Northwestern vs. Michigan will be a defensive showdown
Saturday in Ann Arbor features a Top-25 battle between two suffocating defenses: The Michigan Wolverines and Northwestern Wildcats.
The stout Michigan defense shut out their last two opponents in BYU and Maryland and has only allowed one touchdown in their last 15 quarters. Our No.3-ranked defense (+128.4) didn’t feature a single preseason All-Big Ten selection, but are proving team defense and great collective desire trumps everything.
The undefeated Wildcats started the season off with a bang by stunning Stanford and haven’t let up since. They’ve only allowed 35 points through five weeks and have pitched two shutouts. The top scoring defense in the country is earning comparisons to the dominant 1995 Northwestern team, which shut down a slew of powerhouses en route to the Rose Bowl that season.
While these two schools are both playing terrific defense, they are doing so in different ways. Northwestern has our second-highest pass coverage grade (+34.4) and is leaning on strong secondary play to dictate opposing offenses’ game plans. Michigan is getting stellar defensive line effort and clogging every opening up front. They are the only team with a top-three run defense and pass rush according to our grades.
In the trenches for Michigan, the most impressive players have been defensive tackles Chris Wormley (+17.6) and Maurice Hurst (+18.4). The defensive line has been tenacious across the board with every two-deep player grading positively, but Wormley and Hurst have stood out. They’ll have their hands full with RB Justin Jackson, but they have held up well all season.
Desmond Morgan and Joe Bolden lead the linebacker corps for the Wolverines and deserve as much praise as anyone for being staunch against the run. These two seniors are flying around and plugging running lanes as well as any inside linebacker combination in the country.
Holistically, the Wolverines have a talented secondary that is being overshadowed by the work up front. But, this unit has our highest-graded cornerback in Jourdan Lewis (+11.1) and a standout safety in sophomore Jabrill Peppers who ranks in the top 10 as well.
The standout performers for the Wildcats have been sticky cornerbacks Nick VanHoose and Matthew Harris in the backend, and Deonte Gibson, Dean Lowry and Anthony Walker in the front seven.
VanHoose and Harris rank second and third in our coverage grades behind the aforementioned Lewis. Harris leads the team with three interceptions and a pick-six this year. Combined with strong safety play out of Godwin Igwebuike (+8.2), there’s a reason this is the toughest secondary in the country.
Senior defensive ends Gibson and Lowry have been solid for the Wildcats. Neither of them are world-class players, but they cause enough disruption up front to do damage, as evidenced by Gibson’s 1.5 sacks last week.
Sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker has played with great instincts this season and may be the Wildcats’ most pivotal player. He has racked up 8.5 tackles for a loss this season and is making plays all over the field.
Prediction: Northwestern over Michigan
Northwestern keeps a stagnant Michigan offense in check and silences the Big House. Both defenses rise to the occasion in what will be most certainly a low-scoring affair, but a costly turnover results in a defensive touchdown for the Wildcats and lets them leave Ann Arbor unbeaten.