Who's got the edge? Position-by-position breakdown of Michigan-Northwestern
ANN ARBOR -- Michigan routed Northwestern 42-24 last year, but trailed by 10 at halftime and couldn't shake off the Wildcats until the fourth quarter.
The teams might be even more evenly matched this year.
Northwestern (7-2, 3-2) has solidified its quarterback spot with Kain Colter, while Michigan's is in flux with Denard Robinson still questionable. Tailback Venric Mark has emerged as one of the Big Ten's top big-play threats, and is more than doubling the production of Michigan's Fitz Toussaint.
The Wolverines (6-3, 4-1) still have a superior defense, though, which will keep them in any game -- and gives them an edge in this one.
A look at the matchups:
Denard Robinson remains questionable due to an injured nerve in his throwing elbow. He's missed the past six quarters, and his throwing was sloppy during warmups for last week's game against Minnesota. If he returns, there's likely to be some rust, and there's always the risk for re-injury. Devin Gardner played well in Robinson's place against the Gophers, but has only two weeks of practice at the position. Kain Colter is one of the Big Ten's better playmakers at quarterback, evidenced in last week's win against Iowa: 166 rushing yards and three touchdowns, and 6-of-9 passing for 80 yards. Michigan has more talent here, but the instability makes this spot even. Advantage: Push
Fitz Toussaint hasn't got untracked all season and is averaging 48.9 yards per game -- and just 3.6 yards per carry. Backup Thomas Rawls received 16 carries last week (gaining 43 yards) and likely will be worked in against Northwestern, but hasn't fared much better. Venric Mark is second in the league at 119.7 yards per game -- 34.7 yards more than Toussaint's best game all year. Mark might be the fastest back Michigan has faced all year. Advantage: Northwestern
Michigan's wideouts are coming off their best game of the year against Minnesota, making several tough catches to ease Gardner's transition to quarterback. The unit takes a hit if Gardner remains at quarterback, though, and Jeremy Gallon is battling a sore ankle. Northwestern has talent at wideout -- ESPN's Big Ten Blog ranked the unit No. 1 in the league in the preseason -- but the Wildcats appear to have ditched their two-QB approach and are sticking with their run-based spread helmed by Colter. He attempted only nine passes last week. Advantage: Michigan
Michigan's tailback production has stalled this year largely due to the offensive line's inability to create running lanes. The interior line (left guard Ricky Barnum and center Elliott Mealer) has been particularly bad. The only runner to establish consistency is Robinson, who is good enough to create on his own. Northwestern's line is young, going with two redshirt freshman and two sophomores, but have done enough to pave the way for Mark and Northwestern's spread rushing attack. Both teams rank among the top three in the league in sacks allowed. Advantage: Northwestern
Michigan's defensive line has improved each week, with tackle Quinton Washington and end Craig Roh now playing at a high level. It still hasn't generated a lot of sacks (Michigan ranks 11th in the league at 11 overall), but is getting better push and tackles for loss. Northwestern end Tyler Scott leads the Big Ten in sacks at seven (U-M's entire line has five). Advantage: Michigan
Jake Ryan leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss (12.0) and remains a weekly menace for opponents. His combination of size and speed allows him to cover receivers when offenses spread it out (which Michigan will see a lot of this week), or put his hand down on the defensive line and gain penetration. Ryan leads Michigan in tackles, and linebackers Kenny Demens and Desmond Morgan follow him. Advantage: Michigan
Michigan hasn't allowed 200 yards passing all season. Northwestern allows 272.4 per game. Michigan leads the nation in pass defense (145.4 yards per game). Northwestern is last in the Big Ten and 109th nationally. This one's pretty cut and dry. Advantage: Michigan
Michigan's Brendan Gibbons has hit his past 10 field goals, a stretch that includes a game winner against Michigan State and a career-long 52-yarder against Nebraska. Will Hagerup continues to lead the league in punting, but averaged just 29.3 yards on three attempts last week. Northwestern leads the league in punt returns and field goals, and ranks third in punting. Placekicker Jeff Budzien has made 11-of-12 field goals this year. Advantage: Push