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Run Offense vs Minnesota
ra'shede hageman is the best defensive lineman in the history of the big ten, it's just the guys around him who are completely terrible at all things
After years in which it seemed any offense helmed by Denard Robinson would be pretty all right in this category, Michigan is suddenly thrown into a state of higgledy-piggledy by Denard's elbow injury and mass confusion on the part of any Michigan player tasked with obstructing the progress of an opponent. Will Denard be healthy? Was there a mass hallucination induced by helium poisoning last week? If Denard's not healthy will Michigan just say "screw it" and roll with Devin Gardner?
I know the answers to all these questions with unerring certainty but refuse to tell you. You should have been nicer to cats as a child.
The good news is that Minnesota's defense remains as porous as it has invariably been since Glen Mason got the boot for not making the Gophers respectable enough. Behold their Big Ten schedule:
Nebraska at least had some blips of competence in there. Minnesota has none whatsoever, except I guess very dead walrus that is Purdue football at the moment probably racked up a lot of those yards after they'd fallen behind 44-7. Even so, in four tries against Big Ten competition they haven't even come close to getting their opponents under six yards a carry. If Michigan can't run the ball on these guys, Denard or no, it's sackcloth and ashes time.
We may see a revival of the old-timey plain old zone read in this game. The inverted veer is a great play that tends to give the QB the ball. The old-time zone read is at this point a well-defended play that tends to give the RB the ball. Michigan's desires are clear .
The nice thing about the zone read with Denard is that even if you're not running the guy you're still using him since the defense has to account for him. A low chance of a Denard keep is still something you have to respect. Unfortunately, Michigan hasn't been running the true zone read in a long time. For whatever reason they prefer to block the backside end and then do something else with the threat of the QB running—often nothing.
In this game, helping the run offense along with the threat of Denard on the outside is a good idea, and if they cheat then you can use one of your roll-the-dice Denard carries on the guy in a lot of space. Most of these don't even have to be reads. Just run the ball, but use Denard's legs to block someone. It's more reliable than asking your OL to, amirite?
Key Matchup: Michigan blockers attempting to block the correct people versus Minnesota defenders managing to stay between the white lines most of the time. I'm betting on the former.
[Hit THE JUMP for freshman, come out to play]
Pass Offense vs Minnesota
Given the previous section and the aforementioned business with the ulnar nerve, Michigan will want to make this as small a part of the gameplan as possible. Probably, anyway. If Denard throwing the ball isn't likely to aggravate the injury Michigan may operate with a bias towards that and running the ball like they're an offense run by an artillery piece instead of a tiny gazelle. If a back up is in, run run run.
Somewhat miraculously, Minnesota's pass efficiency defense is in the top ten. This has a lot to do with their opponents, who are 107th, 90th (that's WMU, home of Best Quarterback In The State™ Alex Carder), 33rd, 115th, 99th, 49th, and 80th in that category. The two not-horrible teams were Syracuse—Ryan Nassib had a decent 7.3 YPA but threw two picks—and Wisconsin, which threw 15 passes while busy racking up over 350 yards on the ground, and probably should have had a lot more with Jared Abbrederis running open all over the field:
There is a dichotomy here. Against guys who can't get open, Carter's pretty good. Guys who can get open will get open. Hmmm… trouble. Michigan's passing efficiency is 108th, and they're presumably without the guy who's caught the most non-screen yardage this year. Paging Amarah Darboh maybe?
If it comes to this Michigan is going to be in a dogfight, Denard or no. Michigan is unlikely to let it get there unless the injury thing makes throwing the more sensible alternative to tailback runs.
Key Matchup: Receivers getting open somehow versus Michael Carter's infinite PBU supply against terrible passing offenses.
Run Defense vs Minnesota
snarky comment about Gophers not reaching the endzone regularly this year deleted
Minnesota's offense has looked a lot like the average team staring down Michigan's defense this year: BCS teams have held them to 17, 13, 13, 13, and 44 points, with that last number being awful awful Purdue doing the only thing they can this year—distorting all available stats.
Sack adjusted Big Ten numbers:
Those are middling at best.
The Gophers will run any quarterback they get their hands on. Even trundling Max Shortell has multiple games this year with more than ten carries. Phillip Nelson, the true freshman who took over a couple games ago, has 25 in his two starts. Ace noted two snaps from under center in their bombing of Purdue—they're a full on spread.
Aside from the quarterbacks, the main guy is Donnell Kirkwood. Kirkwood went off against the Boilers and had a decent day against Northwestern; Wisconsin and Iowa shut him off. He'll lower a shoulder if given the chance.
