However you try to spin it, Northwestern lacks a defining victory.
The best two candidates for that honor – Vanderbilt and Indiana – have combined for only nine wins, four of which came against either FBS schools or FCS newcomer Massachusetts.
Despite being ranked in the BCS standings, the Wildcats obviously have a great deal to prove. To them, Michigan is an opportunity, and a tough one at that.
It comes as no surprise that during the bye week, coach Pat Fitzgerald kept a watchful eye on the tough upcoming opponent. After a disappointing loss to Nebraska, the Wolverines finally put together a complete performance in the 35-13 win against Minnesota.
“I was really impressed by Devin (Gardner) and the way that Michigan played in the second half,” Fitzgerald said. “They played very well in all three phases.”
When Denard Robinson suffered an injury to a nerve in his elbow during the Nebraska loss, redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy filled in and the results were disastrous. Bellomy missed 13 of 16 passes, including his first 10, and tossed three interceptions.
Coach Brady Hoke insisted Robinson would play against Minnesota, which confused the media and his opponent.
After playing wideout, Gardner transitioned back to quarterback for the Minnesota game and succeeded, averaging 13 yards per pass attempt in the decisive victory.
Fitzgerald said he does expect Robinson will play Saturday, but if his elbow continues to hold him out, even Gardner will provide a challenge for the Cats secondary.
“He’s been solid at wide receiver,” Fitzgerald said. “To watch the way he picked right up at quarterback was very impressive.”
Michigan, as usual, poses several challenges on offense. The Wolverines boast a physical running back in Fitzgerald Toussaint. This season, though, Toussaint has yet to eclipse the 100-yard mark in any game.
Still, defensive lineman Quentin Williams said he anticipates a dynamic attack. Asked if he considered the Michigan attack to be similar to that of Nebraska, he partially agreed.
“While they do run some similar schemes, I’d like to say Michigan is a little more rounded in the run game,” Williams said. “It’s definitely a little different, but a similar package.”
The NU defense has been sharp throughout the season. In recent weeks, the Cats offense sputtered.
One recent development for NU has been its poor passing attack. That could very well need to change against a stout, talented Michigan group with eight returning starters. With barely more than 100 yards an outing in the past four games, the wide receivers are hardly involved.
Still, the team is finding ways to win primarily through the rushing attack. Venric Mark and Kain Colter run the option with a flourish, and if that helps the team, even wide receiver Christian Jones is fine with it.
“We’ve really established ourselves as (a running team),” Jones said. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. We’ve taken on the mindset of blocking and doing what it takes to help the team win.”
Although Fitzgerald was hesitant to point out specific areas for improvement, the passing game certainly qualifies. Asked whether the tough Michigan run defense can force NU to work through the air, Jones insisted the group can capitalize on its opportunities.
“Every week, we feel like we have to do something in the passing game,” Jones said. “If they have to turn to us to make plays in the passing game, we feel like we’re ready.”
Last season, NU prided itself on a strong close to the season. Heading to Michigan – one of its toughest opponents to date – the goal remains the same.
In terms of looking forward, Williams preached Fitzgerald’s overarching message: “People remember what you do in November.”
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