Michigan has put back-to-back wins together for the first time this season thanks to timely plays from its offense. The Wolverines might need to rely even heavier on the unit as they travel to play Northwestern on Saturday.
This game could be Michigan’s biggest test of the season as coach Lloyd Carr said the 25th-ranked Wolverines (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) will need to score plenty to keep pace with No. 21 Northwestern (5-2, 3-1).
“Nobody’s going to shut Northwestern down,” Carr said Monday. “If they can keep the ball every time they have a possession, that’s all the more your defense gets worn down.
“This is (the secondary’s) biggest challenge. Most of Northwestern’s receivers are experienced and have been around this offense.”
Michigan’s defense allowed Iowa to kick a tying field goal late in the fourth quarter last Saturday and another field goal in overtime, but Jerome Jackson’s touchdown run gave the Wolverines a 23-20 win.
The game marked the third time in as many games the Wolverines allowed an opponent a deep drive on its last possession to set up a tying or go-ahead score. That’s a concern as Michigan heads into a game that could end up going to the team that touches the ball last.
“We’re a good enough defense to stop people, but we’ve had some missed tackles and missed assignments,” defensive tackle Pat Massey said. “But we finished the Iowa game in overtime.”
Carr added that the offense faces a choice between controlling the clock or constantly looking to score to keep Northwestern’s offense off the field.
“This probably will be a high-scoring game,” he said. “And we’ve always tried to have an offense that can score in a hurry.
“In the last two games, (the offense) has had chances to put the game away. We have to make the most of those chances.”
Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez is completing 67.5 percent of his passes and has been intercepted only once in 265 attempts. What’s more, his offensive line has surrendered just five sacks this season.
Basanez completed 24 of 30 passes for two touchdowns last Saturday in a 49-14 win over Michigan State, which was ranked 22nd before falling out of the Top 25 this week. The win was the Wildcats third straight, and put them into the rankings for the first time since 2001.
“Football is about confidence,” Northwestern coach Randy Walker said. “Three or four weeks ago, we had none … (but) it’s started coming the right way. Now we are playing decisively.”
The Wildcats are one of four Big Ten teams with one conference loss. Penn State and Wisconsin are 4-1 in the league, while Northwestern and Ohio State are 3-1. But Northwestern has a difficult schedule remaining with games against Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State and Illinois.
“I reminded them in the locker room, there’s still a lot of football left in the season,” Walker said. “This thing is going to be a wild race to the end, and hopefully we can keep getting better as a football team.”