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Three big things: Michigan

Every game hinges on a few critical "things" -- players, schemes or specific plays that could play a big role in deciding the winner and loser. It's an important concept with a blunt title; "things" are important, however vague they might sound. InsideNU will attempt to identify the three biggest ones in advance of Northwestern's game each week. This week's matchup: Michigan.


At this point in the season, Northwestern and Michigan are both reeling. After losing three out of four, Michigan sits at 6-3 but just 2-3 in the Big Ten. And Northwestern’s struggles have been well documented. The losing streak now sits at five in a row. Northwestern’s last three losses have been by a combined 13 points, including one in overtime (Iowa). On Saturday, two teams on downward slides will meet on Ryan Field. One's slide will continue and one's slide will be stopped, at least for the moment. Luckily for Northwestern, the team has had a week to settle itself after the Nebraska loss that, well, was just unlucky. But Michigan lost to its intra-state rival in Michigan State, and then followed that up with a loss to Nebraska last week. At the start of this game, there’s no telling where these two teams will be at psychologically and the opening few minutes could say a lot about the outcome of the game.

Offensive Balance

Coming into the season, Northwestern’s offensive attack was predicated on balance: balance between quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian and, even broader, balance between the run and the pass. In part due to injury and in part due to shaky play from Siemian, Northwestern has completely lost that balance. Here are Northwestern’s pass-to-runs ratios during the losing streak:

vs. Ohio State (40-30) 31 passes 43 runs
@ Wisconsin (35-6)* 39 passes 25 runs
vs. Minnesota (20-17)* 46 passes 26 runs
@ Iowa (17-10 OT) 14 passes 52 runs
@ Nebraska (27-24) 21 passes 47 runs

*Kain Colter was not available for the entire game

Clearly, Northwestern’s most balanced game during the Big Ten slate was against Ohio State, which was arguably the team’s best performance. Northwestern can’t afford to become too one-dimensional in either direction. It makes them, or any team, far easier to defend. Northwestern needs an efficient passing game for the offense to see any kind of success and since Oct. 5, Northwestern has yet to put together another balanced offensive attack.

Pass Rush

Northwestern and Michigan come in to this game as two of the most-sacked teams in the Big Ten. Since the start of Big Ten play, Michigan has allowed 20 sacks (10th in the conference) and Northwestern has given up 26 sacks (last in the conference). Both teams are also in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten as far as how many times they’ve sacked the opposing quarterback. As Inside Northwestern’s Callie Counsellor pointed out, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner has struggled this season when facing pressure, often turning what will most likely be a negative play into an even more negative one while trying to evade pressure. With Tyler Scott feeling healthier after the bye week, he and the rest of Northwestern’s defensive ends will have their sights set on making Gardner uncomfortable inside and outside the pocket. For Michigan, Frank Clark and Cameron Gordon lead the team with 4.5 and 4 sacks respectively. Similar to Scott and co. Michigan’s front seven knows it can frustrate Northwestern’s offensive line as the unit has continued to struggle throughout the losing streak.