Game Prediction: Michigan @ Northwestern

Both Michigan and Northwestern are 1-0 in Big Ten play. But that’s about where the similarities end with these teams.

Michigan is fresh off their conference opener where they molly whopped Nebraska, 56-10, at the Big House. That was also their third consecutive victory on the year after losing to Notre Dame, 24-17, in South Bend to begin the season.

The Wildcats, however, are reeling after their conference victory. They opened the season with a win at Purdue, 31-27, but have lost back to back games after that. Their first loss came against Duke, 21-7, who is now ranked No. 22 in the latest AP Poll. But their latest loss, to MAC foe Akron, is what is unexplainable. Northwestern got outscored 36-13 in the second half to lose 39-34 after leading by 17 at halftime.

The Wolverines have found their offensive groove after struggling in the opener. They are averaging 41.8 points per game on the year and 50 PPG in their three wins. Quarterback Shea Patterson looks a lot more comfortable as the leader of this offense after looking shaky versus the Fighting Irish.

On the year, Patterson is completing over 70% of his passes and has thrown for 709 yards. He also has seven touchdowns to only two interceptions.

Another thing this offense has going for them is the emergence of Donovan Peoples-Jones, who has seemingly become Patterson’s favorite target. In the three Michigan victories, DPJ has caught nine passes for 131 yards and four touchdowns. Peoples-Jones even showed his explosiveness on special teams as he took a punt 60-yards to the house against the Cornhuskers.

As for the Wildcats, who come into this game averaging 24 PPG in their three contests after a bye last week, their offense suffered a major blow this week.

Their leading rusher, redshirt sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin, had to retire from football on Monday after learning he has cervical stenosis. Fortunately for him, the neck condition isn’t life threatening but requires him to not play football anymore.

Larkin had racked up 346 yards and five touchdowns on 72 attempts.

The possible saving grace for this Northwestern offense is senior QB Clayton Thorson. Through the first three games, he has split reps with backup T.J. Green as the coaching staff tried to ease him back into playing shape. Thorson tore his ACL in the Wildcats bowl game at the end of last season.

But with the extra week of time off to heal and prep due to the bye, I expect Thorson to take the full reins of this offense after his performance versus Akron. He threw for 383 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions against the Zips as Green only attempted six passes.

Now time for the prediction. I believe this Michigan offense will continue to roll over inferior opponents in this one. I expect the Patterson-DPJ connection to hook up for a score or two in this one. Michigan running back Karan Higdon should also have a good day on the ground against this Wildcat defense.

Northwestern will struggle to score, especially without Larkin, against this Don Brown defense, which ranks No. 3 nationally in yards allowed through four weeks. The line is currently sitting at minus-14 for the Wolverines and I think they will end up covering and make it six straight wins versus the Wildcats. A win would move them to 4-1 on the year and to 2-0 in Big Ten play.

As for Northwestern, a loss would drop them to 1-3 on the year and move the team to .500 in conference play at 1-1.

Michigan 42, Northwestern 17.

 

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Jim Harbaugh: From God to National Punching Bag

The 2017-18 season was nothing short of a nightmare scenario for the Michigan Football program. In Jim Harbaugh’s third season with the program, the Wolverines went an unexpected 8-5 after a preseason top ten ranking, losing to both rivals. Michigan’s best win of the season was a 28-10 win against a 7-win Purdue team. Three different starting quarterbacks for Michigan strung together just 9 passing touchdowns on the season for an offense that struggled all season long.

Sitting at a 28-11 overall record, 1-5 in rivalry games, and 1-2 in bowl games, is Jim Harbaugh’s tenure going how anyone expected it to? Under Harbaugh, Michigan has finished 3rd, 3rd, and 4th in the Big Ten East Division. Looking at a big picture, the first three seasons of the Harbaugh era have been a disappointment.

When Jim Harbaugh arrived to Ann Arbor, one could compare it to the welcoming of the messiah. The Michigan fan base was kissing the ground that the former 49ers head coach had walked on, expectation for success was affirmative. This was considerably the home-run hire of the off-season in all of sports. It was a very popular opinion that Michigan would be back in the conversation for the playoffs very shortly because of Jim Harbaugh’s reputation to turnaround programs quickly much like he did at Stanford and in San Francisco.

Year One:

2015 came along, the first season under the “prodigal son” of Michigan Football, Jim Harbaugh’s, leadership. Expectations were high, but somewhat realistic in knowing that this was previously a 5-win ball club just a season prior.

