The Northwestern Wildcats have given up 70 first downs on the year: 35 by ground, 29 by air and six by penalty. They’ve held opponents to a third-down success rate of .200–the second-best mark in the nation–and they’ve only allowed six scores during 10 red-zone opportunities through five games.
Check out the total defense stats on NCAA.com
Putting points on the board against the No. 13-ranked Wildcats (5-0) will be a chore for coach Jim Harbaugh’s No. 18-ranked Michigan Wolverines (4-1)–who happen to have a very similar defense–this Saturday in Ann Arbor.
Field position will be crucial, and the team that does the most with less will win the game. But wait a second, that sounds like coach talk.
Michigan must take advantage of what Northwestern provides, and that could involve doling out heavy doses of redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers and/or senior kicker Kenny Allen, whose 33 points are two shy of the total surrendered by Northwestern this season.
Given the circumstances, getting three from Allen, a couple of times, or six from Peppers, by way of a punt/kick return/interception, could come in handy for the Wolverines, who have the Big Ten’s No. 8-ranked total offense and average 27.8 points per game.
Saturday’s outcome could very well be something along the lines of 17-10 or even 13-6, as recently pointed out by noted Michigan stat man Drew C. Hallett:
@AdamBiggers81 Neither offense is that great, but the secret is that NU’s run defense is mediocre. That’s the difference. 13-6 U-M.
— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) October 8, 2015
Hallett makes a good point: Northwestern’s run defense isn’t that great–it’s good, not excellent, and it allows 3.72 yards per carry compared to Michigan’s average of 2.32. Yard-and-a-half-difference aside, running the ball will difficult for both teams.
But let’s go one step further and say each team shuts down the run and places the clamps on the pass. That’s entirely likely. The Wildcats are proficient like that. So, that leaves two other options–the guys mentioned above.
And here’s how they can help the Wolverines tally one on homecoming versus an incredibly unforgiving defense.
Teams won’t kick to Peppers–that’s why he only has 96 yards on 11 attempts. Twenty-nine of those yards were gained on one return during a 28-7 win over UNLV. He’ll get more, that’s for certain, but he’ll have to wait for a team to slip and send one his way.
When it comes to third down, Northwestern is very good–but Michigan has been even better (.194 vs. .200 3rd%). That should lead to plenty of 3-and-outs, which in turn will lead to punts. Northwestern already punts a lot when compared to the rest of the league–an average of nearly six times per game–so it’s fair to assume that Peppers could get one returnable kick.
That’s when he’s dangerous. During a recent availability, he said that the Wolverines were oh-so close to breaking one for a touchdown. Might as well be him.
Conversely, Peppers, a 6’1, 205-pound supreme athlete, could make the Wildcats pay while playing safety. Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson has thrown just three picks this years, and he hasn’t thrown one during the past seven quarters of play. In short, he’s taken care of the ball.
But he hasn’t faced a pressuring defense like the one he’ll face in Ann Arbor. That could cause the freshman to throw one to Peppers. It could cause a miscommunication with a wide receiver and lead to a fumble–and Peppers, who is known for being on the ball at all times, might just be the guy to snag it and run it into the endzone.
Six points, plus the point-after, probably won’t be enough, though.
That’s where Allen enters the fold.
At 6’3″ and 220 pounds, Allen has enough power behind his right leg to nail the must-get field goals. Well, all field goals are must-gets–aren’t they?!–but they’ll be especially important against the Wildcats, who have given up just four red-zone scores in 10 attempts.
Depending on how well the running game works, the Wolverines may just go ahead and put it all on Allen. One or touchdowns plus one or two field goals from Allen, who is 6-for-8 this year, could do the trick. Allen has been automatic from inside 40 yards, but he’s 2-for-4 when attempting 40-yard-plus conversions.
He’ll come in handy if the Wolverines can only manage to get on the door step of Northwestern’s red zone.
Prediction: Michigan 17, Northwestern 10
This one should be a classic defensive battle predicated on field position. Turnovers, of course, play a large roles in games such as these, so don’t rule out the possibility of Peppers doing something special on Saturday. Then again, as mentioned, kicking will be important too.
Peppers and Allen, one likely and one not-so likely, are the two guys who could really decide Michigan’s homecoming–or, at the very least, have significant influence on the outcome.
Follow Adam Biggers of Today’s U on Twitter @AdamBiggers81