Northwestern and Michigan have very thin margins for error if they want to remain in the hunt for the Big Ten's Legends Division title. For one of them, the hopes of playing in the conference title game will suffer a serious blow Saturday in Ann Arbor.
Northwestern is 24th in the BCS standings in its first appearance in those rankings since Dec. 7, 2008. The Wildcats (7-2, 3-2), coming off a bye week after a 28-17 win over Iowa on Oct. 27, are a game behind first-place Michigan and No. 18 Nebraska in the division.
Kain Colter ran for a season-high 166 yards and three touchdowns while passing for 80 yards and another score against the Hawkeyes, earning Big Ten player of the week honors. Venric Mark ran for 162 yards to become Northwestern's first 1,000-yard rusher since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.
"I'm excited but I'm not overly excited right now," Mark told the team's official website. "We still have more games to play but I have to give credit to the offensive line."
Mark is sixth in the FBS in all-purpose yards, averaging 184.1 per game.
Michigan (6-3, 4-1) was without its biggest rushing threat, quarterback Denard Robinson, but still won 35-13 at Minnesota last Saturday. Robinson sat out because of an ulnar nerve injury, snapping a 34-game start streak.
The Wolverines actually posted their highest point total in three weeks with junior Devin Gardner under center for his first career start. Gardner went 12 of 18 for 234 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while also running for a touchdown.
However, coach Brady Hoke sounded encouraged about how well Robinson is recovering from the elbow nerve problem, which affects how well he can grip and throw the football. Robinson wasn't limited in practice Sunday.
"He was able to do everything," said Hoke, who says Robinson will start if he's healthy enough.
In that scenario, Gardner would shift back to wide receiver. He's caught 16 passes for 266 yards and a team-high four touchdowns.
Nebraska owns the tiebreaker over Michigan after beating the Wolverines two weeks ago, so Michigan likely needs to win its last three and get help from the Cornhuskers to play for the conference championship.
For Michigan to get a victory Saturday, it will probably need to stop Northwestern's formidable ground attack. Behind Mark and Colter, the Wildcats are averaging 237.6 rushing yards and the Wolverines have been susceptible to the ground game, giving up 143.2 a contest.
Northwestern is averaging 162.3 yards through the air, 113th in the FBS. It seems unlikely to get that passing attack going against Michigan, owner of the best pass defense in the nation at 145.4 yards allowed per game.
"I wouldn't say anything's really holding us back," receiver Christian Jones told the team's official website. "I'd say we've really established ourselves running. We've done really well running and if it's not broke, don't fix it."
Michigan won the last meeting 42-24 in Evanston on Oct. 8, 2011, overcoming a 24-14 halftime deficit. Robinson was intercepted three times but ran for 117 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.
The Wildcats took the last matchup at Michigan Stadium 21-14 on Nov. 15, 2008.
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The main question here is, will Denard Robinson be healthy enough to play? If not, backup Devin Gardner showed last week that he can capably fill in. Northwestern has plenty of athleticism in its own backfield with quarterback Kain Colter and speedy, 1,000-yard tailback Venric Mark. Both teams are chasing Nebraska for the Legends title and must win here in order to stay in the hunt.