Preview 2018: Running Back Comment Count

Brian August 27th, 2018 at 6:06 PM

[Marc-Gregor Campredon]

Previously: Podcast 10.0A. Podcast 10.0B. Podcast 10.0C. The Story. Quarterback.

[Bolded player rules: not necessarily returning starter, but someone we've seen enough of that I'm no longer talking about their recruiting profile. Extant contributor.]

FEATURE BACK Yr. SHORT YARDAGE Yr. 3RD DOWN YR.
Karan Higdon Sr. Karan Higdon Sr. Chris Evans Jr.
Chris Evans Jr. Chris Evans Jr. Karan Higdon Sr.
Tru Wilson Fr.* O'Maury Samuels So. Tru Wilson Fr.*
Christian Turner Fr. Hassan Haskins Fr. Christian Turner Fr.

Like every other thing about the run game, this was a story in two parts. Michigan started the year trying to be the kind of team that can run inside zone 80% of the time and make that work because they're just so good at repping it that all attempts to swamp it get outsmarted.

This did not work at all, in part because first-level defenders were continually left alone. The running backs had their hand in those early failures too. When not getting hit in the backfield by DEs they were often running directly into linebackers, thus spurring a UFR complaint about "zero cut running":

Too frequently Michigan guys are running straight the whole play. When the opposition has put an extra guy in the box you need to get someone to waste themselves without occupying a blocker, and misdirection is the way to do that. There's play-level misdirection that gets filed under Rock Paper Scissors, and then there's an in-play misdirection where you threaten one gap and then show up in another. There's a reason you hear a lot about "great one-cut runners" and not great zero-cut runners. ... Evans [just] runs directly into Bentley here:

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Cut. You are 210 pounds; he is 260. You have the advantage when he changes direction. Purdue has pinched their line here to get this exact thing, but the risks are clear: on either side of the Great Wad in the middle of the play are big pockets. Don't take their bait.

It was heartening that Michigan's running backs repaired this deficiency over the course of the year. A shift towards more power rushing helped, as did a general surge in competence after Juwann Bushell-Beatty was inserted. More room and a more familiar patterns helped but to your author's eye the just flat-out got a lot better. After they nuked Minnesota:

 

Earlier in the year I complained about "zero cut" running that left no question about where you were headed, and requested a cut. Michigan's backs have started doing this very well on power plays.  The most whizbang example was on the long Higdon touchdown, which happened in part because Higdon's path convinced #8 that he needed to be farther outside:

... Higdon had less spectacular results on better and more subtle cuts. This is a much narrower gap that he commits to late; once again that safety is in the wrong gap:

These are decisive shallow cuts that allow Higdon to maintain speed and exploit thin gaps in the defense. The big missed cuts from early in the year are gone. He'll occasionally miss a crack or do something somewhat suboptimal, but the caverns power plays carve out aren't a surprise; he's benefited from the power focus as much or more than the OL.

Some of that got swamped in the general malaise—safeties made contact two yards from the LOS I don't know how often, but the rushing renaissance was real. Despite a bunch of personnel changes and the limitations imposed by the passing game, Michigan finished last year 14th in rushing S&P+. This wasn't just on the backs of Rutgers and Indiana and Minnesota, either: Higdon and Evans combined for 122 yards on 22 carries versus OSU. Give 'em some breathing room and things could be real nice.

RUNNING BACK: I CALL HIM MINI-ROCK

RATING: 4.5

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stop! collaborate and listen, ice is ba—where are you all going [Patrick Barron]

There wasn't much question about which running back would get top billing here after KARAN HIGDON ended up six yards short of being Michigan's first thousand-yard running back since Fitz Toussaint, but any lingering doubts were obliterated by this offseason's favorite slice of S&C porn:

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Higdon went from 187 pounds on last year's roster to 202, and apparently if you're 5'10" adding 15 pounds of muscle turns you into The Rock. Since Higdon was already a pad-popping runner who brings the "run behind your pads" bit of scouting jargon to vivid, YAC-filled life, expectations have ratcheted up a notch. This was Higdon last year:

Higdon this year is going to be fun.

[After THE JUMP: a caveat and a running mate]

Patrick Kugler ably summed Higdon's style up in a press conference last year:

“He’s just mean. I mean, he’s smaller, but it’s going to take more than one guy to take him down every time. ... He’s a very physical back and just the way he runs, it’s mean.”

