Bob Wojnowski, Angelique S. Chengelis and Matt Charboneau preview Week 5 of the college football season. The Detroit News
MICHIGAN AT NORTHWESTERN
Kickoff: 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Ryan Field, Evanston, Illinois
Records: Northwestern 1-2, Michigan 3-1
Line: Michigan by 14
View from the other side
Louie Vaccher covers Northwestern football and is publisher and managing editor of WildcatReport, the Rivals site covering the Wildcats. He breaks down the Wildcats for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan-Northwestern game at Ryan Field. You can follow him on Twitter at @WildcatReport.
1. It was announced Monday running back Jeremy Larkin is retiring from the game because of a diagnosis of cervical stenosis. What has been the reaction to that news?
Vaccher: Talk about a bombshell. I think all of Purple Nation was stunned when the athletic department tweeted the devastating news just about an hour before Pat Fitzgerald’s Monday press conference. Larkin is not out for the game. He’s not out for the season. He’s out forever.
Larkin had been the Wildcats’ best player through three weeks. He was really the only dynamic weapon on a Northwestern offense that has had its share of struggles early in the season. No matter what else was happening around him, the Wildcats could count on Larkin rushing for 100 yards (he broke the century mark in two of the three games) and making plays in the passing game. He was elusive and sneaky-fast, and he had that uncanny vision that all great backs seem to have. He was the heir apparent to all-time leading rusher Justin Jackson and showed flashes that he might have a higher ceiling.
And now, he’s gone. It’s difficult to imagine how the news on Monday could have been much worse.
2. Junior John Moten IV has moved to the first team and first-year player Isaiah Bowser is listed at second-team running back on this week's depth chart. Moten has 12 carries for 21 yards and a touchdown this season and has 416 rushing yards on 86 carries in his career while Bowser recorded his first carry in Week 3 vs. the Zips. Can the Wildcats’ run production recover without Larkin?
Vaccher: The one solace here is that Northwestern does have depth in the backfield. Whether they will collectively be able to carry the flag in Larkin’s absence is the big question.
Moten is a seasoned veteran who will take the reins as the No. 1 guy. He is faster than Larkin, but doesn’t have the wiggle that Larkin did. Moten has been productive in spot duty throughout his career, but has had some problems staying healthy. Coaches are very excited about the future of Bowser. The true freshman is the Wildcats’ biggest back, and he showed some burst last spring (he enrolled early) and in fall camp. The other runners who could get pressed into duty are redshirt sophomore Jesse Brown (nine career carries) and Drake Anderson (zero), a true freshman and the son of former Northwestern great Damien Anderson.
So Northwestern has numbers in the backfield. We don’t know if they have another No. 1.
3. Clayton Thorson has started 42 games at quarterback. How do you think he’ll run this offense against a Michigan defense that has given up 36 points since the first half of the season opener at Notre Dame?
Vaccher: The key to Thorson’s performance will be the play of his offensive line. When Thorson has a clean pocket he can be as good as any quarterback in the country. When protection breaks down, however, he can be pressured into mistakes. Take the Akron game, for example. Thorson was under quite a bit of pressure in the second half and he threw two pick-6s and had a fumble that was returned for a touchdown. So he finished the game with six TDs — three for Northwestern and three for Akron. Northwestern doesn’t really have a deep threat who can blow the top off the defense, so Thorson will throw the underneath routes and try to dink-and-dunk his way down the field against the Wolverines.
Northwestern’s biggest concern going into this game is the offensive line, which will be playing against the best defensive front they’ll see all season. The O-line played well in the opener against Purdue, but since then they have been banged up and turned in subpar performances in losses to Duke and Akron. Starting tackles Blake Hance and Rashawn Slater both went down against Duke, and Hance and guard Tommy Doles, the best player on the line, both missed the Akron game. While Fitzgerald wouldn’t give the media an update on Monday — he is almost as secretive as Jim Harbaugh — the hope is the week off gave those guys time to get healthy.
4. Where is this team's pysche coming off consecutive losses and a bye?
Vaccher: You’d think the Wildcats would be down after two lackluster home losses — including blowing an 18-point halftime lead to 21-point underdog Akron in as bad a half of football as I’ve seen in Evanston — followed by two weeks of stewing about it. But if I’ve learned one thing in 14 years of covering this team, it’s that they are very good at putting bad losses behind them. Lord knows, they’ve had a lot of experience doing it.
In 2016, they lost their first two at home as favorites, including a brutal 9-7 loss to FCS Illinois State that I think was the low point of the Fitzgerald era. They rebounded to win their four of their next five and wound up winning a bowl game. Just last year they got hammered at Duke and were 2-3 before turning things around and winning eight straight for their third 10-win season in six years.
