Make no mistake: this is the marquee game on Northwestern's 2011 home schedule. Ryan Field is sold out, the lights will be blazing and the Wildcats will host undefeated and No. 12 Michigan (Saturday, 6 p.m. CT, BTN).
WildcatReport's staff predicts whether Northwestern will be ready for prime time against the resurgent Wolverines. This week, WR subscriber PURPLECAT88 will be our special guest prognosticator. He comes from a split household (his wife went to Michigan) and he has probably seen more games at the Big House than the rest of the board combined, so there is no one better to give us his insights.
This week's bonus question is a tough one. Since PersaStrong doesn't really cut it, we asked our cracked staff to provide suggestions for a nickname for Northwestern star quarterback Dan Persa. Michigan's Denard Robinson has a good one ("Shoelaces"), so WR figures that Persa should to.
Guest Prognosticator: PURPLECAT88
Northwestern wins if… They can keep Persa upright. Michigan's pass rush, particularly Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh, have come on strong against mediocre competition in recent weeks. If Persa has time he will shred Michigan's inconsistent secondary.
Northwestern loses if… They can't contain Michigan's three-headed tailback monster of Vincent Smith, Michael Shaw and Fitzgerald Toussaint. Robinson is a known commodity: a dangerous runner and inconsistent passer. It's the tailbacks on handoffs and screens/short passes that will make the difference.
Who winds up with more total yards, Robinson or Persa? Robinson will get more yards because Michigan will be playing from behind similar to the NU-Illinois game and the UM-ND game. Also NU's superior return game will give Persa a shorter field.
The bottom line Northwestern will have to take advantage of every mistake UM makes in its first road game. This will be a high-scoring game where turnovers tell the tale.
Prediction Northwestern 41 Michigan 34
Bonus Question: What is your suggestion for a nickname for Persa? It would be easy to try a play on his name like PERSA-verence, PERS-istance, or Mr. PERSA-nality, but Dan's nickname needs to demonstrate his tenacity, not just define it. Hmm, Badger and Wolverine are already taken. How about Bulldog Cat? No, that sucks. This isn't easy. No wonder they went with PersaStrong.
Northwestern wins if… They limit Robinson's rushing yardage and force him to go to the air.
Northwestern loses if… The secondary continues to suffer from "miscommunication."
Who winds up with more total yards, Robinson or Persa? Persa. It's easier to pick up yards through the air, and he'll have to have close to 300 for NU to take home the victory.
The bottom line It's offense vs. offense under the lights of Ryan Field, what could be better? EIther way, we're all winners! Right? Oh, but the Cats will actually win.
Prediction Northwestern 45 Michigan 40
Bonus Question: What is your suggestion for a nickname for Persa? PersaSmashRecordsAfter11MonthInjuryLayoff
Northwestern wins if… Michigan's defensive renaissance proves to be a mirage.
Northwestern loses if… Their secondary keeps getting lit up.
Who winds up with more total yards, Robinson or Persa? Robinson, because of better speed and mobility on the ground.
The bottom line This game could either be the second coming of NU-Michigan in 2000, or it could be over before halftime. If both defenses are paper thin, it's an instant classic. If there are Northwestern penalties and turnovers, it's gonna be a long night. But last week's horsewhipping of Minnesota doesn't mean Michigan's a juggernaut. It's hard to see NU prevailing without flawless execution, even if Michigan's not all they're cracked up to be.
Prediction Michigan 38 Northwestern 27
Bonus Question: What is your suggestion for a nickname for Persa? Persa keeps getting praised for the power and accuracy of his throws, so I like Dan "Bullets" Persa.
Northwestern wins if… They outrush Michigan. That means jumping out to an early lead and forcing Robinson and the Wolverines offense out of their comfort zone, using a similar blueprint set by Notre Dame earlier this year. Even without Mike Trumpy, the Wildcats can rely on a heavy dose of Treyvon Green, mix in a few Persa runs and, heck, maybe Adonis Smith will be freed. This will also keep the time of possession battle close.
Northwestern loses if… They turn the ball over. Northwestern has done a great job of protecting the football thus far, but Michigan's defense is built around opportunistic ballhawks, as they have forced 16 turnovers in five games. It'll take mistake-free football to beat the Wolverines.
