Greg Mattison has not had a lot of success at Northwestern. Mattison, who is Michigan’s defensive coordinator, was the defensive line coach for the Wildcats from 1978-80. During his tenure, Northwestern posted an abysmal 1-31-1 record. Flash forward a few decades to see Mattison returning to Evanston while leading the defense of a team that sits at 5-0. Mattison will hope for better success this time around as his Michigan Wolverines face off with Northwestern.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Wolverines’ hot start has been Mattison and his defense. After five games, Michigan is allowing only 10.2 points per game and is among the leaders in turnovers caused. In the past three games, Michigan has given up just ten points. Total.
The Wolverines defense will face a unique and tough test with Dan Persa quarterbacking the Wildcats. Persa made his first start of the season last weekend versus Illinois, but left the game in the fourth quarter due to heel pain. If healthy, Persa is one of the best duel-threat quarterbacks in the nation. A talented and gritty runner, Persa is also extremely accurate in the Wildcat short passing system. Last season the first team all-Big Ten quarterback led the nation and set a Big Ten record with a 73.5% completion percentage. With runningback Mike Trumpy lost for the season with an ACL tear, Northwestern will need Persa to be productive to keep pace with the Wolverines. If he can stay in the game, Persa should be up to the task.
Michigan’s biggest obstacle might not be Persa and the Wildcat offense. Once again, Michigan must deal with the perhaps unfair expectations that come with trying to rebuild a team with a history of success like Michigan has. For a third straight season the Wolverines entered Big Ten play unblemished. Each of the past two seasons saw Michigan struggle in conference play and finish close to .500. Michigan beat Minnesota last week to open the Big Ten season, but face a more difficult opponent this week. The Wolverines have not been ranked this high (11th in the Coaches Poll, 12th in the AP) in years, and to many are ranked too highly. Even Michigan head coach Brady Hoke thinks so, remarking that his team was ranked higher than what its performance would suggest.
Offensively, Michigan has done a nice job of relieving some of the pressure off of Denard Robinson’s shifty shoulders. Runningbacks Fitzgerald Toussaint and Vincent Smith have been extremely effective as of late, and the Michigan offense has began to find the balance it desperately needs to compete in the Big Ten. Robinson has continued to struggle with his passing game, but the emergence of Toussaint and Smith has kept teams from being able to key on Robinson’s running.
This will be the first road game for Michigan in the 2011 season, and also the first big test. Despite injury issues, Northwestern possesses an offense that could expose the Wolverine defense if it turns out the groups success has been too good to be true. A win in Evanston against a Persa-led Northwestern will go a long way towards proving that Michigan may be the real deal this season. A loss could show us exactly where the young squad is. Either way, we will find out a lot about the Wolverines this weekend.