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How Michigan can take another step in the right direction against Northwestern

Michigan Football 2018

There is no question that Michigan plays their best football when at home. Under Jim Harbaugh, Michigan is 21-4 at home. On the road it’s a different outcome. They currently sit at an 8-6 record. Only two road wins have been significant: Penn State when they were ranked no. 14 in the country in 2015, and a rivalry win in East Lansing against the Spartans in 2016, though the Spartans finished 3-9 that season.

It’s understandable if Michigan fans do not have a strong confidence in the Wolverines when they travel. U of M has had Northwestern’s number in the past, but this could easily be a trap game if they are not careful. Pat Fitzgerald is an excellent coach at Northwestern, who always gets the best out of his players.

Offense

Michigan needs to take another step forward in their run game. Expect to see around 200 yards or more on the ground against a smaller Northwestern defense. Power, G-power, counter (gap) and sweep have been their best plays so far in the run game no matter who is running the football. Inside/outside zone needs to catch up to those other run plays, so they can be more a part of their run game arsenal.

Michigan Football 2018
Image courtesy of Zimbio

Ambry Thomas needs more touches on offense, too. A jet sweep cannot be the only play to get him the football. He’s the new Jabril Peppers package. The Wolverines need to get Thomas on some designed screen plays, put him at quarterback and let him run, or have him run some underneath, shallow crossing routes to get him in space to allow him to showcase his athletic ability.

As we have seen in the last two weeks, a successful run game opens up the play-action pass. Any deep ball shots Harbaugh calls, Shea Patterson will need to connect on to keep Northwestern and future teams from thinking they can load the box up and stop the run. Michigan will continue to move the pocket for Patterson as well to highlight his accuracy on the run, and allow him to take off if nothing is open down the field.

At some point, don’t be surprised if Patterson starts keeping the football on inside/outside zone read plays more to keep the backside defensive ends from closing down on the run play.

Donavon Peoples-Jones also needs to continue to solidify that he is the go-to, number one receiver on the Michigan offense as he prepares to face a subpar secondary against Northwestern. With his skill set, he can easily become the best wide receiver in the Big Ten Conference.

Defense

The Michigan defense gets a little break from dual-threat quarterback play against Northwestern. The Wildcats are a spread team, but they are big on getting the ball to the edge with bubble and rocket screens, rather than quarterback designed run plays. Michigan’s aggressive, man-to-man scheme will be a challenge for Northwestern’s offense. The matchups in the slot will be most intriguing to watch because Michigan’s safety play has been inconsistent in pass coverage. If the ball does get to the perimeter, Michigan better swarm to the football. If they don’t, one missed tackle can become a huge play for the Wildcats.

Michigan Football 2018
Image courtesy of Maize n Brew

A great defense learns from their mistakes and corrects it. In lasts week performance against Nebraska, Chase Winovich and Rashawn Gary constricted the pocket very well, while also maintaining proper pass run lanes. They need continue to build off that foundation in week 5. A strong blitz, man-to-man scheme is great if all the pieces fall into place on defense. If the defensive line cannot contain the quarterback, there are far fewer eyes on the quarterback to stop him from scrambling for a big play.

Northwestern prides themselves every year in a strong run game. Michigan’s front seven is built for that type of mentality.  Defensive Coordinator, Don Brown, will put his players in great spots to be successful. If the defense executes, it should be a long night for Northwestern and their offense.

Featured image courtesy of Detroit News

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