Despite being a raging tire fire of a team, Minnesota's run defense has been somewhat solid so far. Solid against teams that can't run worth a lick, but you've got to start somewhere. USC had three "team" carries for –34 yards—punts winged over someone's head?—that distorted their numbers but still only managed 4.0 YPC on 25 carries. That is downright respectable. Miami (Not That Miami) was also shut down.
Raincloud stickers apply for the Gophers' games against New Mexico State, who managed to get their main back over 100 yards at 4.9 YPC, and North Dakota State, who put up 141 yards on 27 carries. The Lobos Aggies went out the next week and put up 16 yards on UTEP. So… yeah.
While the initial returns are encouraging—at least relative to Minnesota expectations—the Gophers were 98th in rushing defense last year, giving up a whopping 5.3 YPC. They basically made their opponents look like they all had Michigan's rushing offense. The Gophers do return the vast bulk of their front seven and can expect to improve. Enough to hold Michigan under control? Probably not.
Michigan enters the game in the top ten in rushing offense despite [TEDIOUS THOUSAND WORD ESSAY ON THE MORAL FAILINGS OF RUNNING POWER FROM THE I-FORM EXCISED] thanks to Denard Robinson being Denard Robinson and a couple of running backs emerging from the pile of muck. Fitzgerald Toussaint can make yards with his shimmy…
…and Vincent Smith blocks and catches screens like a champ and can even make some yards of his own from time to time. While neither is an All-American, Michigan's tailback situation is much better than it was a year ago.
It's hard to see anything other than an elite defense shutting the Michigan ground game down as long as Denard's around. In this game of immoveable object versus irresistible force, the object projects to be pretty moveable.
Key Matchup: The offensive line using POWER. A main issue with Michigan's shift to a power-based power system for power running is the offensive linemen being ill-suited to picking up opponents and placing them downfield. They did this with aplomb against a very small defense; doing it against a much larger—though probably not a lot better—opponent would bode well for the meat of the Big Ten schedule.
Pass Offense vs. San Diego State
If Denard Robinson can throw the ball to the guys he might have one of those games where you get more than 100 yards passing. Ace keeps battering this and it's worth battering:
Mentally strikethrough Stoudemire, the star-type substance of the unit—he's out with a hand injury—and you've got something resembling last year's Michigan outfit. They've played like it. It's one thing to give up a 300-yard passing day to Matt Barkley and entirely another to drop these lines on the world:
NMSU's Andrew Manley: 20 of 31, 288 yards, 3 TD/2 INT
NDSU's Brock Jensen: 16 of 21 for 197 yards.
That's two quarterbacks repping schools you need four letters to abbreviate averaging 9.3 YPA. Compounding matters: last year Minnesota finished dead last with nine sacks. This year they're on pace for three.
Michigan will be permitted to acquire yards. Actually taking advantage of that opportunity has been problematic for Michigan so far, what with Denard's shoddy Burmese guidance chip malfunctioning and all. This will be an opportunity to get Denard going with some screens and short passes:
It appears as though we are content to give up everything underneath up to 12-15 yards at a time. I do not recall giving up a deep pass all year but we give up an average of 11.5 yards per completion.
Ace saw that in FFFF, as well:
I mean, this is just way too easy:
That happened, oh, all game. Before USC got stupidly conservative in the second half and forced quarterback Matt Barkley into a lot of third-and-long situations, he had completed 18 of 20 first-half passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns, all to Robert Woods, who had 11 first-half catches for 115 yards. Only one of Barkley's throws in that span went beyond ten yards at the point of the catch, that being a 43-yard touchdown bomb to Woods when Minnesota tried to play tighter coverage, and Woods ended up setting the USC single-game mark with 17 receptions, almost all of them coming on screens, slants, quick hitches, and short out routes.
With Borges stating that he needs to work within Denard's capabilities a little bit better in this week's press conference, expect more of a ball-control passing game this week. It will be there, it will be like passing skeleton, it will be up to Denard to take advantage.
Key Matchup: Denard versus Borges. This seems like a great opportunity for the yin and yang of Michigan's passing offense to figure out what works together. You can relax, get in a rhythm without worrying about defensive linemen, and enjoy the luxurious passing lanes afforded by the Gopher secondary.