Harbaugh post-Minnesota, talking about both backs:

“...the impressive thing to me about the two backs in this game is they were making people miss inside the box. When you have low safeties that are playing and getting down to linebacker depth by the time the back’s across the line of scrimmage, there’s gonna be somebody unblocked. ...they were making people miss inside, making the linebacker miss or getting to the soft shoulder and running through the arm tackle and then bouncing."

Our take from last year noted Higdon's "characteristic shallow zig-zag style and quick feet" that resulted in a lot of hits a guy like Higdon could bounce off or even through. And that was a sophomore version of Higdon who was causing safeties to fall off of him on a semi-regular basis. The junior version got even better:

The above version of Higdon promises to be a tackle-breaker Michigan hasn't seen since Mike Hart.

One caveat to get out of the way first, though: a version of Higdon who understands what's in front of him and can rep his runs until he gets the pattern is going to be fun. Higdon ignored massive holes in the line on a weekly basis early in the season:

Higdon missed one huge cutback lane that he's got to see once Cinci shows up en masse on one side of Michigan's blocks:

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He's even headed that way and cuts left here. That made those blocks look like crap but they looked just fine earlier in the game when Isaac read 'em and cut all the way back.

While some of this probably goes back to the inside zone focus, Higdon infamously failed to cut back on an offset draw in the 2016 OSU game and less infamously failed to follow his blocks on a power paving during the "defeat with dignity" game. Vision was a question mark going into last year and seemed like it was resolving itself into the bad answer after a few games. Fortunately for Michigan, it didn't last. Like the rest of the offense, Higdon seemed a lot more comfortable running power:

His feel for zone got better as well, and while while vision issues continued to crop up occasionally even deep into the season, they were relatively rare.

At around the same time Higdon slew any and all skepticism about his athleticism with a series of long runs on which he was Gone with a capital G as soon as he broke through the linebacker level:

Higdon's not Mike Hart. He's not a missed tackle genius who gets caught from behind. Higdon's run away from a lot of dudes the last few weeks, and nobody gains on him. Most guys are doing well to keep even with him. On his first long run he darted outside a Minnesota cornerback and even when both guys were fully turned and going flat out that guy couldn't make up even a step.

This translated to the Ohio State game, when Higdon averaged 5.5 YPC and outran members of that star-laden secondary to the edge a couple times. This was a pleasant surprise. As a recruit Higdon was on the 3/4 star borderline largely because folks were skeptical about his long speed. With those concerns done and dusted there's little separating Higdon from the national elite, especially since a tweaked ankle against Maryland hampered the final two games of the regular season. Higdon told the media he was "65-70 percent" for The Game.

Getting to nationally elite requires the last bits of "Mike Hart, but fast!" Those would be pass protection, about which more later in its own section, and ball security. Higdon's put the ball on the ground a few times in his career, most recently when his fumble inside the South Carolina five was the first pebble in the avalanche of Michigan errors that cost them a very dumb game to finish a very dumb season. Nothing about the way Higdon carries the ball suggests that's anything more than bad luck—this is not a Ty Isaac situation—so hopefully that's just one of those things. Hart fumbled inside the five twice in a bowl game... maybe it's a sign.

Higdon already spearheaded a very good rushing offense with 6.1 yards an attempt. While that's a little deceiving since he had a couple of distorting super-long runs, any luck he had there was overwhelmed by the rest of the offense. If Shea Patterson can back the safeties off and Higdon gets that little bit better in a contract year, he will be in the running for best back in the league. Given the running backs around these parts, that would place him high in the running for best back world-wide.

ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FLAG FOOTBALL

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Chris Floyd he ain't, but also Chris Floyd ain't he [Bryan Fuller]

Behind/alongside/rotating with Higdon is his partner/rival/pal CHRIS EVANS. Last year this space projected Evans as the starting running back and a very good one; for about half a season that looked like a very terrible prediction. Then: a Rudockening. In Evans's case the problem was not a lack of familiarity with the offense hampering his ability, but rather an uncanny ability for Evans to catch Michigan's worst-blocked plays in any particular game. While Karan Higdon was torching Indiana with the help of Michigan's debuting split-flow counter, this was Evans's day:

Chris Evans, rabble rabble.

