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Three matchups to watch: Michigan

This game will be won in the trenches.

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve reached the thick part of the Big Ten schedule for the year. Northwestern fans would’ve hoped the team would be at least 2-1 entering the contest, but losses to Akron and Duke have curbed the team’s momentum. Further, news of Jeremy Larkin’s retirement from football shocked the NU community and program. Nonetheless, this week Northwestern will take on No. 14 Michigan , fresh off of a 56-10 walloping of Nebraska. Here are three matchups that could have a sizeable impact on the outcome of the game.

Shea Patterson vs. Northwestern’s Secondary

After coming to Michigan on a transfer from Ole Miss, Shea Patterson assumed the role of Michigan’s offensive messiah. The team has always lacked solid quarterback play under Harbaugh, and Patterson has provided a sense of comfort at the position that has never been there.

Thus far in the season, Patterson has thrown for seven TDs and two INTs, tallying a 70 percent completion percentage and 709 yards, proving himself as the man for the job at UM. Harbaugh heaped praise upon Patterson (and backup Dylan Mccaffrey) after their win over Nebraska.

I thought they were both good. Really on top of everything that they were doing, really in control. I thought both had real good presence in the pocket going through their reads. throwing the ball accurately again.

On the other side of the ball, Northwestern’s secondary has seen some troubling performances since the start of the year. Against Purdue, they had a productive outing, forcing 3 picks and conceding only 270 yards. Against Duke, the secondary was shredded with pure efficiency. Daniel Jones completed 16/22 passes and 3 TDs, including a 52 yard pass to Jonathan Lloyd (you can read about the play here).

In the second half against Akron, the secondary really struggled. Kato Daniels converted on big pass after big pass, carrying an Akron offense down the field quickly and with ease. It will be imperative for the secondary to limit the big play ability of the Michigan offense. Michigan can spread the ball all over the field, with 12 players earning a catch against Nebraska. It’ll be difficult for Northwestern to contain the passing game, but it can be done, as evidenced in Notre Dame’s victorious effort against Michigan. If they can do it, it’ll be a massive step toward earning an upset.

Northwestern’s D-line v Michigan’s O-line

A huge part of the formula toward defending the passing game is getting pressure on the quarterback. Northwestern has been inconsistent, but has found times at which they can get to the QB and limit the rhythm of the QB.

In the first contest against Purdue, Northwestern found two key sacks that provided big boosts in the game, highlighted here. Against Duke, Northwestern was punished in the first half for a lack of pressure, but Joe Gaziano & Co. stepped up in the second half. Three sacks and three QB hurries highlighted the half in which they gave up few first downs and 0 points. Unfortunately, the offense couldn’t capitalize, but you couldn’t have asked for more from the defensive line.

A similar story painted the Akron game, albeit in reverse. Northwestern pressured Kato Daniel the whole first half, despite recording no sacks. In the second half, that pressure dwindled, Daniel was able to find a rhythm, and picked apart the secondary. Limiting Michigan’s passing attack will be contigent on both the secondary and the D-line, and Northwestern has shown it is fully capable of displaying both fronts positively.

Furthermore, Michigan has a lethal running game. The offense is reliant on a heavy rushing effort, going for 212 yards a game so far. While being concerned with the passing game, Jordan Thompson and Alex Miller will be crucial in limiting the power run game. It truly will be a tall task for the Northwestern defensive line, but it is a crucial one.

Michigan’s D-line v Northwestern’s O-line

The trenches on the other side of the ball will also be vital to getting a desirable result in this game. Northwestern’s offensive line has struggled mightily the past couple of weeks, although that was in part due to injuries that hampered Rashawn Slater against Akron, and left Blake Hance and Tommy Doles out.

The anticipated return of full health for those three is a much needed boost for Northwestern, because Michigan’s line is a mammoth force. Led by Rashan Gary, it is one of the finest position groups in the country. Just look at the attention he garners from opposing offensive lines.

On the edge, Chase Winovich is a redshirt senior who has high NFL level talent and produces at a Nick Bosa level clip. He’s notched 6.5 tackles for loss this year to go with two sacks and 18 total tackles. He’s a player that can wreak havoc when he’s in the zone. If either Winovich or Gary gets hot, it’ll almost be impossible for the offensive to move the ball.

Michael Dwumfour and Bryan Mone are two DTs that clog the middle, and, with NU finding out that Jeremy Larkin is retiring with a sad and dangerous injury risk, the running back position will be tested even more on Saturday. John Moten IV and Isaiah Bowser are fully capable players, but they won’t be able to produce at a rate like Larkin. That puts even more pressure on the O-line to open up holes and create space to a greater extent.

On both sides of the ball, if NU can get some sort of edge, or perform at a break even level, they’ll have a shot at this game. If not, Northwestern could be in for a long one.