The Northwestern Wildcats are 5-0 for the first time in three years, and if last Saturday’s 27-0 drubbing of Minnesota was any indication; the team is as formidable as any in the Big Ten Conference.
“I think it was a pretty darn good complete performance in all three phases today,” Coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the win.
Minnesota hadn’t been shut out in four years, yet was smothered to the tune of 173 total yards — failing to reach triple digits in either the ground game or through the air. In Northwestern’s season opener against then-No. 21 Stanford, the Wildcats held the Cardinal to six points; the lowest total since 2007, when Jim Harbaugh was the coach.
This week, the No. 13-ranked Wildcats again square off against Harbaugh, who will lead No. 20 Michigan at the Big House. After falling, 27-14, to now-No. 5-ranked Utah in the season opener — a loss that looks increasingly digestible on the résumé as the season unfolds — the Wolverines have rattled off four straight, allowing an average of 3.5 points per game and pitching consecutive shutouts. Northwestern and Michigan have the top two scoring defenses in the country; a margin of 0.6 of a point separates them.
Las Vegas favored Michigan by eight points as of Monday morning. Moreover, the Detroit Free Press went as far as to say the Wolverines currently look better than the Michigan State Spartans, who are the No. 4 team in the country. However, there are reasons to believe the Wildcats could leave Ann Arbor with their second conference win Saturday afternoon, a step closer to the Big Ten title game.
Northwestern’s defense may as well be a steel gate
The Wildcats, under defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, have the nation’s top scoring defense (seven points allowed per game), and rank near the apex in several defensive metrics.
Twice this season an opponent has failed to amass 180 total yards against Hankwitz’s outfit—and no opponent has yet to eclipse 200 yards on the ground or through the air. The Wildcats are one of five teams left in the country that have yet to allow a play of 40 or more yards, and are relentless with their pass rush, forcing errant throws and putting offenses in disadvantageous positions. They’ve allowed three touchdowns total this season.
Furthermore, Northwestern opponents are converting just 20 percent of third downs, a percentage that ranks second in the country. Michigan has already racked up 76 third-down attempts this season and rank outside the top 40 in converting them. If Northwestern’s defensive front can boss around Michigan’s offensive line, Harbaugh will be hard-pressed to find any semblance of offensive rhythm.
Michigan’s quarterback play has been consistently inconsistent
After losing the starting quarterback battle at Iowa, transferring to Michigan as a graduate student, and beating out Shane Morris for the starting nod, Jake Rudock has led the Wolverines’ offense the first month of the season.
From 2013 to 2014, Rudock was one of 22 Division I quarterbacks to throw at least 18 interceptions while attempting fewer than 700 passes. He has yet to shed the turnover-prone label this season: He threw three interceptions against Utah, and has an interception in all but one game this season, as well as two fumbles.
Having a quarterback currently tied for fifth in the country in most interceptions thrown (six) is hardly something to be enthusiastic about. Having a quarterback with a track record beleaguered by turnover problems is something else entirely when he’s staring down the second-most efficient defense in the country, which has produced three more interceptions than passing touchdowns allowed.
De’Veon Smith can shoulder some of the reigns, but Rudock will need to play significantly better than he has thus far, and will have to do it against a defense that turned veteran quarterback Kevin Hogan into a bobblehead doll.
Justin Jackson is hitting his stride
None of Northwestern’s offensive metrics inspire much confidence, but running back Justin Jackson is clearly the spark of the offense. The sophomore eclipsed the 1,000-yard threshold as a freshman last season, and is projected to obliterate his 1,187-yard first-year showcase, having already amassed 636 yards on the ground thus far.
Jackson has at least 120 yards on the ground in all but one game this season, and his 127.2-yards-per-game average ranks 13th in the country.
Save for UNLV—who isn’t a member of a power five conference — Michigan hasn’t matched up with a rushing attack as arduous as the one Northwestern’s bringing to town. The Wildcats have the 14th-best rushing offense in the country, and have the most attempts of any team. If nothing else, offensive coordinator Mick McCall will hammer the nail until it breaks. And while Michigan has been stout against the run thus far, it’s worth noting that they’ve matched up with three teams ranked lower than 50th in team rushing.
In a topsy-turvy Big Ten West climate, Northwestern is in the driver’s seat. The last time the Wildcats started a season 6-0 (1962), per ESPN, they eventually rose to the nation’s top ranking in the Associated Press poll. They don’t have to play either Michigan State or Ohio State during the regular season, and if they get through Michigan this weekend, look for Northwestern to represent the Big Ten West in the conference title game.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.