Run Defense vs. Minnesota
Much of this hinges on the "questionable" MarQueis Gray, the QB/WR/QB who moved back to QB this fall and is the Gophers' leading rusher by a considerable margin with 351 yards in the first four games. Ace detailed the various ways in which Minnesota gets Gray yards, which look an awful lot like the ways most spread offenses get their QB yards.
"I'm hoping he'll be ready for Saturday and be able to give us minutes," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said about Gray during his radio show Thursday. "But I don't know. We got a lot of time before Saturday, and we'll take it all the way until game time to see what we do."
3. What are some of the other challenges facing the Gopher’s offense? A weak running game, or struggling offensive line?
Offensive line is a pretty significant issue. We have a freshman and a sophomore starting at RT and LT respectively. Then we have three seniors on the interior. Unfortunately the seniors are the larger problem. Both of the tackles have been solid while the interior line has really struggled. It is a very good thing that Gray is strong and fast because he rarely has a pocket before it collapses on him. 11 sacks allowed through four games is only slightly better than Indiana’s 12 but it is bad no matter how you look at it. The run game has actually been fairly solid, at least when compared to our passing game but both rank 8th in the Big Ten.
Gray's injury is a toe/foot issue that may allow him to play at the same time it limits his effectiveness on the ground. If Gray's reduced to a pocket passer you might as well replace him with Max Shortell, the true freshman pocket passer Jerry Kill yoinked from Kansas last year. (Or possibly Brazil: the NCAA's website calls him just "Shortell".)
Aside from Gray, Minnesota has relied on senior Duane Bennett (4.3 YPC a year ago, 3.7 this year) and sophomore Donnell Kirkwood. Kirkwood's been more efficient but both appear to be JAGs stuck behind a porous offensive line. FFFF shows a lot of misdirection as Minnesota tries to compensate.
Key Matchup: Jake Ryan, and to a slightly lesser extent the other linebackers, against lack of contain and misdirection. Michigan basically shut down Ronnie Hillman when SDSU was not getting Michigan to bust alignments or lose contain. Minnesota will again test Michigan's ability to line up right, something they're getting better at. They still need work.
Pass Defense vs. Minnesota
This will also depend on Minnesota's quarterback situation. Gray is completing 50% of his passes for 6.7 YPA and is coming off a terrible game against NDSU—5 of 12, 53 yards, 1 INT—in which he was pulled for performance reasons. Shortell is the better passer… or is at least reputed to be the better passer. His numbers to date are almost identical to Gray's: completion percentage around 50, YPA around 7, equal numbers of TDs and interceptions.
Neither is likely to be much good. The two-headed Minnesota quarterback will be less threatening than any Michigan's gone up against save Alex Gillett, but unlike EMU Minnesota will probably throw the ball around a bit. Certainly more than the Eagles, anyway. They attempted six passes, none in the second half.
Minnesota does have its usual quota of a single wide receiver you'd really like to see in a winged helmet. This year's edition is Da'Jon McKnight (right), a strapping senior with NFL potential. McKnight had 750 receiving yards and ten touchdowns last year; he'll be a tough, physical matchup for whoever he lines up against. It'll be interesting to see whether Michigan matches JT Floyd, who seems like their best and most physical corner, with McKnight or is content to play field/boundary. That would expose the slight Courtney Avery or Blake Countess to a 6'3", 220-pound opponent. (The assumption here is that Troy Woolfolk will rest is comically large array of minor injuries this week.)
As for Michigan, last week they showed stunning competence against a passing offense that was supposed to be pretty good. This could be a week-to-week fluke or Michigan taking advantage of playing an offense they literally designed, but one thing seems like an indisputably encouraging sign for the future: pressure. Ryan Lindley was forced to chuck a dozen off-target ducks because he rarely had time to get to a second read. Mike Martin tore through the interior of the line time and again; Ryan, Roh, and Black helped out on the regular.
In the secondary, Thomas Gordon continued to solidify himself as a non-cringe-inducing safety and all corners not named Woolfolk played well. Debutant Blake Countess was the talk over the past week but as mentioned, it's JT Floyd who's made a remarkable transformation from outright terrible to at least average. Michigan defensive backs are making life hard on opponents. For his next trick, Curt Mallory will teach Luke Fickell how to take a timeout.
