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Key Matchups: Michigan vs. Northwestern

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These will be the deciding factors in the game.

Michigan v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

After coming off their bye, the No. 6 Michigan Wolverines return to host the Northwestern Wildcats. The Maize and Blue enter Saturday’s contest undefeated and looking to extend that winning streak this weekend. Northwestern has had a shaky go of it so far this year with only one win in conference play. The Wolverines enter as the heavy favorite, with the numbers projecting them by 23.5 points.

Northwestern will be the third Big Ten crossover game in a row for the Maize and Blue. Of their three games in conference play, the Wildcats have shared opponents in Rutgers and Nebraska, with Rutgers being their one conference win so far. It’s been three years since these two teams have met, and 13 years since the Wildcats last won against U-M. Based on the numbers, it’s likely Michigan will retain its current win streak over Northwestern, so let’s break down why that’s the case.

The Wolverines have split performances in Big Ten play between blow outs and games decided by one score. Starting quarterback Cade McNamara has remained consistent throughout the season so far, racking up two touchdowns over 615 passing yards with a 58.5 completion rate in conference play. There has been a noticeable increase in pass attempts from McNamara over the last two games. With only one pick over six games, it’s to be expected McNamara will retain the number of reps he has had so far. He has demonstrated his mental commitment to overcoming games that aren’t going in Michigan’s favor, and that’s reflected in his play.

While Michigan has had consistency at quarterback, the Wildcats have been struggling to find the same. They have rotated through three so far this year, with sophomore Ryan Hilinski being who they landed on in Week 5. Since becoming the go-to, Hilinski has produced solid numbers in Big Ten play with three touchdowns over 523 passing yards and a 59.7 completion rate. Since coming in for senior quarterback Hunter Johnson after an injury in Week 4, Hilinski saw a substantial increase in reps. With no interceptions in his four game appearances, Hilinski might be the answer they were looking for.

After a close call against Nebraska in Week 6, the Wolverines need to find consistency within their secondary. There was a decline in their passing defense performance against the Cornhuskers, as they allowed 291 passing yards, where their season average has them allowing 190.7 per game. Nebraska threw for three touchdowns, but turnovers forced by Michigan’s defense secured the Wolverine’s win. Against Wisconsin, Michigan did an excellent job in containing the passing game, only allowing 167 passing yards on 11-of-23 passing. Michigan’s defense should retain its focus on containing the passing game, as the Wildcats average 203.3 passing yards per game.

Northwestern’s secondary had their own struggles with Nebraska. The Cornhuskers’ pass game went for 230 yards and one touchdown on 15-of-21 throwing. This past week against Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights went for 159 passing yards and one touchdown on 19-of-32, noting a shift of focus in the Wildcats to eliminate the opposing passing game. While Northwestern should continue containing this focus, its going to have to figure out how to contain Michigan’s ground game.

Michigan faces the opportunity to get flashy with its rushing offense this week. The Wildcats have allowed an average of 205.7 rushing yards so far in 2021. Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins, with the help of the offensive line, have garnered Michigan’s season average of 246.5 rushing yards per game. Corum has rushed for 610 yards on 97 attempts for eight touchdowns. Haskins often operates as Michigan’s power back, coming in for short yardage plays or goal line punches. He has rushed for 492 yards on 101 attempts for eight touchdowns. The thunder-lightning duo have the chance to strike heavily on Saturday.

Northwestern has struggled to find a similar flare in their ground game. Evan Hull has recorded the most attempts of a Wildcat running back, going for 562 yards on 95 attempts for four touchdowns. The Wildcats average 171.3 rushing yards per game, but Michigan has been effective in containing the run by only allowing 119.3 rushing yards per game. The disparity in rushing offense is going to give the Wildcats a run for their money.

Aside from the advantage offensively, Michigan’s defensive prowess in forcing game-altering turnovers and sacks should give the Wolverines the advantage over the Wildcats. With defensive ends who know how to get to the quarterback, Northwestern might be seeing a lot more of Aidan Hutchinson than it wants to. David Ojabo has been particularly effective in getting in the backfield, forcing fumbles in three games so far this season. On the season, the Wolverines have forced five fumbles and three interceptions. They’ve also recorded 14 sacks, capitalizing on specific weaknesses in opposing offensive lines.

Northwestern has had its own fair share of forcing turnovers. The defense has forced six fumbles and three picks as well. They get to opposing quarterbacks at a similar rate to Michigan, recording 14 sacks on the season. This game will ultimately boil down to the effectiveness of each team’s offensive line.

As aforementioned, Michigan’s offensive line has been as praised as the running backs. The rushing offense has been effective for the Wolverines because they allow for their running backs to be in positions to be successful. They have also done a stellar job in protecting McNamara. Northwestern has shown a different story, allowing its quarterback to get sacked four times alone against Nebraska. While they did better in protecting Hilinski against the Scarlet Knights last week, Michigan’s strength from their line is going to be a lot to handle.

As the opportunity to run rampant over the Wildcats is apparent for the Wolverines, Michigan’s main focus will be capitalizing on the ground game. Based on how effective Michigan’s offensive line is, McNamara will more than likely be throwing only when he needs to. Corum and Haskins will be a lot for the Wildcats to contain, and should be the main offensive effort for the Wolverines this Saturday. The Wildcats struggled a lot against a rushing offense in Nebraska, as the Cornhuskers recorded seven rushing touchdowns in their game against Northwestern. If Michigan is able to generate a similar offensive effort, the Wildcats are going to struggle.

Based on the numbers, Michigan is going to have to capitalize on its stellar backfield to elevate them to another win. The Wolverines are also going to have to find consistency from their secondary in order to extend their undefeated season another week. Their main focus will be on eliminating Northwestern’s passing game and if they are effective, it will be smooth sailing for the Wolverines.

With higher amounts of passing attempts from the Wildcats, Michigan has more opportunities for the defense to practice against teams that rely heavily on their passing game. The only thing not accounted for is how Michigan will be coming off the bye. While the Wildcats could struggle against the Wolverines, there are opportunities to capitalize on slip ups from a week off, should they occur. However, it might not be enough to take down a Wolverine team that has something to prove as they compete for the Big Ten.