The season started off with a disappointing Thursday night prime-time loss to Utah on the road. The tides took a turn several weeks later once Utah started emerging into a national contender, and it just so happened that Michigan was playing their best brand of football with three straight shutouts against BYU, Maryland, and Northwestern. To this day, that was arguably the best three-week stretch Harbaugh has had at Michigan.

After the trifecta of shutouts, Mark Dantonio and the Spartans come to the Big House on a two-game win streak over their in-state rival. Most of you know where this is going; Blake O’Neil happened, he fumbled the snap and yes the ball was free. Jalen Watts-Jackson was in the right place, at the right time for an MSU fluke, heart-breaker win in Ann Arbor.

Michigan still sat comfortably in the top 25 following the loss with a lot of hope for the remainder of the season going into the bye week. The Wolverines went on a four-game win streak and felt pretty good about their chances going into the rivalry matchup in Ann Arbor against the Buckeyes, who were coming off a loss to MSU. Let’s go ahead and say that the first meeting between Harbaugh and Urban Meyer was a lopsided one, OSU wins 42-13.

The Citrus Bowl had a different tale of the tape for Michigan, going up against Jim McElwain’s Florida Gators in a favorable matchup with a banged up Florida offense. Jake Rudock made his case for NFL teams on why he should be drafted; 20 for 31, 64.5 completion percentage, 278 yards, and 3 touchdowns against a top SEC secondary. Michigan won 41-7, finished 10-3 for the 2015-16 season.

Harbaugh’s first season was good not great, didn’t win the big games, the majority being content given it was his first season with the program. A lot returning talent coming back in 2016, Michigan was the favorite to win the Big Ten title, primed for a playoff run with the only question mark being the quarterback position. Another off-season of hype at the midst no doubt. The fan-base still praising Jim Harbaugh as if he were divine.

Year Two:

Through the first nine games, just two road games, Michigan looked like the playoff contender that the hype insisted on them being. At this point, Jim Harbaugh was being looked at like a Nick Saban, or an Urban Meyer. The resume was a pretty one, three wins over what were top ten teams, sitting at no. 2 in the nation.

November 12th featured a prime-time game against a non-ranked, below average Iowa Hawkeyes team in Iowa City at Kinnick Stadium, which in my opinion is one of the most underrated environments in college football. The 9-0 Michigan Wolverines were having the worst night of the season, nothing was going right for them offensively. In the final seconds, a late field-goal stunned Michigan and shattered perfection, 9-1.

The upset in Iowa City was a reality check for Michigan, but didn’t change the playoff picture much as Harbaugh still controlled his team’s own destiny by winning out. Two teams in front of them for the program’s first berth to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game for what would’ve been a rematch against Wisconsin, whom they bested at home 14-7 earlier in the season.

After handling Indiana at home, Michigan would move on to the big one in Columbus. This game lived up the its hype, and went down to two overtimes. 4th & 1 in 2 OT, Michigan up 27-24 after kicking a field goal, Ohio State will go for it.

J.T. got the first down, at least that’s what the call on the field was initially and even after further reviewing the spot, the Buckeyes converted. It was a close call, some are calling it a controversial one to this day. A play later, Curtis Samuel took it 15 yards to the house six, Ohio State wins it at home 30-27. Jim Harbaugh was fined about his rant regarding incompetent officiating following the overtime loss.

Finishing the regular season inside the top ten with a 10-2 record earned Michigan and Harbaugh a major bowl game bid in the Orange Bowl to take on Florida State. What was almost a comeback classic, ended up being a disappointment of a finish for Michigan. 33-32 Florida State win.

The biggest end of the season letdown for Michigan since 2006, from 9-0 just to finish the season 1-3. This team was talented, and experienced, had 11 players selected in the NFL draft. What did they have to show for the talent? Zero wins against the Buckeyes, zero divisional nor conference titles, this is an absolutely frustrating dose of reality if you’re a Michigan fan.

How do the fans feel about Harbaugh at this point? Some were calling for his head, but he still has the majority on his side insisting that we need to give him time. There were critics who said he was overrated and overpaid, people were really divided on their stance of the former Michigan quarterback.

Year Three:

A lot of fans, critics, and outside observers seemed to agree on that this was going to be a transitional season for Michigan. The program lost over 40 seniors to graduation, not to mention 11 drafted to the NFL. The Wolverines returned enough starters on offense and defense combined to count on just two hands, barely. There were people who expected a similar coaching job to what Urban Meyer did in 2016 after losing a similar amount of talent and taking his team to the playoffs.

