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What To Watch For: Michigan vs. Northwestern

Can Michigan pick up its first road win of the season?

Nebraska v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

After racing past Nebraska last week, No. 14 Michigan (3-1) travels to Evanston, Ill. to take on Northwestern in the team’s first road game of conference play. Here’s what you should watch for on Saturday:

Make Clayton Thorson Uncomfortable

Northwestern’s starting running back Jeremy Larkin had to abruptly retire due to a medical condition this week (cervical stenosis, a narrowing in the upper part of the spine), leaving behind very little depth at the position. This season, Larkin carried the ball 72 times for 346 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught 19 passes (second most on the team) for 127 yards.

The Wildcats don’t have anyone else nearly as talented as Larkin in the backfield and will be led by John Moten IV, who has 12 carries for a whopping 21 yards in 2018.

Taking away the running game shouldn’t be that difficult of a task for Michigan’s defense. The real challenge will be keeping Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson inside the pocket and making him uncomfortable.

Northwestern’s offensive line has struggled this season — allowing two sacks last week to Akron — which means it could be a big day for Michigan defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich.

To make matters worse for the Wildcats, Thorson has been a turnover machine through three games. Against Akron, he threw two pick-sixes and lost a fumble that was recovered for a touchdown. All signs point to a good day for the U-M defense.

Michigan Cornerbacks To Be Tested

Despite the sudden lack of a running game and the turnovers, Thorson can throw the ball around. The Wildcats are second in the nation in pass attempts per game (50.3) and are 20th in passing yards per game (307.3). It will serve as a test for the Michigan secondary, which is currently No. 3 in the nation in pass defense, allowing just 139.3 yards per game through the air.

There are three Northwestern wide receivers you need to know: Flynn Nagel (20 receptions, 236 yards), Cameron Green (17 receptions, 183 yards, two touchdowns) and Bennett Skowronek (14 catches, 172 yards, one touchdown). Other than Larkin, no other player has caught more than six passes this fall. If Michigan gives up any touchdowns in this one, it’ll likely be on a deep ball that gets to one of those three. U-M safeties will be on high alert.

With no clear answer at running back, expect Northwestern to use short passes to effectively be the team’s running game.

Continue To Establish Running Back Depth

Michigan was without No. 2 running back Chris Evans last week. He could return this week, but regardless, U-M should have an opportunity to continue strengthening its backfield depth.

Starter Karan Higdon will have the lead role again after a spectacular game against Nebraska. If Michigan is fortunate to have another big lead, fans should see more of Tru Wilson and potentially Christian Turner, who racked up 55 yards on 10 carries in his first real action against the Cornhuskers. O’Maury Samuels also got some run too, which was promising.

A position that appeared thin in August is starting to become stronger for the Wolverines.

This game, which was supposed to present itself as much more of a challenge than it seems to potentially be, can serve as another tune up for the U-M offense, which has looked great since the loss to Notre Dame. With all the confidence and momentum the Wolverines seem to have, they shouldn’t let up on any weaker foes. Instead, keep building it up.