For the first time since the season-opening loss to Notre Dame, the Michigan football team will head on the road this weekend. This time it will face Big Ten foe Northwestern in a game that shouldn’t pose quite the challenge the Fighting Irish did.
The Wildcats limp into the game off two early non-conference losses. Just as notably, they are coming off the loss of leading rusher Jeremy Larkin, who had to medically retire from football after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.
Still, the game is another opportunity to show ascension since that week one loss. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh holds an 8-4 record in road conference games, and if he hopes to achieve his goals this season, he’ll need to beat at least one ranked conference foe for the first time in his tenure.
Northwestern isn’t that team. But a convincing road win over the Wildcats on Saturday could do wonders to ease those road worries for now.
The Daily spoke to Ella Brockway, a football beat reporter for The Daily Northwestern, who broke down what you should know about Northwestern ahead of Saturday’s matchup in Evanston:
Michigan fans will come into this with Northwestern coming off a loss to Akron and think ‘What happened?’ Do you think that is an accurate portrayal of the team right now?
I would’ve said so before the Jeremy Larkin news broke this week. Obviously, the big news is that he medically retired. That’s kind of thrown a wrench into the expectations we had for this season. From what we’ve seen in the past few games — he had five touchdowns and 350ish rushing yards. He was set to be our leader offensively and this kind of came as a shock in the middle of our bye week. I would say it changed the conversation from whatever we were thinking about Akron to how on earth Northwestern is going to fare in the Big Ten schedule it has coming up without its star running back.
What happened in that Akron game? Do you think it was an anomaly?
One of my colleagues, Ben Pope, wrote a story last week where he tracked why Northwestern performed so poorly in its non-conference games at the beginning of the season. Two years ago, we lost to Western Michigan and Illinois State, last year we had a bad start and then this year we started off with the loss to Duke after Purdue. He found that Northwestern, in non-conference games, relies on throwing a lot more. So they give Clayton Thorson a lot more opportunities to pass the ball, which does not fare well as it didn’t against Akron. I also think our secondary really struggled against Akron, which is usually something Northwestern can rely on.
With Larkin out, who is expected to pick up his slack and what should we know about him?
The presumptive starter right now is John Moten IV, who’s had some decent career experience both as backup for Justin Jackson in 2016 and backup for Larkin moreso this year. His career average is around five yards per carry. It’s just going to be a question of how he can handle taking a lot of snaps and carries at a high volume. His season-high is five in a game and I think his career high is only 15 or 16. I think, especially facing a defense like Michigan, whose rushing defense is one of the top in the country, it’s not going to be easy to go in not having a lot of experience. In addition to him, Isaiah Bauser is a freshman; he’s second string. He’s got one carry this season. But it’s likely Moten IV.
What other players should fans know about?
Clayton Thorson is the obvious one. He and his backup, TJ Green, are still technically listed on the depth chart as splitting time. Thorson tore his ACL in the bowl game last year and started off the season on — Coach Fitzgerald called it “a pitch count.” I think you can expect Thorson to start and the offense will be structured around him, is my guess now. He’s got some decent receivers in Bennett Skowronek and Flynn Nagel. He doesn’t have a top receiver at the moment, but you can see those two. Northwestern’s offensive line has kind of been at the center of its struggles the past few years so I don’t know if any of them are too notable.
Thorson has been pretty well-regarded nationally — with draft projections, especially. What are his strengths and weaknesses?
Thorson had a decent performance in the Purdue game in the season-opener when he was still splitting snaps with Green and he did not have a strong performance in the Akron game — with two interceptions that Akron turned into touchdowns. Then he fumbled, and Akron turned that into a touchdown as well. I think some of the preseason hype around him — some of the articles that were saying he’s going to go in the first round of the draft — were overly optimistic on him. We’ll be able to take a lot more away in seeing him play hopefully a full game against a Big Ten defense.
What do you think will be Northwestern’s gameplan going in?
I’ll start with offensively. I would not be surprised if they threw the ball more, rather than rush Moten IV into a ton of carries at first. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more short-yardage passes to guys like Skowronek and Nagel and even Riley Lees. Defensively, I really think it’s going to have to be a big game from the secondary that, like I mentioned before, struggled in the past few games, especially with a guy like Shea Patterson for Michigan. He brings like a 70.1 completion rate to the table. Northwestern is historically not very good in games in which they face a quarterback like Patterson. I think, defensively, they have to step up that secondary game. When I talked to them this week, they were saying that was a point of emphasis.
Did you get a sense they thought there was a specific area they could take advantage of Michigan?
I didn’t exactly get that sense. I think, from their press conference, Fitzgerald was speaking the praises of Michigan, saying — I think his exact quote — he “loved watching their tape, but not on a week like this.” I think they know the Michigan team that’s going to come here, especially with the two non-conferences losses and the absence of Larkin, I don’t think they’ll think they have a ton of advantages.
Was there a point of emphasis during the bye week, regrouping from the Akron game?
I think it was just getting through the growing pains. Both the offense and defense are fairly young — there are a lot of sophomores along the lines. Fitz pointed out there was a lot of in-game decision-making that could be improved and growing pains, especially in places like the secondary. That was the most they talked about points of emphasis.
I had this team going 8-4 at the beginning of the year, but with those two (non-conference) losses and now with Larkin, it’ll be tricky for Northwestern to get to five wins. So this game I’ll say 38-14, Michigan. This game looked important on the schedule going into the season because it’s the first in a big home slate. But in the wake of these two losses and Larkin, it just looks even more important for the future of what this season is going to bring. I don’t see Northwestern being able to handle the Michigan defense or even Patterson’s efficiency. And I think the talent gap might really start to show in the second half, but it’ll be interesting to see what this post-Larkin underdog Northwestern team looks like.