Michigan football looking to fight off rust in classic trap game vs. Northwestern

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Free Press sports writer Michael Cohen looks ahead to Michigan football’s game Saturday against Northwestern:

Next up

Matchup: Northwestern (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) vs. No. 6 Michigan (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten).

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor.

TV/radio: Fox; WWJ-AM (950), WTKA-AM (1050).

Know the foe

The Wildcats limped into their bye week on the wrong end of a 56-7 drubbing against Nebraska that dropped their record to 2-3 in early October. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said his team needed to hit “control, alt, delete” on an unsightly start to the season.

“It just felt like this is the start of a second season if you approach it that way,” Fitzgerald said over the weekend. “One game in, we’re back to .500. We needed a win and we needed a Big Ten win and we got both. That was important.”

Jim Harbaugh and Pat Fitzgerald.
Jim Harbaugh and Pat Fitzgerald.

His players responded with arguably their best performance of the season in a 21-7 win over Rutgers on Saturday. The Wildcats held the Scarlet Knights to a 29% conversion rate on third down and stopped a pair of fourth-down attempts to preserve a wire-to-wire victory. Northwestern’s passing game lurched to life behind quarterback Ryan Hilinski, who connected with wideout Stephon Robinson Jr. five times for 115 yards. Three wide receivers caught passes of at least 32 yards against Rutgers, while tailback Andrew Clair chipped in with a 27-yard run.

“To start a fire you’ve got to have a spark,” Fitzgerald said following the win over the Scarlet Knights. “And you hope for the last half of the year this is the spark that starts a fire that gets them to understand just how good that feeling is in that locker room downstairs right now.”

RELATED: Why Jim Harbaugh was prepared to lead Michigan football back up the mountain

Three things to watch

Quarterback carousel: Six weeks ago, quarterback Hunter Johnson began the season as Northwestern’s starter with a solid performance in a loss to Michigan State. He completed 30 of 43 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns without committing a turnover. The tide began to turn a week later during a win over Indiana State in which Johnson threw for just 66 yards and completed 56.3% of his passes.

By the time Johnson tossed his third interception of the game against Duke in Week 3, Fitzgerald had seen enough. The replacement, Andrew Marty, suffered an upper-body injury before the loss to Duke was complete, and his spot was taken by Hilinski, a transfer from South Carolina. Hilinski maintained the starting role for the last three games and played well enough in the win over Rutgers to keep the job another week as the Wildcats prepare for a trip to Ann Arbor.

“Without watching the tape, I’m looking at him, 18 of 33 and there were a couple throwaways there, so probably takes it to 18 to probably 29,” Fitzgerald said of Hilinski’s performance against Rutgers. “Pretty good day. And he makes those good decisions because we chart throwaways as good decisions. We throw it out in our internal stats. But he’s taking care of the ball, he’s pressing the ball down the field and taking advantage of our matchups out there when we have a loaded box.”

RAINER SABIN: The numbers don't lie: Michigan football's defense is thriving this season

Red zone execution problematic: Through six games, the Wildcats have produced points on 68.2% of drives advancing beyond the opponent’s 20-yard line. That success rate ranks second-to-last in the Big Ten, ahead of only Illinois, and 122nd nationally out of 130 FBS teams this season. Northwestern’s touchdown rate of 54.6% in the red zone ranks 93rd nationally.

Execution in the red zone has the potential to be a tipping point in Saturday’s game against Michigan. U-M is tied for sixth in the country in scoring percentage in the red zone by producing points on 96.2% of possessions. Kicker Jake Moody also plays a big part in Michigan’s success.

Defense anchored by Michigan product: Come Saturday, the name Chris Bergin is likely to be mentioned quite often by the Fox broadcast crew. A native of Bloomfield Hills, Bergin joined Northwestern as a preferred walk-on in 2017 after lettering three times for Birmingham Detroit Country Day. He converted from safety to inside linebacker and became a part-time starter by his sophomore season. And by his senior season, in 2020, Bergin received third-team All-Big Ten honors from Pro Football Focus and Phil Steele after he made 78 tackles (4 for loss), recorded ½ sack, one interception and five passes defended.

This year, Bergin is tied for third nationally with 10.3 tackles per game and is tied for sixth in solo tackles with 42. He was voted team captain and named to the Butkus Award watch list.

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football: What to watch vs. Northwestern Wildcats

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