2020 after entering the year with somewhat high expectations. This matchup will debut the George Jewett Trophy, which was established in 2021 to honor George Jewett, the first African-American college football player to play at both schools.
Returning Production: 73 percent overall (Offense 77 percent, Defense 70 percent)
2020 Record: 2-4
Coach: Jim Harbaugh
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2020 S&P+ Overall: 33rd
2020 S&P+ Offense: 42nd
2020 S&P+ Defense: 36th
Coming off of a somewhat solid 2019 campaign that saw Michigan defeat the likes of Iowa and Notre Dame, expectations for the Wolverines were high in 2020. The events that transpired were about the opposite of what Michigan fans hoped would happen, however. A modified conference-only schedule ultimately proved detrimental to the Wolverines, placing an even hotter flame under the seat of Jim Harbaugh.
After opening the season with a 49-24 trouncing of a ranked Minnesota team, Michigan returned home and was met with a heated three point defeat at the hands of Michigan State. They would go on to get throughly outplayed by Indiana in a 17-point loss and run out of the Big House by Wisconsin in a 38-point defeat over following two weeks, dropping them down to 1-3.
The Wolverines’ woes didn’t stop there though. After losing to the Badgers, Michigan narrowly avoided defeat in a thrilling 48-42 triple overtime win over Rutgers that saw the Wolverine secondary give up 381 yards through the air to Scarlet Knights’ quarterback Noah Vedral. They would unfortunately end their season a little early with a 10-point home loss to Penn State, as positive COVID tests throughout their program forced Michigan to cancel their last three games against Maryland, Ohio State and Iowa. By the end of the season, there were a lot of questions left unanswered in Ann Arbor.
Despite what their record shows, Michigan was a solid team offensively in 2020. While they posted a meager 11 points in their blowout loss to Wisconsin and just 17 points against Penn State, they scored at least 20+ points in their four other games and averaged 28.3 points per game on the season. That number was a slight step down from the 31.7 points per game they averaged in 2019, but still impressive nonetheless.
The Wolverines finished 2020 ranked 42nd in S&P+ offensive rankings, and their team numbers largely reflect that. Their offensive attack was balanced throughout the season, averaging 250.3 passing yards and 131 rushing yards over the course of their six games. Additionally, they averaged 35.5 pass attempts per game and 28.7 run attempts per game in 2020.
There were times last season when the turnover bug seemed to plague Michigan. In their losses to Indiana, Wisconsin and Penn State — all of which were lost by two scores or more — the Wolverines turned the ball over at least twice. Additionally, offensive penalties were an issue at points last year, as Michigan averaged nearly six per game, costing them an average of 57.5 yards.
The quarterback position will certainly be one to keep track of as the Wolverines progress through their 2021 season. In 2020, senior quarterback Dylan McCaffrey opted out and proceeded to transfer to Northern Colorado. Meanwhile, junior Joe Milton announced his transfer to Tennessee this past offseason after losing the Michigan starting job to Cade McNamara. Additionally, the Wolverines landed transfer Alan Bowman from Texas Tech. On top of that, the Wolverines landed five-star recruit J.J. McCarthy in late 2020, and he currently sits at No. 2 on Michigan’s depth chart after reportedly impressing in camp. The QB room in Ann Arbor seems to be a revolving door for the time being, and the battle taking place between McNamara, McCarthy and Bowman is one to keep your eye on.
While Michigan’s defensive S&P+ ranking sat at 36th by the end of 2020, the numbers don’t necessarily reflect that. Overall, the Wolverines gave up an average of 434.3 yards per game last season, good enough for 89th in all of college football. They gave up the third most yards per game on average in the Big Ten, ahead of only Rutgers and Illinois.
Much like their offense, Michigan’s defense was balanced in both run and pass coverage. Teams seemed to slightly prefer the run against them last season, as Michigan’s opponents averaged 43 run attempts per game against the Wolverines defense, compared to an average of 34.7 pass attempts. It’s important to note that Michigan had some pretty horrific struggles against the run, such as when they let Wisconsin rush for 341 yards against them.
As previously mentioned, the Wolverines’ offense struggled with turnovers at points last season. Meanwhile, Michigan’s defense largely struggled to create them. Michigan’s defense averaged just 0.5 turnovers per game last season and forced just three total. One bright spot of the Wolverines defense, however, was their ability to create pressure on opposing team quarterbacks. Carlo Kemp and Kwity Paye led Michigan with two sacks each last season, while four other defenders recorded at least one sack of their own.
Three Players to Know
QB Cade McNamara
Barring any injuries or other mishaps, it’s more than likely that Cade McNamara will take the field against Northwestern rather than the aforementioned true freshman J.J. McCarthy. McNamara, a junior out of Reno, Nev., took the quarterbacking reins from Joe Milton during their blowout loss to Wisconsin and never looked back. In their triple overtime win over Rutgers, McNamara solidified his starting job, completing 27 passes for 260 yards and four touchdowns. While he had limited appearances, he finished the season with 425 total passing yards, five touchdowns, zero interceptions and a passer efficiency rating of 134.1.
RB Hassan Haskins
While Hassan Haskins did have an impressive 2019 season, it wasn’t until last year that he really broke out. Fighting through a crowded Michigan backfield that featured the likes of Zach Charbonnet, Haskins emerged as the Wolverines’ lead back, carrying the ball 61 times for 375 and six touchdowns over the course of their six game season. His 6.1 yards per carry were good enough for fourth-best in the Big Ten behind Maryland’s Jake Funk, Ohio State’s Trey Sermon and Illinois’ Isaiah Williams.
LB Josh Ross
Kwity Paye is gone, drafted with the 21st pick in the 2021 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts. While his spot will likely be filled by fellow defensive lineman Carlo Kemp, someone needs to lead Michigan’s back seven, and that’s where Josh Ross comes in. Ross, who led the Wolverines in tackles a year ago with 53, played in all six games last season and is taking an extra year to play for Michigan as a grad student. He has the experience necessary to continue leading this UMich defense; expect to hear his name called quite a bit when they face Northwestern.