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By the numbers: dissecting Northwestern’s week 11 opponent — Michigan

by Steven Goldstein

Still clinging to hopes of a Legends Division title, No. 24 Northwestern kicks off its biggest game of 2012 at Ann Arbor Saturday, squaring off with the Michigan Wolverines (6-3, 4-1). While hobbled quarterback Denard Robinson has yet to be cleared for action, the Wolverines are certainly one of the Wildcats’ most credentialed opponents.

Sure, numbers can lie, but they also tell a heck of a story. As part of our preview coverage, check out a statistical breakdown of the ‘Cats’ next opponent.

16.8: Average points allowed per game by Michigan’s defense

Michigan’s 13th-ranked D poses a problem for Northwestern’s burgeoning offense. The Wolverines rank first in the Big Ten in total pass defense, and are allotting just 3.7 yards a carry to opposing rushers.

With only 11 sacks in nine games, though, Michigan’s front line is nothing to write home about. The Wildcats will look to win the push up front and keep the edge open for juniors tailback Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter.

Keep an eye out for Michigan corner Raymon Taylor, who took an interception 63 yards for a score against Purdue last month.

10: Sacks allowed all season by Michigan’s offensive line

Behind 2011 All-Big Ten Second Team tackle Taylor Lewan, the Wolverines boast a formidable O-line that’s allowed just over a sack a game this season. Northwestern’s subpar pass rush could be in for a long afternoon here.

A clean pocket obviously gives Michigan a huge advantage, regardless of who ends up under center.

14 percent: Differential between Michigan’s third-down conversion rate and its opponents’ third-down conversion rate

The Wildcats’ pronounced struggles on opposing third downs may only get worse Saturday, as Michigan touts the best third-down conversion rate in the conference at a 48.4 clip. With Robinson at quarterback, the Wolverines are able to stay wide and spread defenses, making short-yardage plays just about impossible to contain.

Michigan also ranks fifth in opponents’ conversion rates, meaning that quite simply, this team plays some clutch football. If Northwestern figures to roll with a run-heavy game-plan to combat the Wolverines’ pass defense, we could see a healthy dose of third-and-shorts Saturday.

-4: Michigan’s 2012 turnover margin

Despite Michigan’s 4-1 conference record, the Wolverines have struggled to take care of the football. Denard Robinson’s tossed nine of the team’s 15 interceptions this year, while Michigan’s defense has churned out only seven picks.

Northwestern, meanwhile, sits on a +6 turnover margin. While the Wolverines may have more talented personnel and a clear-cut home field advantage, the ‘Cats can steal this one with a couple of sloppy plays.

90.3 percent: Michigan’s red-zone touchdown rate

When it comes to crunch time, Michigan’s hitting the end-zone and finishing off scoring drives. The Wolverines’ red-zone touchdown mark is second only to NU’s 91.4 percent.

Even if backup quarterback and speedy wideout Devin Gardner sees some time at QB, Michigan’s offense remains agile, unpredictable and tough to contain in the spread. Of course, with Kain Colter under center, the Wildcats have a bevy of scoring options themselves. The difference maker in this one could be whichever defense can step up at the goal-line.

33-6: Michigan’s all-time record at home against Northwestern

While a few eyebrows raise at the ranked Wildcats taking on the unranked Wolverines, this is still Michigan’s game to lose. Ann Arbor is one of the toughest places to play in the country, and you can bet the Big House will be a hostile environment Saturday.

Michigan Stadium is the third-largest stadium in the world, with an official capacity that brushes 110,000. Northwestern did win its last trip to Michigan, however, with a 21-14 victory back in November 2008.