He doesn't seem like he's much of a make-you-miss guy. If Michigan can keep the linebackers clean they should bottle him up better than they did jittery Nebraska speedster Hakeem Abdullah, who made a number of plays after Michigan should have had him shut down on the edge.
The Gopher line is undersized, as teams that struggle to recruit often are, and Michigan's DL is actually quite large when they've got Will Campbell out there. Expect more of Craig Roh darting under guys and linebackers getting to the hole clean.
Michigan should shut Minnesota down. They held Nebraska to 4.4 saYPC, and the Cornhuskers are the most dangerous rushing offense in the league. The Gophers are likely to end up under 4 in that stat like they did against a not-very-competent Iowa defense and a good Wisconsin D; they will probably end up under 3.5.
Key Matchup: Linebackers trusting the ends on the veer. Minnesota runs a lot of it, and Michigan didn't defend it well against Minnesota. With the Gophers unlikely to dominate anyone man-on-man, their best bet is getting folks out of position.
Pass Defense vs Minnesota
New Minnesota quarterback Phillip Nelson had a nice outing against Purdue (15 of 22, 246 yards, 3 TDs) and a not so nice outing against Wisconsin (13 of 24, 149 yards, 2 TD/2 INT), and that's all we know about him. He's a true freshman who enrolled early and was set to redshirt until Jerry Kill suddenly inserted him as the starter two weeks ago. He bailed on Wisconsin, where his dad played, because he felt that Wisconsin's entire offensive brain trust was constantly looking for jobs and didn't want to deal with the risk. No, seriously:
…one of the biggest things I saw from that coaching staff was that [offensive coordinator] Paul Chryst and [offensive line coach] Bob Bostad, both of those guys after every single season were taking interviews and trying to get different jobs.
So he's a smart guy, or at least as smart of a guy as anyone who's life choices have led him to rely on the Minnesota offensive line to preserve life and limb can be. He was the #15 pro style QB to Rivals a year ago, in the upper range of three-star guys.
Chances are he'll be throwing a lot to former QB MarQuise Gray, who sprained his ankle a couple weeks into the season and is now playing Devin Gardner except with spectacular catches:
The ball was already away, however, sailing toward the deep left post, seemingly a few yards beyond Gray. But the 6-4 senior didn't give up on the throw.
"I just tried to speed up as much as I can. Phil did a great job of putting a lot of air under the ball, giving me a chance to run under it," Gray said.
Gray lunged forward and stretched as far as he could, catching the ball with his fingertips, about two feet off the ground, at the 12-yard line. He took a couple more steps trying to get his balance, then fell forward and rolled to a stop inside the 5.
With primary target AJ Barker unlikely to be at full strength—he left the Purdue game after his second touchdown with a "significant ankle sprain", did not return, and only returned to practice Friday—Gray and a cast of thousands with around ten catches will be Nelson's primary targets.
FWIW, the Gophers aren't giving up many sacks partially because they have not thrown the ball much this year, with only 207 attempts. Left tackle Ed Olson is in the same boat as Barker. He may play, but he probably won't.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan enters with the #1(!) pass defense, and #15 in efficiency. Like every Big Ten team they've benefited from the vast incompetence of quarterbacking in the league. Michigan does have something of a feather in its cap: against the closest thing to a passing offense on offer in the Midwest this year Michigan held Taylor Martinez to 166 yards on 24 attempts and intercepted him once. While 6.9 YPA isn't great Michigan got burned by the playcall on a 32 yard touchdown on which the secondary couldn't do much. They have to work on getting corner routes taken care of.
While it looks like Michigan is struggling badly to get to the quarterback, they've faced an extremely low number of attempts. Once you adjust for that they're mediocre at getting to the QB, like Minnesota is mediocre at protecting him. With Craig Roh emerging and Jake Ryan set loose against a guy with less mobility than Taylor Martinez, Michigan should do enough to make long-developing throws a risk.
Key Matchup: Michigan linebackers reading their keys right. Ace noted that in the Wisconsin game, Minnesota's success largely came right up the seam, something that's even more likely to be true now that Barker is out and the left tackle is as well.
Michigan's kickers are suddenly a plus, with range. The last two weeks they've been called on eight times and made seven, with the only miss coming from 52 and two other 50+ yarders sailing through the uprights. Will Hagerup is punting all the distances, though Michigan is giving up returns that knock their net yield down to 69th nationally despite Hagerup averaging 46 yards an attempt. (Matt Wile has nine pooch kicks that are just over 32 yards, FWIW.)
Michigan's return units have been pretty pedestrian. Dennis Norfleet keeps looking like he'll hit a seam and get a big one; there have not been any seams to date. Jeremy Gallon has had a couple of nice returns; he's also biffed a few punts to give Michigan poor field position.