I know he had a 12 yard carry and –4 yards the rest of the day but Evans continues to draw the short stick with Michigan's blocking. Twice in this game Michigan ran a pin and pull with him only to see defensive tackles hop a gap over and get right in his face. Once he managed to turn it into four yards by reversing field. Once he was not so lucky:

A second and eight power play rather summed his day up.

I had a couple minor dings for him but mostly he got buried through no fault of his own.

Things got better for him at exactly the same time that Michigan moved towards power running and started paving people. When allowed to break into the open field, Evans displayed shiftiness to break tackles and elite long speed, sometimes on the same play. The ease with which Evans distances himself from the linebacker level here is impressive:

Doing that against Minnesota (over and over again) is one thing. Evans was consistently electric when given even slivers of space over the second half of the season. His ability to deploy subtle moves in tight spaces pairs with his acceleration to give him a shot even when plays aren't blocked very well:

Twice in this game he froze players with little backfield shimmies that didn't slow him down much but did cause the opposition to gear down in uncertainty and either get blocked or fail to keep up with Evans's acceleration as a result. The first was fairly subtle, as he helped make Cole's second level block count with that shimmy on a 13 yard run; the second was the final touchdown and a really good job of making the most of meh blocking and a blitz that coulda shoulda created a TFL:

That little shift 1) holds the unblocked DE charging at him, 2) freezes a linebacker trying to decide if he should run at Evans's face, and 3) gives Kugler a little bit more time to widen his guy. His acceleration out of it causes the unblocked guy to unsuccessfully dive at his feet and allows him to shoot through a forest of arm tackles to the endzone. That is a Good Ass Run.

For a guy his size he is a quality inside runner.

Like Higdon, that early and abandoned shift to inside zone seemed to leave him a bit... off, turning the guy who can juke his way out of a closet into a hesitant zero-cut runner; like Higdon more IZ reps and Michigan's return to the stuff he'd been running the previous two years provided a platform that he took full advantage of.

This did not stop when the competition level went up. Despite externalities, Evans had an explosive, productive day against Ohio State; with functional quarterbacking his abilities in space were probably game-winning. Even if Evans's athleticism was never in doubt it is an important step to see it translate, and it emphatically did:

Here is the bit in the preview where the Drake Johnson quote goes:

"He's mad athletic. You just see some people and think 'yeah, he's an athlete.' He's an athlete, he just does stuff. He's smooth, he's real smooth. He's like butter smooth, we're just like 'ooh, wow.' He's like *sound effects* someone flips to the side, like he had no chance. Like, I'm sorry you could've tried but it sucks to suck. He just makes it look easy."

Now put that in space and give him five-star Tate Forcier and I am feeling moderately well.

That's because the insertion of Brandon Peters finally brought one of Evans's major strengths to a college football field: catching the ball. After 90-some catches his final year of high school, Evans had barely been targeted at Michigan. Then, a rapturous wheel route:

That seemed to open up a world of possibilities, most of which were flung five yards over Evans's head in the Ohio State game. This has to be the year when Michigan uses Evans in space against linebackers a la McCray-vs-Saquon.

I mean, right? It's now or never. Evans had 16 catches on 20 targets a year ago and averaged just under a first down per catch. It's weird they didn't go to him more what with everything else struggling.

Michigan's presumed move to more of a spread-oriented offense should be right up his alley. On the rare occasions Michigan ran spread-like stuff a year ago and got any blocking, Evans looked like the kind of natural fit that made this space invent a "spread H" designation for him two years ago, when practice chatter held that Evans was getting a ton of run in the gun and looking good doing it.

Evans will probably remain Higdon's sidekick on the ground but should add a significant number of catches as Michigan emphasizes him more and his quarterback is more liable to and capable of checking down. Evans in space is a safe and effective way to matriculate down the field; 30 or 40 catches isn't outside the realm of possibility. Tack on another 700 yards on the ground and Evans should be the #2 skill position guy in both yardage and touches behind his platoon-mate.

OKAY WHAT ABOUT PASS PROTECTION THOUGH

You can't be that bad at protecting the quarterback without the running backs chipping in, and they had their issues like everyone else. Evans and Higdon each had –3 in the UFR pass protection mechanic against Michigan State and occasionally popped up in other games with substandard blocks. It was occasional, though. In 11 charted games Michigan's returning RBs collected 12 pass pro minuses, which is barely over one slightly borked play per game.

