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What to Watch for: Northwestern

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Matt Slovin, Managing Editor
Published November 14, 2013

1. How does Michigan embrace the underdog mentality?

The Wolverines are underdogs for the first time ever against Northwestern. Saturday will be just the second game this season in which they aren’t favored, the other being at Michigan State.

We know how Michigan responded in that game (hint: not at all). But now that it’s possible the Wolverines will be underdogs in all of their remaining games, perhaps they’ll embrace the role a little bit more.

This will be a very desperate Michigan team in Evanston. Pundits have written that losing out is now a legitimate possibility for the Wolverines. But the team claims that it still has much to play for, including reaching the 10-win plateau that seems highly improbable.

The underdog label is a brand-new one for this team, and perhaps now that the pressure to win a Big Ten championship is off, it can bear down and get a win in a much-needed spot.

2. Does the Northwestern offense move the ball without Venric Mark?

Mark, a second-team All-Big Ten selection a season ago, broke his ankle against Wisconsin on Oct. 12. Unfortunately for Michigan, he is not the Wildcats’ only threat out of the backfield; dual-threat quarterback Kain Colter averages 4.3 yards per carry.

Treyvon Green, who has over 600 yards this season, and Mike Trumpy will split carries out of the backfield for Northwestern.

“They have a number of running backs. They’ve had four running backs that have played a lot, and their offense, they do such a great job of making you be honest with everything you do,” said Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.

The Wildcats rely heavily on the option, which Michigan failed to stop against Nebraska in last week’s 17-13 loss. Mattison said that part of the struggles came from defending the option on third-down situations where he was inclined to pressure.

The Cornhuskers scored the game-winning touchdown off a missed assignment on an option call. If the Wolverines can’t at least slow it down Saturday, there’s simply no way the struggling offense can keep up.

Mark’s absence certainly makes this a more manageable road game, but the game plan for stopping the option must improve.

3. Will redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner get sacked seven times again?

Against a Northwestern defense that averages two sacks a game, probably not. But don’t rule it out if Gardner keeps holding onto the ball for far too long. Against Nebraska, that was a huge reason for the success of the Cornhusker pass rush.

With little time for Gardner to throw the ball, offensive coordinator Al Borges will probably keep most of the routes short to prevent another seven-sack performance like the past two Michigan opponents have achieved.

If the pass protection doesn’t improve, however, it won’t matter where the receivers are running.

4. Who starts the game at safety for Michigan?

Redshirt junior Josh Furman and senior Courtney Avery are not going to be the ones to get the job done for the Wolverines at the safety position. Last week, the duo started over fifth-year senior Thomas Gordon and sophomore Jarrod Wilson.

Both of Nebraska’s touchdowns last weekend were set up by poor plays by the Michigan secondary. Gordon played only on special teams in last Saturday’s game due to an ankle injury, and it’s unclear if he’ll be limited at all this week, though Hoke said he’ll play.

Additionally, redshirt sophomore Blake Countess, who was hurt in the first quarter against Nebraska, will be back for Northwestern.