Michigan football faces must-win road game at Northwestern

Wolverines coming off 3 straight blowout wins at home

Karan Higdon #22 of the Michigan Wolverines runs the ball to score a first quarter touchdown against the against the Western Michigan Broncos at Michigan Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Michigan football's game against Northwestern isn't drawing much attention on a national level, but everything is on the line for Jim Harbaugh's team.

The Wolverines have gotten back on track with three straight blowout wins at home, but Northwestern poses a tougher test than any of the last three opponents.

Meet Northwestern

Saturday will be a meeting of two teams heading in completely opposite directions. Michigan has bounced back from an ugly loss in the season opener, while Northwestern survived its first game at Purdue and hasn't won since.

The Wildcats faced a critical Big Ten West Division showdown right out of the gates, traveling to Purdue on the Thursday night before opening weekend. When Northwestern knocked off what was expected to be a solid Purdue team, it looked like the start of another promising season.

Ryan Field hasn't been nearly as friendly. Northwestern returned home and everything unraveled, as what had grown into a nine-game losing streak gave way to back-to-back upset losses.

TJ Green of the Northwestern Wildcats looks to the sideline for a play after coming into the game against the Purdue Boilermakers in the first quarter at Ross-Ade Stadium on Aug. 30, 2018, in West Lafayette, Indiana. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Duke beat Northwestern despite being outplayed in nearly every phase of the game. The Wildcats had more yards, more first downs and fewer penalties. They won the time of possession battle and were more efficient on third down.

But a pair of turnovers doomed Northwestern, as a 21-7 halftime score held through the final 30 minutes.

How did Northwestern respond? It lost at home to Akron, which earned its first win over a Big Ten team since the conference has been called the Big Ten.

Matchup advantages for Michigan

Michigan heads to Evanston with several significant advantages over Northwestern.

Perhaps the most obvious mismatch appears to be Northwestern's rushing attack against Michigan's defense. The Wildcats lost star running back Jeremy Larkin this week when he retired from football due to injury.

Larkin led the team with 346 yards and five touchdowns on 72 carries this season. The new starter, John Moten, has 21 yards on 12 carries.

The loss of Larkin is devastating for Pat Fitzgerald's team, and the timing couldn't have been worse. Michigan and Michigan State are two of the top three rushing defenses in the conference this season, and Northwestern plays them back-to-back the next two weeks.

Michigan is allowing just 101 rushing yards per game this season, good for 14th in the nation. Northwestern is averaging 117 rushing yards per game on offense, which is 114th in the nation.

Michigan DL Rashan Gary celebrates a sack against Western Michigan. (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

It's a mismatch of epic proportions, and Northwestern won't have its best player to try to overcome it.

Clayton Thorson leads a solid passing attack for the Wildcats, but if Michigan takes away the threat of the run, the dangerous cornerback trio of Lavert Hill, David Long and Brandon Watson could have a big day forcing turnovers.

On defense, Northwestern is slightly above average against the run and struggles against the pass. Fitzgerald's defense is allowing opponents to throw for more than 250 yards per game on a 66.3 percent completion rate.

In comparison, Michigan holds teams to 139.3 passing yards per game on a 52.6 percent completion rate.

Even though Shea Patterson has performed well this season, Harbaugh hasn't truly let him loose for a big passing game -- largely because he hasn't needed to. Michigan is looking for its first road win of the season, so look for Harbaugh to show a little more in the passing attack against a defense that struggles in that regard.

What's at stake?

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh before a game against Western Michigan (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

Big Ten play couldn't have started much better for Michigan, which thoroughly dominated Nebraska, 56-10. But going on the road in-conference is a tougher test.

The Big Ten East Division is a four-way battle this season, with Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State chasing what looks like a dominant Ohio State team. The other three teams aren't likely to slip up in weaker conference matchups, so Michigan certainly can't afford to do so, either.

Ohio State and Penn State are set to battle in Happy Valley this weekend, and if Ohio State falls victim to another PSU white out, it opens the door for teams like Michigan to take advantage.

If Michigan can survive at Northwestern and take care of Maryland, it would earn a chance to solidify itself as a title contender against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State. That three-game stretch could be the biggest in Harbaugh's tenure at Michigan, or it could mean very little if the team slips up beforehand.

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