Northwestern lost its opener to Michigan State and dropped its last road game by 49 points.
According to coach Pat Fitzgerald, the biggest test of the season awaits his team on Saturday. The Wildcats will try to knock No. 6 Michigan from the ranks of the unbeaten in Ann Arbor.
“This is by far probably the best team we’ve played all year to this point,” he said. “It’s not even close in my opinion, watching everybody on tape that we’ve prepared for. So this is going to be a huge challenge.”
The Wildcats could play the role of spoiler this week, as the Wolverines (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) will face the Spartans next week with the potential of those rivals being undefeated.
For Fitzgerald, the Wildcats’ motivation comes from trying to build on their 21-7 victory over Rutgers on Saturday. With the aid of a bye week, the Wildcats (3-3, 1-2) bounced back from their 56-7 debacle at Nebraska on Oct. 2.
“For the most part on Saturday, we probably played our best collective game in all three phases and we’ve got to build upon that spark,” he said.
South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski passed for 267 yards and two touchdowns, including a 64-yard strike to Malik Washington.
“I just think he’s growing every day, every rep,” Fitzgerald said of his quarterback. “I thought he played pretty clean. He got away with a couple of throws that we won’t be able to get away with this week against the Wolverines. But for the most part, he made really good decisions with the ball.”
After getting shredded by the Cornhuskers, the Wildcats’ defense limited the Scarlet Knights to 222 total yards and 13 first downs.
“I thought our defensive line played its best game of the year on Saturday,” Fitzgerald said. “In contrast to some of our earlier games, we actually tackled much better at linebacker.”
Their tackling will have to be crisp to pull off an upset against the Wolverines and their potent rushing game. Michigan had an extra week to prepare for the contest after escaping Nebraska with a 32-29 win on Oct. 9.
The Wolverines are averaging 246.5 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry. Leading rusher Blake Corum has gained 610 yards and is averaging 6.3 yards per rush. Hassan Haskins has picked up 492 yards at a 4.9 clip. Both players have scored eight rushing touchdowns.
Michigan players vow that they won’t be looking ahead to the showdown against the Spartans.
“We can’t look to next week because we’ve got a very good opponent coming in on Saturday with Northwestern,” defensive lineman Chris Hinton said.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t see any signs during the bye week that his players were looking past the Wildcats.
“The team has been very locked in. Daily, weekly,” he said. “I think I’ve really continued to be pleased with how they attack every single day.”
Michigan has won 11 of the last 12 meetings with Northwestern with the Wildcats’ last victory coming in 2008 but that’s somewhat deceptive. In four of the last five games, the Wolverines’ margin of victory has come by eight points or fewer, including two overtime decisions.
“They just get better every single week,” Harbaugh said. “This year, last year, the year before that, the year before that. When you play Northwestern in the middle of the season, later in the season, they’re really formidable.”
–Field Level Media