There is going to be a lot of chatter about "trap games" and "rust" this week leading up to Saturday's matchup between the Northwestern Wildcats and undefeated Michigan Wolverines. Should there be?
Coming off a bye week, with the annual in-state clash with Michigan State looming on Halloween, the Wolverines (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) will be looking to squash those perceived storylines in the hopes of continuing their unbeaten season. It's not as though they haven't faced this challenge yet already, as the prognosticators were mentioning similar statements leading up to the Nebraska matchup, following the upset win in Madison over Wisconsin. Michigan answered the bell with the three-point win in Lincoln and will look to do the same thing this weekend.
As for the Wildcats (3-3, 1-2), they enter Saturday with a small bit of momentum, coming off their best performance of the season with a 21-7 win at home against Rutgers where they held the Knights to just 222 yards of total offense. Sitting at .500 overall, Northwestern will be looking to end a six-game losing streak to the Wolverines, whom they haven't beaten since 2008.
Northwestern at No. 6 Michigan
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 23 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Michigan -21.5
When Northwestern Has the Ball
The Wildcats got it done with the pass last week against Rutgers, with quarterback Ryan Hilinski throwing for a season-high 267 yards and two touchdowns to secure Northwestern's first conference victory of the year. Three starts in since taking over the starting job, Hilinski has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes and was finally able to threaten a defense down the field with five completions of 19 yards or more against the Knights. Also playing a role in Northwestern's newfound success with the pass is receiver Stephon Robinson Jr., who topped 100 receiving yards for the second straight week.
Often the source of any offensive success this season for the Wildcats, the ground game combined for just 135 yards on 48 attempts as opponents have loaded the box the last two weeks. After averaging more than 300 rushing yards per game as a team through the first month of the season, Northwestern has been limited to just 2.1 yards per carry against Nebraska and Rutgers. For the Wildcats to pull off the upset Saturday, the offensive line will have to be at its best against a Wolverines front that has 14 sacks through six games and limiting opponents to just 3.5 yards per attempt on the ground. Northwestern's pass protection has been an issue this season with 13 sacks allowed.
When Michigan Has the Ball
The best rushing offense in the Big Ten vs. the worst rushing defense. Is Michigan's offensive game plan for Saturday almost too simple? Like Northwestern's opponents, teams have loaded the box against the Wolverines of late and have had some success as Michigan is averaging just 3.45 yards per carry over the last three weeks. Against Nebraska, we saw a performance reminiscent of the first month of the year from the backfield duo of Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins, combing for 212 yards and three scores on the ground, averaging well over six yards a carry.
With eight- and nine-man fronts from opposing defenses, quarterback Cade McNamara has been forced to do more in recent weeks and has been mostly up to the task. The junior quarterback has thrown the ball 66 times in the last two games, more than he did in the first four weeks of the season combined. McNamara threw for a season-high 255 yards against the Cornhuskers, though he did toss the first interception of his career, which was only the second turnover the Wolverines have had all season. If there has been a bright spot for the Northwestern defense in 2021, it would be the play of the secondary which ranks 37th in coverage grades, per Pro Football Focus, and he held opponents under 200 passing yards four times already this year.
There don't appear to be a ton of advantages in favor of Northwestern for Saturday. The Wolverines should be able to have their way on the ground, facing the worst rushing defense in the Big Ten, and don't make mistakes that allow lesser opponents to stay in games with just two turnovers all season. Michigan also has already overcome the "trap game" narrative this season and will remain undefeated as they look towards another "biggest game of the year" against their in-state rivals next Saturday.
Prediction: Michigan 38, Northwestern 14
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— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.