Keys To The Game: Michigan Wolverines Football vs. Northwestern
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Keys To The Game: Michigan Wolverines Football vs. Northwestern

What once looked like a relatively big game doesn't anymore. It's a down year for Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern football team, and he'll face Jim Harbaugh's seventh Michigan Wolverines football team as a decided underdog.

The Wildcats, coming off a 7-2 COVID-shortened season in which they won the Big Ten West Division and gave Ohio State a game in the Big Ten championship tilt, lost key players to injury before the season and just don't have the playmakers to compete with the better teams on the schedule.

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Northwestern Football head coach Pat Fitzgerald
Northwestern Football head coach Pat Fitzgerald seeks his second win at Michigan Stadium in his career Saturday in Ann Arbor.

Their only wins, in fact, have come against FCS Indiana State, a middling MAC Ohio team and Rutgers, which failed to show up in a 21-7 loss to the Wildcats last week after playing three top-10 opponents in a row.

Harbaugh, though, thinks the Wildcats are improving, and he said earlier this week he believes his team will be ready, having come back strong in practice after the bye week.

Here are the keys to a Michigan win over Northwestern Saturday:

Michigan Football Key: No Sleepwalking; No Looking Ahead

Everyone's pointing to next Saturday's game at Michigan State, a matchup of undefeated, top-10 teams, as 'the game,' but the Wolverines have one to win yet. MSU appeared to be looking ahead a bit in its game at Indiana, an ugly 20-15 victory in Bloomington — the Wildcats are a notch below the Hoosiers, but as Rutgers showed in Ann Arbor in the second half of a 20-13 loss, any conference team can punch you in the mouth if you let your guard down.

Michigan opened as a 19-point favorite, a line that quickly moved to 23.5, but Fitzgerald teams have generally played Harbaugh's Michigan squads tough. They could have folded after getting embarrassed, 56-7, at Nebraska the week before the Rutgers game — instead, they played inspired football.

We don't expect a letdown here, but that's one way to at least make it interesting.

Michigan Football Key: Stick With What They Do Best And Pound The Rock

Michigan still ranks seventh nationally with 246.5 rushing yards per game behind the two-headed monster of freshman Blake Corum (101 yards per game) and redshirt sophomore Hassan Haskins (82). The yards have been tougher to come by in Big Ten play, as expected, but these two have proven to be one of the best tandems in the conference.

The offensive line has been banged up — guards Trevor Keegan and Zak Zinter both missed significant time in the win at Nebraska two weeks ago — but they're expected back. Even if they aren't, backups Chuck Filiaga and Karsen Barnhart proved they were up to the task, on the field late when the Wolverines moved the ball downfield in the fourth quarter.

Northwestern, meanwhile, ranks 117th of 130 teams nationally, allowing 205.7 rushing yards per game and 5.38 yards per carry. The Wildcats are 122nd in rushing plays of 40-plus yards allowed (five) and 127th in 50-plus yarders given up (also five).

This could be a big day for the Michigan backs. It would be disappointing if there weren't a few explosive runs Saturday.

Michigan Football Key: Make Northwestern One-Dimensional

Northwestern running back Evan Hull has averaged 5.9 yards per carry, but the vast majority of his 562 yards have come against Ohio and Indiana State. There's nothing really scary about him or a Wildcats rushing attack that has been pedestrian in Big Ten play.

Frankly, the passing offense isn't very good, either — 95th nationally with 203.3 yards per game — but quarterback Ryan Hilinski has thrown for 256 and 267 yards in his last two games, and connected on a couple of long ones against Nebraska (43 yards) and Rutgers (64). He's only averaging 6.5 yards per attempt, though, so this is likely going to be a dink-and-dunk game with a few shots taken.

It will be easier for the Wolverines if they can stop the run, as expected, and pin the ears back to get to the quarterback. Nebraska sacked Hilinksi four times in a win, and this could be a game in which the Michigan pass rushers feast.

It starts with the front seven getting the job done up front.

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The Breakdown: Michigan Wolverines vs. Northwestern Wildcats 

There's a segment of the Michigan fan base that doesn't like Fitzgerald because he sarcastically jumped around the sidelines at Michigan Stadium one year when he got a call. Most, though, understand he's a good coach who has the respect of his peers around the country, has been up for much bigger jobs (turning them all down, or at least giving a 'not interested' when approached — including U-M), and led his teams to two 10-win seasons and two Big Ten West titles in the last six years.

He has Harbaugh's respect, to say the least.

"Continually, you just see the Northwestern team ... they just get better every single week," Harbaugh said. "This year, last year, the year before that, the year before that.

"When you play Northwestern in the middle of the season, later in the season, they’re really formidable."

They just don't have enough playmakers this year to compete against the big boys on the schedule, including Michigan.

The formula for this one is pretty simple — play good, strong, fundamental football; protect the ball; don't give up big plays and and leave with a comfortable victory ... and a 7-0 record heading into East Lansing next weekend.

That's exactly what we expect to see.

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