Game of the Week: Northwestern vs. Michigan

As week six is upon us, the midpoint point of the 2015 college football season is approaching. With three top-10 teams losing by double digits and the top-two teams in the nation (Ohio State and Michigan State) only winning by seven and three points respectively, last week proved that there is no single dominant team so far this year but this week there are a few teams that are in position to solidify their place among the top schools.

This week’s game to watch is going to be a Big Ten slugfest, filled with two methodical slow-paced offenses and two punishing defenses, unwilling to give up a score.

For week six, we take a trip up north to Ann Arbor where we’ll see No. 13 Northwestern Wildcats battle the No. 18 Michigan Wolverines.

Northwestern, led by head coach Pat Fitzgerald, comes ready to face the Wolverines with a 5-0 record and look to knock off Big Blue for the first time since 2008. Entering his 10th season, Fitzgerald is off to his best start since 2012, hoping for similar success after they finished that season 10-3. This year the Wildcats hope to continue to flex their muscle on defense against Michigan, only allowing seven points per game, the fewest in the country.

Northwestern also keeps the opposing offense from moving the ball, allowing the 10th fewest yards in the nation through five games and already forcing 10 turnovers along with 9 sacks.

On offense the Wildcats sometimes struggle to score averaging just over 25 points per game. They are strictly a run-first team, averaging about to 250 yards per game, while only throwing for 142 yards per game. If Northwestern looks to remain undefeated, they will have to be a little more balanced rather than being one-dimensional, especially against a defense like Michigan’s.

Michigan looks to defend their home turf against a stout Wildcat defense, with a 4-1 record. Their only blemish so far came in the opener against Utah, now ranked No. 5 in the AP poll, as they lost by seven. Since that game against the Utes, the Wolverine defense has been fierce and dominant under the reign of iconic head coach Jim Harbaugh. In his first season, it appears early on that Harbaugh has turned around a program that was in a downward spiral last season as they finished 5-7. Saturday, the former Michigan quarterback looks to keep his four-game win streak alive.

In their four wins this year, the Wolverines have only given up 14 total points, shutting out their last two opponents in BYU (31-0) and Maryland (28-0).

Michigan ranks second in the nation in points allowed, averaging 7.6, behind who? Northwestern.

While their defense ranks alongside Northwestern, their offenses are almost identical as well. Michigan has been able to score a couple more points than the Wildcats, averaging over 27, but they are much more balanced. Like Northwestern, Michigan is a run-first team, averaging 201 yards per game, but can pass the ball a little better with senior quarterback Jake Rudock, averaging 191 yards per game.

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Keys to the Game

Balanced Offense

With two teams built to run the football, whoever is going to win this game will bring incorporate some balance to their offensive attack. With both defenses preparing to shut down the opposing runners, if anyone wants to score, they are going to have to throw the football.

Turnovers

Both defenses have proven that they can force their opponents to turn over the football, Michigan forcing seven and Northwestern forcing 10, the difference will be who can take care of the football and limit their mistakes.

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Players to Watch

Clayton Thorson, Northwestern Redshirt Freshman Quarterback

After taking a season to redshirt, Thorson now has his chance to lead the Wildcats and is making the most of it so far through his first five games. This season, Thorson has thrown for 711 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions while also making a difference on the ground with 165 yards and four touchdowns.

Northwestern has been most successful when their quarterbacks are mobile, and Thorson has shown he can scramble; however, in his first conference road start he will have to show poise and be able to deliver accurate throws against a really good defense. For the Wildcats’ best chance to win, Thorson will have to take care of the football and be able to make a few throws down field to make the Wolverines respect them. If he shows his youth and has trouble early in a hostile road environment, Northwestern could be sent home with their first loss this season.

Jake Rudock, Michigan Senior Quarterback

As a transfer from Iowa, Rudock came to Michigan with undoubtable the most experience of any returning starters for the Wolverines, and for Harbaugh, it gave him a little more breathing room at the quarterback position. After five games, Rudock has thrown for only five touchdowns and an overwhelming six interceptions. For a team that doesn’t throw the ball very often, that many turnovers is unacceptable; however, thanks to a defense that doesn’t give up very many points, Rudock can make a few mistakes every now and again.

Rudock is a player to watch because with the Wildcats’ ability to stop the run and force turnovers, the game could rest on his shoulders. If he can manage the game and make the easy throws to keep the chains moving, Michigan could pull the upset.

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Final Prediction

Right now, Michigan is favored -7.5 as hosts to Northwestern on Saturday afternoon. I expect this to be an extremely low-scoring game where defenses will come ready to play and the home crowd will make it hard to hear. Both teams will have trouble to move the ball early, but Michigan will find more balance on offense and hand the Wildcats their first loss.

Michigan 17-10