Key Matchup: Defensive line versus a lack of gaudy sack totals. If the seniors on the interior are the problem relative to the freshman starting tackles, Michigan should be living in the backfield.
Will Hagerup returns. While Hoke is making noises about an open competition between the prodigal son and freshman Matt Wile, Hagerup has a cannon attached to his leg and Wile does not. Hagerup will get the job back and push Zoltan Mesko's punting average records. Kicker Brendan Gibbons missed his first real attempt of the season against SDSU, but at least it looked plausible. It did not spin sideways. So that's cool. (Gibbons did make a glorified extra point against EMU.)
Gopher special teams are less of a tire fire than the rest of the team. The Gophers haven't done much on kick returns but are averaging 30(!) yards a punt return… on one return. Small sample size disclaimers have never applied more thoroughly. Their punting has been legitimately awesome (46 yards a kick with just three returns on 12 punts); their kicker started off 1/4 but has made his last four.
Key Matchup: GIBBONS YOU PUT IT THROUGH THE UPRIGHTS AAAAAA
Twenty point spreads do not require intangibles until the current head coach has proven this assertion to be false. But here's this… item from Midnight Maize:
Minnesota can block anyone on the line.
Michigan can't handle the zone read, man.
Y U NO 2010 DENARD, DENARD.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
Michigan can take advantage of the porous Minnesota secondary.
The Avery/Countess duo turns in a second solid game.
Minnesota shows up instead of the Disguised Vikings.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 1 (Baseline 5; –1 for Minnesota Secondary Resembles Michigan 2010, –1 for MINNESOTA SECONDARY RESEMBLES MICHIGAN 2010, –1 for And They Rush The Quarterback Like A Pack Of Mewling Tajiks, –1 for Freshmen At QB And Both Tackles, –1 for Lost To Not Even The Good New Mexico, –1 for Would Not Finish in The Top Three In A Dakotas State Championship, +1 for Lingering Fear Of Losing These Sorts Of Games From Last Four Years of Experience.)
Desperate need to win level: 10 (Baseline 5; +1 for Not Having The Jug Would Crush MVictors, +1 for Would Like To Believe Michigan Could Be State Champ Of North Dakota, +1 for Losing To A 20-Point Dog Would Be A Carr Era Flashback I Would Not Enjoy, +1 for Oh No Not Again, +1 for Except This Would Be Even Worse.)
Loss will cause me to... never say anything nice about the defense again.
Win will cause me to... spend next week repeating "this is not 2010" and "this is not 2009" to myself over and over.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Come on, man.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
Denard picks up another 20 carries, the last few inexplicable. 150 yards.
Brian has clearly been watching the Dallas Cowboys too much and is expecting 13 field goals.
Not because that hypothesis makes sense, but because seriously 39 points what?
(In the slightly more plausible range, 6 field goals and 3 TDs, no missed XPs - I'll call it "score on every drive except one fluke turnover", and this sounds good to me. Not least because it would imply Michigan has a kicker this year.)
"When you absolutely don't know what to do any more, then it's time to panic." - Johann van der Wiel
I'm praying that after Minnesota and Northwestern, Michigan will a) not be on the Big Ten Network for the remainder of the season b) be on ABC or ESPN c) never have Pam Ward announcing. I think the Purdue game might make it on the BTN.
I hope the offense can score a lot of points on the Gopher's defense. May be DROB will have a big break out passing game. If the offense struggles, then it will be up to our defense. I'm beginning to become more confident in our defense and improvement will continue through the season due to good coaching.
The last couple years we have struggled in B1G play after doing quite well in the non-conference games. '09 and '10 we struggled to beat Indiana after coming into conference play undefeated.
If the offense clicks and it turns into a blow out by halftime, then Gardner should get to play most of the second half. I'm just worried we may see more turnovers and MN defense will be focusing on our running game.
Michigan 28 - Minnesota 17
My wish would be Michigan is up 31-3 at halftime. Gardner leads the offense to 3 more TD's in the second half and the 2nd team defense only gives up a TD to MN (Michigan 52 - MN 10).
michigan wins 42-10. denard rushes for 172 yards and 2 scores. goes 12 of 22 passing for 194 yards and 2 td passes. fitz has two rushing scores. devin gets very late mop up duty with less than 5 minutes in the game.