Who winds up with more total yards, Robinson or Persa? I want to say Persa, but I can't pick against Robinson, who's averaging 313 yards per game (which includes a lackluster opening-week performance). This would've been a better question last year, or if Persa was fully healthy.
The bottom line If Northwestern still has aspirations of playing in the Big Ten championship game, this marks its first meeting with a Legends Division foe and could go a long way to determining the pecking order. I don't think either defense is going to do much to slow their opponent, and I'm not sure the Wildcats will have quite enough fire power to keep up.
Prediction Michigan 45 Northwestern 35
Bonus Question: What is your suggestion for a nickname for Persa? #Persa,PleaseBeStrong
Northwestern wins if… Its defense figures out how to be two-dimensional. Shutting down Robinson's legs is the key to the game for NU, no doubt, but even his arm is good enough to burn the Wildcats' defense.
Northwestern loses if… The team continues to lack that killer instinct. This team could easily be 4-0, but there's a certain intangible that seems to be missing. There's a whole host of reasons to get amped for this game (not to mention avoiding a losing record), but it might be best for NU not to overthink it. NU kids have a tendency to do that. Just play football.
Who winds up with more total yards, Robinson or Persa? Robinson. Persa's legs aren't quite there yet, so it's hard to see him with more yards unless the passing game goes crazy.
The bottom line Between a weak schedule and five consecutive home games, Michigan hasn't been challenged much this season. Expect another shootout, with the Wolverines coming out on top ... barely.
Prediction Michigan 37 Northwestern 35
Bonus Question: What is your suggestion for a nickname for Persa? How about "The Seven Million-Dollar Man"? Get it? I won't quit my day job.
Northwestern wins if… hold Michigan under 35 points.
Northwestern loses if… Robinson plays the way we can pretty much expect him to play.
Who winds up with more total yards, Robinson or Persa? Robinson. Thinking about Robinson going up against Northwestern's defense makes me feel like one of the characters in those Final Destination movies.
The bottom line Northwestern's defense is going to have absurd amounts of difficulty with Michigan's offense. I have a funny feeling Persa will play well, but Michigan's only going to have to keep NU out of the end zone a few times to pull away with a victory.
Prediction Michigan 45 Northwestern 35
Bonus Question: What is your suggestion for a nickname for Persa? I kind of wasted most of my inspiration coming up with the idea to call Kain Colter "Big Daddy Kain". Persa is stuck with PersaStrong.
Northwestern wins if… The Cat defense can put the clamps on Robinson, both rushing and passing; Persa is able to play the entire game and Green has a breakthrough performance.
Northwestern loses if… The secondary shows no improvement from the Illinois disaster and NU establishes no running attack.
Who winds up with more total yards, Robinson or Persa? Robinson because of two critical holes in the NU secondary.
The bottom line The spotlight will be on Robinson and Persa, but Robinson brings a better supporting cast.
Prediction Michigan 38 Northwestern 26
Bonus Question: What is your suggestion for a nickname for Persa? PersaHuman. Sorry, at this stage he is simply more Clark Kent than Superman. But he is a very good Clark Kent.
Northwestern wins if… The defense keeps Robinson in the pocket and forces him to beat them with his arm, and the offense establishes some sort of a ground attack to take some pressure off of Persa.
Northwestern loses if… Robinson repeatedly breaks containment and the secondary continues to allow the big plays that plagued them last week.
Who winds up with more total yards, Robinson or Persa? Persa. To win, he's going to have to sling some leather, and it's easier to pick up yardage through the air than it is on the ground.
The bottom line This is going to be a shootout. Maybe not the epic, 54-51 kind of shootout, but the offenses will dictate their wills. Persa is going to get his yards and Robinson will get his. But the winner of this game will be the one that does a better job of Football 101: running the football, stopping the run and avoiding turnovers.
Prediction Northwestern 35 Michigan 33
Bonus Question: What is your suggestion for a nickname for Persa? I came up with quite a few admittedly underwhelming suggestions: "Pistol", "The Magnificent Seven," "The Sawed Off Shotgun," "Star of Bethlehem" (his hometown is Bethlehem, Pa.), and "Touchdown Dan."