Northwestern and Michiganare teams heading in two different directions. The Wildcats won their season opener but lost two straight before last week’s bye. The Wolverines on the other hand started the year with a road loss at No. 8 Notre Dame but have won their last three games by a combined score of 150-33. This week both teams will meet one another with huge Big Ten implications at stake.
Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) are still eying a conference championship. The Michigan faithful were up in arms after the Notre Dame loss, but since then the team has displayed consistency on offense, been dominant on defense, and the supposed “hot seat” that Harbaugh was on has cooled off for the time being. The Wolverines pounded a short-handed Nebraska team last week, and after this week they still have high-profile games against Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State ahead of them that will decide their postseason future.
Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats (1-2, 1-0) on the other hand are picking up the pieces after being taken to task by Duke for the second year in a row and practically giving Akron its first win over a Big Ten team since 1894. They’re also dealing with the emotions following Monday's unexpected announcement that running back Jeremy Larkin was retiring from football due to cervical stenosis. So Northwestern is hoping to get back on the winning track while also needing to keep the offense moving without Larkin.
With all of the storylines heading into this game, it’s nice to see that these two teams will get the spotlight of national network television.
Michigan at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 29 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Michigan -14.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson
The Ole Miss transfer has made a seamless transition from the Rebels' spread offense to Michigan’s pro-style system. He’s completed 70 percent of his passes (61 of 87), for 709 yards, seven touchdowns and a passer rating of 160.5. Under Jim Harbaugh’s guidance, Patterson has adjusted to taking snaps from under center and he’s developed a stronger pocket presence. After getting sacked three times against Notre Dame, the Wolverines' offensive line has cleaned things up with just four over the past three games combined. And with Northwestern lacking a pass rush at the moment (just three sacks in the last two games), Patterson could give the Wildcats' defense fits with a clean pocket.
2. Michigan’s defense
This is another area that the Wolverines have improved since the Notre Dame game. When you combine the numbers against Western Michigan, Southern Methodist and Nebraska, Michigan has allowed 12-of-44 third down conversions (27.2 percent), 5-of-10 fourth down conversions, and has forced four turnovers. The Wolverines held Scott Frost’s Cornhuskers to just 132 total yards, only permitted 19 pass completions against SMU, and kept WMU scoreless for three quarters. With Northwestern still searching for an identity on offense, Michigan has another chance to have another big defensive showing.
3. Northwestern’s offense without Larkin
Losing Larkin was a major blow to this Wildcat team. He accounted for 518 of NU’s 1,273 total yards and five of their 10 offensive touchdowns. He also was well respected both and on and off of the field. The Wildcats will be rotating running backs for now, but it’s easier to replace the player than it is to replace his production. Without Larkin more will be expected of senior quarterback Clayton Thorson, who may play his first full game of the year after operating with a “pitch count” in his return from a torn ACL.
The Wolverines are catching the Wildcats at the perfect time. Northwestern’s offense is still figuring things out, the defense is still somewhat suspect, and the loss of running back Jeremy Larkin will be felt for the remainder of the season. It will take a game or two for Northwestern to fully adjust to playing without him. Michigan is cruising on both sides of the ball and with all of the uncertainly surrounding the Wildcats, it's tough to see them being able to hang with the better-balanced Wolverines.
Prediction: Michigan 30, Northwestern 20
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.