Football: Northwestern looks to build off last week’s defensive success ahead of massive test against No. 6 Michigan


Gabe Bider/The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern defenders take down a Rutgers player. The defensive line will face their toughest challenge yet this weekend against No. 6 Michigan.

Gabriela Carroll, Senior Staffer


Coach Pat Fitzgerald knows Northwestern has a huge challenge this weekend when the squad takes on No. 6 Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“We have not played very well on the road, and this is by far, probably, the best team we’ve played all year,” Fitzgerald said. “To this point, it’s not even close.”

First, it was Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III. Then, Duke’s Mataeo Durant. Now, the Wildcats gear up to face Michigan’s talented running back duo of Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins.

The Wolverines’ rushing attack is the best in the Big Ten and their two backs present a big challenge for the Cats’ defensive line.

NU conceded 326 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns to Michigan State on Sept. 3 and 208 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns to Duke two weeks later.

But the Cats are coming off of their best defensive performance of the season, conceding just 63 rushing yards and 222 total yards of offense and one touchdown to Rutgers. To stop Michigan’s rushing attack, NU’s defense will need to be in top form like it was last Saturday.

“They do a lot of formation variations,” Fitzgerald said. “You have to operate, execute and communicate pre-snap, and then the group up front that they have, including their tight ends, and the two-headed monster that they have in the backfield is as dynamic of a running group as anybody you’ll see.”

Corum is a speedy, explosive threat in the running game, averaging over 101 rushing yards per game. Haskins doesn’t have Corum’s speed, but he’s stronger and fights through tackles and is often deployed in short-yardage situations and in the red zone. He averages 82 yards per game on the season.

As dynamic as Michigan’s run game is, its passing game is pedestrian. The Wolverines average 194 passing yards per game, less than the 246 yards they average on the ground.

NU is likely to see two Michigan quarterbacks on Saturday: starter Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy, a freshman and former five-star recruit who often slides in to run quarterback keeper plays. While McNamara averages 13.7 yards per completion, McCarthy enters the game in short-yardage situations, where he usually runs the ball. But when he does pass, he goes deep, averaging 44.5 yards per throw on nine completions this year.

The Wolverines often find themselves throwing in third and long situations after two rushing attempts. The key for NU’s defense will be to stop the run and force incompletions on third down.

“We were much better last week,” Fitzgerald said. “In a couple games, we’ve been poor, and then at other times we’ve been every bit as good as we’ve ever been. Trying to get guys to execute fundamentally and in a consistent manner and fitting gaps and tackling. There’s some times that I’ve looked at some plays and wondered to myself, ‘What in the wide world of sports are we doing?’”

Despite the inconsistent performances of NU’s defensive line, junior lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore has been one of the Cats’ best players and consistently makes an impact. He recorded a season-high seven solo tackles against Rutgers, along with a sack.

“He’s an athletic freak,” said sophomore linebacker Bryce Gallagher. “He’s explosive and it’s nice to be playing behind a guy like that who can be so disruptive in the backfield. He’s had a phenomenal year so far, and that’s not just on Saturdays. You see that every single day in practice.”

The linebackers also took a big step forward against the Scarlet Knights, with Bloomfield Hills, Mich. native graduate linebacker Chris Bergin leading the charge with seven solo tackles. Gallagher’s breakout performance against Rutgers saw him become the first NU player since Anthony Walker in 2015 to record 10 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack in a single game.

“I thought our D-Line played their best game of the year on Saturday against Rutgers,” Fitzgerald said. “In contrast to some of our earlier games, we actually tackled better at linebacker … They’re gonna have a huge challenge this week against, you could argue, the most physical offensive line and tight ends in the country.”

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Twitter: @gablcarroll

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