As for the Gophers, they're terrible at kick returns, okay at punt returns, and bad at punting. Punter Christian Eldred is averaging 37 yards a kick. Kicker Jordan Wettstein is barely over 50% on field goals. All told, FEI has them 88th, Michigan 46th. This should be an advantage for M.
Key Matchup: COVER THE DANGED PUNTS
Normally point spreads > 10 don't get reassuring cat pictures but with Denard's elbow thing looming over proceeding an exception will be made.
Michigan's down to Jack Kennedy by halftime.
Phillip Nelson is somehow awesome.
You can literally see the question marks above various Michigan blockers' heads as they try to run plays.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
It doesn't matter who's at quarterback because Minnesota's run defense thinks they're playing handball.
DENARD IS A CYBORG NOW YEAHHHHHH
Seriously we should look into this cyborg thing
Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 (Baseline 5; –1 for Anyone Can Run On These Guys, +1 for Anyone Can Defend The Run When They Are Not Blocked, –1 for Except Minnesota, +1 for Denard Elbow Argh, –1 for Freshman QB Against Mattison, –1 for Gopher Run Game Is More Like The Gopher Burn This Down Game Against Not Purdue, –1 for Can't Score Against Anyone But Purdue, +1 for Right, Right Michigan's Offense, Point Taken)
Desperate need to win level: 7 (Baseline 5; –1 for Oh What's The Point Of Anything, +1 for Defend The Jug, +1 for Still Have A Shot At This Thing Go Spartans, +1 for Losing To Minnesota Seems… Bad, –1 for But Would Be Understandable If We Are In Fact Down To Jack Kennedy At Halftime, +1 for I Don't Want My Only Trip Ever To Minnesota To Be A Loss)
Loss will cause me to... Ohio Bobcat : Brutus Buckeye :: Brian : Goldy Gopher
Win will cause me to... GO SPARTANS
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
This should be a grim, boring football game where Minnesota can't move the ball and Michigan is scared of getting Denard touched and severely reduces his carries, leaving the rest of the offense to slog it out against a terrible defense. QUIEN ES MENOS MACHO?
Minnesota, it says here. Michigan's run offense may be wonky, but like here's Ace:
The biggest culprit for Wisconsin's huge running day was middle linebacker Mike Rallis. This turns into a 34-yard touchdown run for White; Rallis is the guy being pointed out by the arrow, which is necessary because he's in the process of being driven completely past the play and into the backfield on the opposite hash by a pulling guard:
If they get the thing right where the guys point at the guy that is the middle linebacker, that middle linebacker is toast. Both teams will be erratic to bad in the air, in the end the difference will be a horrible run defense versus a very good one.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
Devin Gardner gets significant snaps at QB.
Fitz Toussaint cracks 20 carries and 100 yards.
Thomas Rawls gets in, plays plenty.
The defense rips Minnesota's throat out save one or two long completions to Gray.
i'm hoping we see some new stuff on offense to take some of the pressure off the QB (whoever the QB might be) -- some things like using more Rawls and Norfleet in the backfield, more Dileo in the slot passing game, and the emergence of Darboh.
he has been taking a lot of snaps at QB in practice, I actually cannot think of a better time to just play Gardner, start him, play him the whole game. Give Denard a week to rest his hand, find out what kind of hand we have for next year, and get some young guys more reps are receiver. If we can't beat Minnesota with Gardner than the hell with life, so I think it would be a good idea to find out what this thing looks like with him back there for next year and in case he is needed down the stretch this year.
10 fieldgoals for Michigan this week. That might be a record.
"True loyalty is that quality of service that grows under adversity and expands in defeat. Any street urchin can shout applause in victory, but it takes character to stand fast in defeat. One is noise - the other, loyalty." — Yost
I appreciate you refraining from the use of the term "Denard breaks something..." in the Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday: section this week. We saw how that worked out last week...
Philip Nelson's first two games at QB for Minnesota have been spectacular as far I'm concerned. To steal a sentiment generally reserved for kickers, freshmen QBs are assholes and should never be trusted.
I trust Michigan's D to expose Nelson as the freshman he is. We can only hope that they also create some turnovers or even points. My confidence in this offense has never been lower.
...that this is a prime upset opportunity since last year. Kill is a decent coach and the Gophers are getting better (bowl eligible this year?) Michigan has yet to play at the new stadium, so you know that both the team and the fans will be bringing their A game. Michigan caught the Gophers at their lowest point last year and may underestimate their improvement (Michigan arrogance at its worst)
Add in the offensive woes of the Wolverines, Denard injury trouble and I'm already missing the cosy confines of the Metrodome.