The offense never established an identity in 2017 and struggled to score in the red-zone. Wilton Speight and John O’Korn were both put ahead of redshirt freshman Brandon Peters on the depth chart, and people questioned it from day one.

Michigan ended the regular season with an 8-4 record. Play-calling was a big criticism, and incompetent quarterback play seemed to be a trend despite Jim Harbaugh supposedly being a “quarterback guru”.

In Jim Harbaugh’s offense, quarterbacks aren’t asked to win games on their own, but in this team’s case, the quarterback play was so bad that it lost three out of the four regular season games. Youthful, inexperienced receivers struggled to create any separation and emerge into reliable targets. The tight ends were rarely utilized in the pass game. There was an evident switch-up in the passing game’s scheme when Jedd Fisch left Harbaugh’s staff and then added Pep Hamilton to the staff.

The run-game was inconsistent and didn’t have any noticeable presence against quality opponents, but Karan Higdon had a solid season for Michigan falling just short of a thousand yard season (164 attempts, 994 yards, 6.1 YPC, and 11 TDs).

Prior to the Outback Bowl, I was one of the people who thought that the missing piece for Michigan was simply a quarterback, considering that three out of the four regular season losses could have potentially been avoided with better quarterback play. I even thought Brandon Peters was about to make his case for the starting job in 2018.

People expected a similar result to the 2015-16 beat down over Florida in what felt like an easy match-up against a weak South Carolina team, Michigan was more than a touchdown favorite on New Year’s Day. This was arguably the worst performance for a Jim Harbaugh team at Michigan. Blowing a third quarter 19-3 lead, just to fall apart and lose 26-19 says it all. Three turnovers (two INTs, one fumble) from Brandon Peters on what was the furthest thing from an audition for the starting job for next season and another two fumbles from Karan Higdon and Donovan Peoples-Jones.

In what was supposed to be a statement bowl game, turned out to be an embarrassment game that has made Michigan a national joke with a perceived overrated head coach. I wouldn’t say Jim Harbaugh is on the hot seat just yet, but it’s definitely getting warm at the very least.

How do the fans feel about Jim Harbaugh now? They now, hopefully, realize that he’s human and has a lot to prove regarding if he’s anything special like people say he is. There’s no excuse for how the program was showcased in 2017-18. In year three, how do you not have one quarterback ready to perform? There was absolutely no reason for why a redshirt freshman like Brandon Peters wasn’t better prepared and ready to start in week one. There needs to be an immediate change in the coaching staff, both Tim Drevno and Pep Hamilton’s jobs should not be safe.

What’s Next for Michigan, Harbaugh?

Right now, a majority of fans are demanding results in 2018 or declaring it a bust for Harbaugh’s tenure. A losing record against rivals (Notre Dame, MSU, OSU) will not be stomached well in Ann Arbor. If Michigan goes 0-3 against rivals, and fails to win his division yet gain, Harbaugh’s seat will undoubtedly be hot, if not on fire.

Michigan is paying Harbaugh $9 million per year to win big games, rivalry games, conference and national championships. So far, he’s only beaten one rival (3-9 MSU), has an 0-3 against Ohio State, an 0-2 against Michigan State at home, hasn’t been able to finish better than 3rd place in his own division, and has gone 1-2 in bowl games.

2018 will be a big season for Jim Harbaugh because we’ll get to find out what he’s made of 100 percent. Year four is the golden opportunity to showcase how you’ve built your program, the recruiting has been great, the talent is there, transfer quarterback from Ole Miss Shea Patterson might be eligible to play immediately, inexperience is no longer a factor, it’s time for results and if Harbaugh can’t produce said results, then he’s just not a great coach. That’s about all there is to it, the results just aren’t there and if they aren’t there one year from now, then Jim Harbaugh is a fraud.

 

Can Michigan Win Their Next Two?

Jim Harbaugh’s 8-2 Michigan Wolverines are currently on a three-game win streak (Rutgers, Minnesota, Maryland), all in which they beat by two or more possessions. Redshirt freshman QB, Brandon Peters, has seen the start in two of the last three games, but was given significant playing time against Rutgers after struggles from John O’Korn.

Peters through three games: (28 for 46, 329 yards, 4 touchdowns, 60.9 completion percentage, 7.15 yards per attempt, long: 35).