And if anyone has a case that they were doomed by Michigan's Warinner-confusing pass protection scheme, it's the backs. This chop block was emblematic:

Higdon finds a guy to block and does so quite well, but Kugler changing his mind at the last second turns a good pickup into 15 yards. Also the guy Kugler left goes and sacks the quarterback. It was that kind of year. Other issues were more clearly mental errors, like this slide protection where Higdon went to the same side as the slide:

Ignore the big catch and run, we're being stern about pass protection now.

Several other incidents may or may not have been running back issues; when a play is so borked that I can't figure out what was even supposed to happen protection minuses end up filed under "TEAM," and there were an unprecedented number of TEAM minuses a year ago. Reducing those is Warinner's top priority.

The newly thick Higdon should have no problem executing his assignments if he can get them right. His failures a year ago were generally mild and exacerbated by the quarterbacking. Here he delays a guy somewhat but O'Korn holds the ball and eats a sack:

That's a –1 but like anyone else I'm affected by the results of a particular play and it's possible that he might have gotten away with it if O'Korn had gotten the ball out promptly.

Evans... Michigan might want to use Evans as a receiver more to emphasize his positives. Patterson is capable of playing the quick game that empty backfields—pre- or post-snap—often necessitate, and if necessary Michigan could leave a tight end in to help pick up those frequent five-man pressures from six-man fronts.

It seems unlikely either guy comes down with Fitz Toussaint disease, especially in the Year Of Getting The Pickups Right Or Dying Whilst Trying, and massive offense-crippling pass protection issues will be limited to the OL.

THE HOPEFULLY NOT TRU RELEVANT CAST AND CREW

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one of two extant Tru Wilson pictures we have [Bryan Fuller]

No offense intended to the legions of walk-ons populating rosters across the country, all of whom are named Glasgow, but running back is high up on the list of positions at which "oh and there's this walk-on" is ominous news. QB and CB probably beat RB out; other than that it's RB, where athleticism is critical and the kind of guys who end up walking on at running back are usually great players who are also the size of a conventional D-I running back's thigh.

So when Harbaugh mentioned just one running back beyond the clear top two this spring and it was TRU WILSON...

“The best were Chris Evans, Karan Higdon and Tru Wilson. Those three really did well,” Harbaugh said after spring practice ended. “(Wilson’s) talent, his effort. He improved in all areas. Running the football, protection, catching.”

...well, that had a lot of implications. The first was fretfully striking Kareem Walker from the roster. The second was fretting about O'Maury Samuels. The third was remembering Wilson was the kind of walk-on who generates the limited hype available for walk-ons. IE: he's got a tag on the site already. Heck, Ace actually scouted him when he was checking out Alex Malzone:

He doesn't have any recruiting buzz yet, but I expect that to change—he moves well, plays very physically, and diagnoses plays nicely from the back end of the defense. As a running back, he's undersized at 5'10", 187, but he's tough to get a hold of and keeps his legs moving to churn through tackles and gain extra yardage.

Wilson did get a level of interest, with offers from all three service academies before accepting a Michigan PWO. He's listed at 5'10", 202 on the roster, which is literally the same size Higdon is listed at. Michigan listed Vincent Smith at 5'6", 172 his senior year. Wilson's big enough, and if he's the best pass pro guy on the roster he will get snaps. Survey says... could be, as Webb asserted Wilson's lead over some of the incoming freshmen was based in part on the fact he's "roundly praised for his blocking."

It does seem like this is not a drill:

There's even an outlandish quote about him?

I’ve had several people — including Karan Higdon and Chris Evans (who I’ll have quotes from on this sometime soon) — tell me that Wilson is special at the position. “He makes jaw-dropping cuts,” one source told me. ... The hype on Wilson, I’ve been assured, is very real. He should get significant carries in an already loaded backfield.

This concludes information on Wilson.

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Samuels brings good Old Man Face as well [Eric Upchurch]

Sophomore O'MAURY SAMUELS [recruiting profile], an mgo-fave-rave, getting clearly passed by a walk-on would seem to bode unwell even if Samuels reportedly missed much of the offseason with unspecified injuries. Jay Harbaugh did seem genuinely positive about him in a press conference:

“I’m really excited about him,” Harbaugh said. “He’s improved in a bunch of different areas. He’s playing as fast as he ever has, and he’s a really fast guy. So when he gets closer and closer to playing at that full speed, which is smokin’ fast, it’s going to be scary. He’s definitely on that track right now.”

