Football: Wildcats’, Wolverines’ indomitable defenses bear down on each other


Daily file photo by Sean Su

Michigan’s offensive line faces off against Northwestern’s defensive line in last year’s game. Both sides this week emphasized the importance of dominating the trenches.

Bobby Pillote, Gameday Editor

What happens when an immovable object meets another immovable object?

Northwestern and Michigan fans will find out Saturday in a game that may surpass the offensive futility of last year’s infamous #M00N bowl. The No. 13 Wildcats (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) sport the best scoring defense in the nation, allowing a miniscule 7 points per game, and the No. 18 Wolverines (4-1, 1-0) are right behind them, yielding 7.6 points per game. NU has just shutout Minnesota, and Michigan comes into the game having blanked BYU and Maryland in consecutive weekends.

The betting line opened with the Wolverines favored by 12, though it’s far from clear if 12 points total will be scored.

“All around, this will be the best team we’ve played,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They have 10 returning starters on defense.”

And on the opposing side, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has been just as complimentary.

“They play with great effort, great discipline, they have a tremendous scheme,” Harbaugh said. “(NU defensive coordinator) Mike Hankwitz does a great job.”

The Wolverines’ defense isn’t so different from the Cats’, relying on strong play up front as an anchor. Fitzgerald praised the Michigan defensive line for terrorizing NU’s backfield last season, sacking quarterback Trevor Siemian five times and holding the ground game to -9 — yes, that’s a negative — yards. Most of that group returned for 2015.

Michigan has gotten to opposing quarterbacks 11 times this season, led by defensive tackle Maurice Hurst’s three sacks, and the line is still just as effective against the run, ranking fifth nationally with 71.4 yards allowed per game. After allowing just one sack to Minnesota a week ago, NU’s offensive line will face a much stiffer challenge.

“It’s the best d-line we’re going to see this year,” senior guard Matt Frazier said. “We have to get after them.”

The return of veteran Frazier, who missed the first four games of the year with a staph infection, is a big step in the right direction, and the catalyst for the Cats’ line play against the Golden Gophers may have been the shuffling of positions that Frazier’s presence enabled.

This week’s depth chart features redshirt freshman Blake Hance at left tackle, Frazier at left guard, junior Ian Park at center, senior Shane Mertz at right guard and junior Eric Olson at right tackle. It’s a significant departure from the opening week lineup of senior Geoff Mogus, Park, sophomore Brad North, Mertz and Olson.

The offensive line will have to be at its best to ensure success, but the entire offense seems confident going up against a stingy defense.

“In the Ball State game, third quarter, we saw what could happen when we follow our game plan,” senior superback Dan Vitale said. “If we execute consistently and just follow our game plan, a lot of good things will happen for us.”

And Fitzgerald expressed no qualms over his redshirt freshman quarterback playing in a hostile environment, saying he’ll simply tell Clayton Thorson to “take care of the football and do his job.”

On the opposite sideline, Harbaugh seems most worried about NU’s one-man wrecking crew: sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker. The coach called Walker one of the best players his team has faced, and lauded the speed that Walker and many others on the Cats’ defense possess.

“This team reacts and flows to the ball as well as you’re going to see in college football,” Harbaugh said Monday in a press conference.

Walker will have his hands full tracking and tackling Michigan running back De’Veon Smith while also keeping tabs on the Wolverines’ bevy of tight ends, but, like last week, the performance of the stop-unit will hinge on the play of the secondary.

NU’s back four came through in a big way last Saturday, with sophomore safety Godwin Igwebuike recording nine tackles, junior corner Matthew Harris snagging an interception and senior corner Nick VanHoose making three pass breakups, and they’ll be called on to do it once more against the all-too-familiar quarterback Jake Rudock.

Rudock led Iowa to a 48-7 embarrassment over NU a year ago and, after a graduate transfer to Ann Arbor, he’s back under center wearing a slightly different shade of yellow.

But despite the Wolverines’ success this season, Rudock’s numbers aren’t spectacular. He’s completed 60 percent of his passes for 956 yards and five touchdowns to go along with six interceptions, which is actually a bit worse than his numbers from 2014. The performance Rudock produced against the Cats last time is an outlier, and NU certainly has the tools to contain him and avoid another blowout.

What is different from a year ago is the cast of receivers catching Rudock’s passes. Michigan starts two seniors, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, at wideout and also has the talented, 6-foot-6-inch Jake Butt at tight end. That trio has combined for 53 catches for 609 yards and three scores.

VanHoose and Harris struggled with veteran Ball State receiver Jordan Williams, allowing eight receptions and 133 yards, but the duo has since become more determined to clamp down.

“Having that bad taste of not winning those 50-50 balls against Ball State,” VanHoose said, “Matt and I set out last week to be better for our teammates.”

It showed against Minnesota, and there’s no reason to think that strong play won’t continue.

The biggest factor separating the two stalwart sides may be Michigan’s vaunted home field advantage. Michigan Stadium, more commonly known as The Big House, holds a staggering 107,601 seats, and most, if not all, will be filled for a contest between ranked teams. That alone could be the best defense against a redshirt freshman quarterback.

But NU had no trouble knocking off Penn State, by a comfortable 29-6 margin, in the 106,572-seat Beaver Stadium a year ago.

“It was a cool atmosphere, playing in front of that many people,” Frazier said. “And as we know last year from Penn State, it’s kind of fun to make those people not cheer as loud.”

It was an added bonus that the contest was the Nittany Lions’ homecoming game. Coincidentally, this week’s matchup is Michigan’s homecoming game.

And if there’s ever a time to buy into the “trap game” narrative — that a team is overlooking this week’s opponent in favor of a bigger game next week — this is it. Michigan has in-state rival Michigan State on the calendar for Oct. 17, and should the Wolverines win this week they’ll be a favorite to host ESPN’s College GameDay next week.

The logic also flows in the opposite direction with NU’s own homecoming showdown against Iowa on the 17th looming, but the effect — if it exists — certainly seems worse for Michigan. Psychological factors in play might actually tilt in favor of the Wildcats.

Regardless, a battle of titan defenses all but ensures a low-scoring game that will be close throughout and determined by a handful of key plays. And with each side’s offensive options limited, it will be up to defensive playmakers to make something happen.

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote