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Connecticut at No. 4 Michigan Preview: A final tune-up, but the start of an era

J.J. McCarthy has officially taken over, though his services may only be needed for a half.

Connecticut v Michigan Set Number: X84604 TK1 R4 F87

Jim Harbaugh did the unexpected, bringing the quarterback competition into the season and actually giving the younger player a legitimate chance to unseat the incumbent and win the job. J.J. McCarthy did the expected, though, and left no uncertainty as to which quarterback is deserving of the starting job thanks to a nearly flawless decimation of Hawaii.

McCarthy and the Michigan Wolverines wrap up their less-than-daunting non-conference slate this weekend against the Connecticut Huskies. SP+ ranks UConn just two spots ahead of Hawaii with offensive and defense units outside the top 120, making this another impending slaughter.

The quarterback battle looks to be shut, but there are still questions to be answered across the two-deep, so this game is not completely meaningless. However, figuring out if Michigan can cover the spread or maintain a shutout is much more interesting than counting on the visitors to actually put up a fight.

Connecticut Huskies (1-2) at No. 4 Michigan Wolverines (2-0)

Date & Time: Saturday, Sep. 17, 12 p.m. ET
Location: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.
TV/Streaming: ABC

Not much else to prove

By this point everyone has watched all 11 of McCarthy’s completions against Hawaii about 70 times, so no need to detail that all here. The five-star showed he can make every throw in the book and can use his legs as well, so this week is more about continuing to get those reps as opposed to proving what he is capable of.

One thing that really stood out last weekend was Michigan’s red zone performance. Settling for field goals was a consistent issue under Cade McNamara all last season (and again against Colorado State), but that was not the case during McCarthy’s first start. Not only did he execute in the red zone, but he has a clear desire to throw when given the opportunity. That is what a killer does.

Perhaps the biggest area to watch is the offensive line, which is still both beaten up a bit and imperfect. There is enough talent and experience here to not be too concerned, but none of these first three opponents should be causing any trouble. A clean game up front would give some good confidence heading into the conference slate, including confidence in backups Giovanni El-Hadi and Karsen Barnhart, if healthy.

The Wolverines have spread the love around so much that no one is really standing out too much in terms of playmakers. Roman Wilson has brought the highlights so far, and Ronnie Bell has had a little rust early on, but otherwise there is not a skill player who really jumps off that page. If the staff wanted him to, Blake Corum could be that player. In just 22 carries he already has 164 yards and two scores, and UConn has not looked convincing against the run game, so he could probably double his season numbers if given the chance.

Diving through the depth chart

Just about everyone on the defensive side has seen some action thus far, and that should be the case for one more week. The starters are doing their part, but the real value comes from those just behind them on the two-deep. Michigan continues to use multiple looks and plenty of rotation, meaning the team needs much more than 11 reliable options.

UConn offers another chance for some of those players to step forward. Mike Sainristil and Makari Paige are two risers who look to be consistent features in the defensive backfield, and this is yet another game where the opposing team will need to throw the ball perhaps more than they would like. In front of them on the field could be Michael Barrett again, who is fitting in just fine as a non-Viper middle linebacker as needed.

As is customary in these sort of affairs, freshmen will continue to get plenty of attention. Jim Harbaugh named Mason Graham an immediate starter, but given Michigan’s defensive tackle usage, he is not always on the field. Classmates Derrick Moore, Will Johnson, and Kenneth Grant have all had a few moments, and this is another opportunity for all of them to keep earning more snaps.

There is not a ton else to really say about the defense. UConn quarterback Zion Turner has four touchdowns to three interceptions and is working out the kinks as a freshman. He recorded an 82.4 percent completion rate against Syracuse last week...but only logged 92 total passing yards. Running back Nathan Carter probably offers more of a threat and could be a slight test for the defensive reserves when they are in the game, but he is not going to be enough to singlehandedly challenge the Wolverines.

Putting a bow on it

No one thinks this non-conference schedule was anything to write home about, but a solid performance on Saturday will help Michigan see it out just fine. Aside from staying healthy, the two main objectives were to figure out the starting quarterback and get as many players experience as possible; those have both been accomplished.

McCarthy will draw the focus again and that is warranted. Even though the level of competition is rough, he still should be responsible for making the right decisions and putting the ball on the money, things that McNamara struggled doing week one. Against Hawaii neither was an issue for McCarthy, and a repeat of that will only help building the confidence of fans and the quarterback alike.

There is not much else to watch for. UConn is a bad team, at the same level of the previous two, and are heavy underdogs as expected. There will be comical throws leading to touchdowns and probably some havoc caused by the defense. Just sit back and enjoy this game because we only get 12 (or 15???) of them a year.