Michigan may not have had the season it was hoping for this year, but even at 6-3, the Wolverines are still in the hunt for a berth to the Big Ten Championship Game. Northwestern has been a surprise this season at 7-2 and also has a chance to appear in the big game.
The winner of the game when these two teams meet this weekend will tell us which squad is an actual contender in this watered-down conference.
The Wildcats will travel to Michigan Stadium and play against a Wolverines program they have lost six of the last seven meetings against. It should be a hard-fought battle with a bunch of running plays, as both clubs are ranked Top 30 in the country in rushing yards.
With the loser of this contest out of the running for the Big Ten Legends Division, here are a few key players that will likely make the biggest impact in the outcome of the game.
Both of these teams have had many close games throughout the season, especially Northwestern, who has played two games that have been decided by two points or less. Jeff Budzien hasn't attempted many field goals this season but is 11-for-12 on the year, with the only miss being a 53-yard attempt.
He is one of three Big Ten kickers that have been named a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, and he could make a difference in this ball game for the Wildcats. Three of the last four meetings between these two teams have been decided by 14 points or less, and with so much on the line, you can certainly expect a close one this weekend.
Having somebody as reliable as Budzien may come in handy for Northwestern.
What has been up with Fitzgerald Toussaint this season?
The guy who ran for over 1,000 yards and scored 10 touchdowns last season is not the same player this year. While he has scored five touchdowns on 109 carries, he has yet to rush for 100 yards in a single game and looks like an ordinary running back that is struggling to get his feet under him.
The good news is that the junior did have one of his better games last week against Minnesota, rushing for 70 yards and a score, including the longest run of the season, which was 41 yards.
Northwestern has the fourth best run-defense in the Big Ten, but has allowed seven teams to put together over 100 yards on the ground this year. It would be nice to see Toussaint build off of a little momentum and finally begin playing like he was back in 2011.
Tyler Scott is a tough-nosed kid that his worked his way to where he is now. After overcoming many injuries throughout his career at Northwestern, Scott is finally a full-time starter his junior year. And while you may not have heard much about him, he does lead the Big Ten with seven sacks and is tied for the most forced fumbles in the conference with three.
He has been on a tear as of late, picking up four sacks in the last four games and showing an uncanny ability to make plays in the backfield.
Michigan has the best offensive line in the Big Ten, which has allowed only 10 sacks all season. However, Scott will have to continue to make plays to help keep this Northwestern team in the game on the defensive side of the ball.
While the whole Michigan defense has been terrific, linebacker Jake Ryan has been the best player on the unit. He currently leads the team in tackles (65), tackles for loss (12) and sacks (3.5). He has quickly become one of the better linebackers in all of the Big Ten, which wasn't really expected from the former 3-star recruit.
Ryan is an aggressive player that covers a ton of ground and is solid in pass coverage. He has three passes batted down this year and has also forced two fumbles, which also leads this Michigan club.
The sophomore linebacker has been great in conference play and will need another solid performance against a Northwestern offense that does have its fair share of playmakers.
Speaking of playmakers on this Northwestern offense, running back Venric Mark is the engine that makes this Wildcats offense go. He is second in the Big Ten with 1,072 rushing yards and has scored 10 offensive touchdowns this year.
Mark isn't the biggest back at 5'8", 175 pounds, but he is as quick as they come and has game-changing speed that many aren't able to keep up with. Due to his blazing speed, the junior has produced 10 runs that have gone for over 20 yards and has also taken back two punt returns for touchdowns.
Michigan has given up many plays in the running game this season and will have to try and figure out how to bottle up the speedster from Tomball, TX this weekend.
The main question heading into this matchup is who the quarterback for Michigan is going to be.
Senior Denard Robinson missed last week’s game due to injury, which forced Devin Gardner to take his place and lead the Wolverines to victory. Head coach Brady Hoke says he will keep the progress of his starting quarterback quiet and will make a game-time decision on who will be the guy leading this offense.
However, according to Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press, wide receiver Roy Rountree says Robinson is feeling better and may be able to play in this contest.
He’s throwing, and I think he’s going to be OK. He’s done well at practice and trying to get back. He has (looked better), and he’s practicing, so it’s something we’ll look forward to Saturday.
But you never know.
Regardless of who plays the quarterback position for Michigan, Northwestern has the worst pass defense in the Big Ten, which should put many smiles on the faces of Wolverine fans. Whether or not Michigan will be able to take advantage of a suspect secondary will likely be the key to this game and who inches its way closer to the Big Ten Championship Game.