Brady Hoke always tells his players every game is a championship game. Right now, he’s not exaggerating.
For the Wolverines to reach their ultimate goal — the Big Ten Championship Game (televised by FOX) — they know they have to win their final three regular season games and hope someone beats Nebraska.
That’s going to be tough — Penn State is the toughest test left for the Cornhuskers — but it won’t matter if Michigan doesn’t beat Northwestern and Iowa at home and then finish the year with a win at Ohio State.
First up is Northwestern, who still has designs of its own on the Legends Division title. The Wildcats’ chances are even more remote than Michigan’s — they need to win out while Nebraska would have to lose twice — but they aren’t about to give up.
NORTHWESTERN’S OFFENSE VS. MICHIGAN’S DEFENSE
This is going to be pretty simple. Northwestern is going to run, run and run some more. It doesn’t pass the ball well at the best of times, and certainly won’t be throwing much against Michigan’s national-best pass defense.
So you’re going to see quarterback Kain Colter and tailback Venric Mark attacking Michigan with the read option — the same basic offense the Wolverines use when Denard Robinson is healthy and Fitz Toussaint is playing well. Mark, also a dangerous kick returner, already has more than 1,000 yards for the season. Colter had 166 yards and three touchdowns last week against Iowa.
The Wildcats aren’t likely to have that much success against the Wolverines, but they probably need the duo to combine for at least 150 yards and a couple touchdowns to have a chance. If Michigan is able to shut down the run or get out to an early lead, Northwestern likely would have to take Colter out of the game and bring in passing specialist Trevor Siemian.
Siemian won’t lose a game — he’s thrown only one interception in 163 passes this season — but he’s not likely to lead much of a rally, either. The Wildcats don’t have a single receiver averaging 30 yards per game or 13 yards per catch.
MICHIGAN’S OFFENSE VS. NORTHWESTERN’S DEFENSE
Want to know how this is going to go? Get Brady Hoke to tell you whether Denard Robinson or Devin Gardner is going to start at quarterback. Hoke isn’t telling anyone if Robinson has recovered from the nerve damage to his passing elbow or if Gardner will be starting for the second week in a row.
As anyone who watched Michigan’s win over Minnesota knows, the Wolverines’ offense will change drastically depending on who is at quarterback. If Robinson returns, the Wolverines will be back to the read option that highlights his spectacular running skills while hiding his inability to pick up yards consistently through the air.
Toussaint hasn’t been much help at all this season, despite a 1,000-yard season a year ago. If Robinson is playing, Gardner goes back to wide receiver to provide a big, athletic threat.
If Gardner starts, everything changes. He’ll be taking snaps under center and working more on play action roll-out plays. He’s still a dangerous running threat, even if he doesn’t have Robinson’s breakaway speed.
Gardner has a more accurate arm than Robinson, especially after Gardner got warmed up against the Golden Gophers. There were still a few signs of rust, but by the end of the day, he was showing his ability to keep plays alive and hit receivers downfield. That’s something Michigan doesn’t have with Robinson behind center.
Either quarterback would benefit greatly from improved play from Michigan’s offensive line. Usually a strength, the Wolverines have struggled all season to get their running backs going, whether it’s been Toussaint, Thomas Rawls or Justice Hayes.
Both the coaching staff and the offensive linemen themselves say that’s due to poor blocking, and there were hints this week that a shuffle might not be far away. Even if that doesn’t happen Saturday, it will have to take place soon for Michigan to have any chance of beating Ohio State in two weeks.
Michigan is a flawed team, but the one thing the Wolverines are very good at is stopping the run. That’s going to take away most of Northwestern’s offense, and the Wolverines should be able to move the ball against a mediocre Wildcat defense no matter which quarterback starts.
If Michigan can get out to an early lead and force Northwestern to pass, this could get ugly. Michigan wins 28-10.