The program has a mantra tailor-made for this situation: “Flush it.” Fitzgerald gives the team 24 hours to wallow in a loss or celebrate a win, and then it’s on to the next game. They are very good at forgetting the last game and moving on.
5. Northwestern is ranked 11th in the Big Ten in total defense and Michigan’s offense is starting to find itself a bit. Where is the Wildcats’ defense most susceptible?
Vaccher: The Wildcats’ front seven is pretty stout and should be able to contain Michigan’s running game. Their Achilles’ heel through the first three games has been big plays, particularly in the passing game.
Northwestern already has surrendered 12 explosion plays in three games, nine of them through the air. Purdue hit them for 76- and 45-yard runs and 23- and 32-yard passes. Duke connected on 52- and 26-yard passes and a 25-yard run. Akron quarterback Kato Nelson really let it fly against NU’s secondary, throwing strikes of 56, 43, 40, 25 and 24 yards, the last two going for scores. Fitzgerald has talked about his defensive backs’ lack of eye discipline and it has shown. And it hasn’t only been young guys getting burned, either. Even seniors like Montre Hartage and Jared McGee have been burned.
For the Wildcats to have a shot at knocking off the Wolverines on Saturday at the Little House, they can’t surrender big plays like those.
Players to watch
Clayton Thorson, Sr., QB: Thorson has started all 42 games of his career — he is second among active FBS quarterbacks for starts (behind Jake Browning) and has a 28-12 career record as the program's all-time winningest quarterback. Thorson set career highs with 33 completions, 383 passing yards and three touchdown passes vs. Akron, becoming the program's sole leader in career touchdown passes with 47. His six 300-plus yard games are tied for the second most in program history behind only Brett Basanez (10). Thorson has more than 8,000 career passing yards and currently ranks fifth among active FBS quarterbacks (second in NU history) with 8,301. He is 958 yards shy of passing Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova (9,258 yardsl 2011-14) for 10th in Big Ten history. Thorson enters Saturday's contest versus Michigan ranked first in the Big Ten and 12th nationally with 23.67 completions per game.
Flynn Nagel, Sr., WR: The senior receiver leads the Wildcats with 20 receptions and 226 receiving yards. Nagel had a career-high 12 catches in the second game of the season against Duke (ironically, he decommitted from Duke to attend Northwestern). His 20 catches are the fourth most by a Wildcat through three games since 2000. Nagel ranks 17th nationally and second in the Big Ten with 6.7 receptions per game and is third in the league with 75.3 receiving yards per game. He started all 13 games in 2017 and set career highs with 48 receptions and 489 receiving yards .
Paddy Fisher, So., LB: Fisher, a linebacker, is the first sophomore captain since Pat Fitzgerald has been coach. He is one of seven sophomore captains in the FBS this year. Fisher was named a Freshman All-American by the Football Writers Associate, earned Second-Team All-Big Ten honors and was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year by the Big Ten Network after leading all FBS first-year players in tackles (113) and solo stops (65) last year. He was the only Power-5 player to post two games with at least 18 tackles. Fisher and linebackers Blake Gallagher and senior Nate Hall have combined to make 75 tackles through the first three games this year. Fisher currently leads the team with 28, Gallagher is second with 26 and Hall is third with 21. Fisher (9.3 tackles per game) and Gallagher (8.7 tackles per game) rank third and fifth in the Big Ten, respectively.
Facts and figures
Making it interesting: The last two meetings between Michigan and Northwestern at Ryan Field have come down to the final play. Michigan had a 27-19 victory in three overtimes on Nov. 16, 2013, and a 10-9 victory on Nov. 8, 2014 when the Wildcats failed to convert a 2-point conversion that would have won the game.
A young veteran: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is only 43, but is the second-longest tenured Big Ten head coach. Fitzgerald is in his 13th season coaching his alma mater. Fitzgerald was a linebacker at Northwestern. He has led the Wildcats to eight bowl appearances in his first 12 seasons, and has guided them to three of their four bowl wins in program history. Most recently, Northwestern beat Kentucky in the 2017 Music City Bowl, 24-23, giving Northwestern back-to-back bowl wins for the first time in program history. Northwestern finished the season ranked No. 17.
Long history: This will be the 75th time Michigan and Northwestern have met. The Wolverines lead the series, 57-15-2 and have won five straight. This is the 30th time they have played in Evanston and Michigan leads, 22-7 overall and 20-7 at Ryan Field. Michigan has won six straight at Ryan Field.