The run game has also been lifted since Peters stepped under center; the two biggest contributors to the latest emergence of the rushing attack are both sophomores, Karan Higdon and Chris Evans.

Higdon this season: (129 attempts, 854 yards, 6.6 yards per carry, 10 touchdowns, long: 77); Evans this season: (104 attempts, 569 yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 6 touchdowns, long: 67)

The quality of defenses in the past three games haven’t exactly been A-list, but it’s nice to finally see Michigan establish the identity they’ve been looking for. This is just what this team needs before playing in this two-game skid against top teams, undefeated Wisconsin and an Ohio State team coming off an absolute rout over Michigan State.

There were concerns in the 2nd half of the Maryland matchup on Saturday; despite winning in convincing fashion, 35-10, the Terps were able to outgain Michigan in total yards (340-305). It was evident that Michigan took their foot off the gas coming out of the locker room into the 3rd quarter. Maryland was also able to outscore the Wolverines in the 2nd half, 10-7, went on a 10-0 run deep into the fourth quarter.

Should Michigan fans worry about their incapability to put a stake in Maryland yesterday, or are they simply over thinking it?

Either way, the schedule faces its most difficult consecutive weeks to date. Michigan still has a sliver of a chance to win the East, but I’d imagine the realistic goal for this team is what’s in front of them, finishing the regular season 10-2.

Since 2006, Michigan is 0-15 against top 25 ranked teams in road match-ups. The last two top ten ranked teams that Michigan has beaten? Both were against Wisconsin at home (2008, 2016).

This Saturday, Michigan will play the only undefeated team left in the conference, top 5 ranked Wisconsin. As of today, the Wolverines are just an 8.5 point spread underdog, which is awfully generous in my opinion. The Big Ten West front-runners have convincingly handled every team put in front of them this season, top wins over Northwestern and Iowa, who both cracked the CFP top 25 in week 11.

The following Saturday, November 25th, Michigan will host Ohio State in the Big House. The last time Michigan beat their rival was November 26th, 2011 in Ann Arbor when current Cincinnati head coach, Luke Fickell, was the interim head coach for the Buckeyes. The 21st century has not been a kind one for Michigan in regards to this rivalry, and if we’re being honest, it hasn’t been kind to Michigan for multiple reasons. Despite already having two losses with two more games left to play in the regular season, Ohio State has looked good for the most part this season and Michigan simply hasn’t.

The S&P probability is giving Michigan just an 8.7 percent chance to win the next two, a 41.6 percent chance to win just one of the next two, and a 49.7 percent chance to lose both and finish 8-4 on the regular season.

Michigan’s offense has been primarily executing, most especially in the run game, which is an important key for success in their next two games. Very crucial for this unit to build off the recent success and to stick with a similar game-plan which is a run-first, pass conservatively scheme, nothing too fancy.

There’s nothing that could lift a young quarterback’s confidence like coming off the bench and assisting in running the table for a Michigan team that was facing offensive struggles prior to him seeing the field. Brandon Peters is the more favorable candidate for the starting job in 2018, will likely have a competition against a likely healthy Wilton Speight. Win or lose the next two, Peters will gain experience and get a better feel for what type of intensity college football has to offer.

Don Brown’s defense has done their job in just about every week except for the Penn State game that displayed multiple schematic issues. Khaleke Hudson has been a significant play-maker for this unit in replacing Jabrill Peppers at the viper position. A young secondary that initially had some communication issues seems to now be hitting their stride, defensive backs like sophomores David Long and Lavert Hill are making names for themselves as of late.

There isn’t a whole lot of reason for odds-makers in Vegas to put any confidence into Michigan in the next two weeks. They’re underdogs this Saturday, and will surely be underdogs next week for the Ohio State game, the odds will be stacked against them.

As for a fan-base who has had quite the emotional roller-coaster with their beloved head coach, they crave these potential signature wins over Wisconsin on the road, and beating Ohio State at home. These wins would not only make Michigan fans believe in Harbaugh again, but it should also silence his doubters. One of the biggest issues that fans and anaylysts have had over Jim Harbaugh is his poor record against rivals thus far at Michigan, which is 1-4.

Winning out would lift Jim Harbaugh to his third consecutive ten win season at his alma mater and would be entering 2018 with a talented team and a confident, sophomore quarterback who has 6 games of experience under his belt. Even though Michigan’s chance at the Big Ten is highly an unlikely one, there’s still a lot at stake for the remainder of the season.