Northwestern Wildcats at Michigan Wolverines, Saturday Oct. 10, 3:30 p.m. ET
It's funny how quickly things can change in college football. Heading into this season this was a game that barely deserved any consideration at all. After all, neither team was coming off a very good year, and last year they played a game so bad that it may have set the whole game of football back. That game was scoreless until well into the third quarter, and in the end Michigan won it 10-9 when Northwestern scored in the closing seconds but went for a two-point conversion and failed. Totally unwatchable. Less than a year later, though, these teams have elite defenses, are both ranked, and the game could play a surprisingly large role in the outcome of the Big Ten.
Northwestern at Michigan Betting Storylines
Northwestern leads the country in scoring defense. Michigan is second. Both teams are coming off of shutouts. Michigan has had two in a row. Needless to say, then, the story of this game is very likely to be the two defenses. The two teams have been remarkably strong on that side of the ball. Both have had one game that wasn't characteristic - Michigan allowed 24 points to Utah in their opener, while Northwestern let Ball State score 19 two games back. Each has also had a game that stands out above the rest - Northwestern let a Stanford team that looks excellent right now score just six points, while Michigan not only shut out BYU but only barely allowed them to gain 100 yards. Northwestern is largely healthy, while Michigan suffered a blow last time out when key DE Mario Ojemudia was lost for the season with an Achilles injury. They should have the depth to absorb the loss with minimal impact, though.
The teams are not just similar on defense. They are offensively similar, too. Neither Michigan's Jake Rudock, the senior who transferred from Iowa this year, nor Northwestern freshman Clayton Thorson can be accused of being an explosive difference-maker. Neither is completing much more than 60 percent of passes, they have a combined nine touchdowns and nine interceptions, and neither has a yards-per-attempt average that particularly impresses. Thorson reads opposing defenses like the freshman he is at times, while Rudock doesn't have as many excuses for missing open receivers and making poor decisions.
Both are in for a challenging day against the defenses they will face. Both will rely heavily on the running game that has largely got them where they are. For Northwestern it's Justin Jackson who is the workhorse, with 636 yards so far and 138 carries. Michigan relies primarily on De'Veon Smith, though he missed last game with a minor injury. The team that can stop the run better is likely the team that will win. That could be a concern for the Wildcats. When Ball State scored 19 points, for example, they carried the ball 34 times for 181 yards - a meaty 5.3 yards per carry average. That's significantly more yards than three of the last four Michigan opponents have gained in total.
Northwestern at Michigan Odds and Betting Trends
The game opened with Michigan favored by as much as 9.5 points. It fell very quickly to 8 points, and has now largely settled around 7.5 points. Just over 70 percent of all bets have been on Northwestern, so the movement is not surprising. It would be much more surprising if it moved through the key number of 7, though. The total, not surprisingly, is quite low at 35 points.
The road team is 4-1 ATS in the last five meetings between the teams. The underdog is 6-1 ATS in the last seven meetings. Six of the last eight games have gone under the total. Michigan has gone under the total in all five games this year.
College Football Expert Picks Against the Spread: Northwestern at Michigan Predictions
Michigan is the clear play here despite the strong public leaning - or perhaps because of it. The Wolverines have improved dramatically each time out, and are a whole new team under Jim Harbaugh. They have a clear edge in talent over the Wildcats, and the players are only learning how to play like they can. Michigan has thrown very different looks at each team, and I don't like Northwestern's chances of adapting as well as they will need to. The Ball State game for Northwestern is a real concern for me - if the Cardinals could move the ball then Michigan will find a way. The Big House is a home-field advantage unlike it has been for years, too, because the fans finally have something worth cheering for. This will be a statement game for the Wolverines, and they will cover the spread.
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