Samuels is making the transition from New Mexico and that could be an issue, but arrived on campus as a hyper-athletic 5'10"  guy with some Barry Sanders moves on tape:

That's just three games. Your author is hoping that Samuels is being overlooked because of those injury issues, but a lack of chatter coming out of fall argues otherwise.

If it's not either of those guys it will be one of three freshmen. MICHAEL BARRETT [recruiting profile] is seemingly the most college-ready since he's thicc Curtis Samuel, but per Sam Webb he's been practicing at viper in fall camp. Maybe he'll move back but a true freshman who's not practicing at the spot this preview is tackling can be safely moved past.

The other two guys are running backs and running backs only. CHRISTIAN TURNER [recruiting profile] is a smallish interior runner with the kind of pad-forward style and ability to get guys to hit him indirectly that reminds you of Higdon. Michigan flipped him away from a near-certain ND commit and Turner's early returns are good. Jon Runyan is on Team Turner:

“I’d say from watching film, probably Christian Turner [is the favorite to be the #3 back.] Small guy, but he’s explosive, he runs really hard. That’s what we need from a back in the Big Ten. He’s been really impressive out there.”

Recently joining Runyan was Webb, who asserted Turner made a move in fall camp because he's picking things up quickly and can block.

HASSAN HASKINS [recruiting profile], the third freshman running back, played at a lower level of competition than Turner and hasn't generated much specific talk. That doesn't mean much for the long term; short term it does mean a redshirt is likely. Haskins is already being listed at 212 despite arms that are downright spindly for a major college football player and could/should fill out into true thunderback range in a couple years. Probably not a factor this year.

Finally, KURT TAYLOR [recruiting profile] is another microback in the Smith mold who garnered skeptical recruiting takes. Taylor's most obvious path to the field early was being a pass protection machine; if Wilson has usurped that role it's bad news for Taylor both in the short and long term. He has not drawn any mention from insiders this offseason.

Comments

MGoStrength

August 27th, 2018 at 6:34 PM ^

Question regarding the backs, particularly throwing to Evans...are we actually going to do that this year to win some games against ND, MSU, Wiscy, PSU, etc. and not just save it the entire season to break tendencies against OSU?  Is that a Harbaugh thing?  I get having some special plays/packages for your rival the last game of the year, but it seemed like the offense we ran for that game would have helped us against MSU & Wiscy too.  Was it worth saving the whole season for one game?  My question is are we likely to do that again or will we actually do some of it pre-OSU?

dragonchild

August 28th, 2018 at 7:08 AM ^

The offense doesn't always do things that make sense on paper, and there are a number of possible reasons for it.  I'm neither a coach nor an insider so take this for what it is -- read: pure speculation -- but I will say that sometimes things we expect don't materialize for some seemingly small factor that wasn't discussed here for lack of info, but the play would fall apart without anyway -- footwork, how much field the QB can read, how many plays the offense can rep comfortably, who happens to be playing better, maybe an undisclosed injury. . . even a good idea can get squeezed out and we'd never get an explanation for it.

And then sometimes Harbaugh can derp.  We kept expecting Pepcat to evolve and it eventually did. . . into wasted downs.  He's good but he ain't perfect.

gbdub

August 28th, 2018 at 9:26 AM ^

Any judgment on the 2017 passing game has to be filtered through “O’Korn was awful and Peters wore training wheels”, so I think it’s “ask again later”. 

Given Patterson’s “moxie”, I expect to see a lot more RB touches on checkdowns, which both Higdon and especially Evans can probably use productively. Stupid prediction for ND: Chris Evans takes a check down or an improv dumpoff for a big gain. 

stephenrjking

August 27th, 2018 at 6:47 PM ^

I'm not sure what's weirder: That Karan Higdon is both faster than Evans, and also shorter and smaller; or that people keep realizing this like it's a new thing.

Evans has a special kind of shiftiness to him. His top-end speed, however, is not great--he clocked something north of a 4.6 at that combine they had last year, while Higdon was around a 4.4.

That's fine, especially in college, but Evans is one of the guys that has really bulked up, and I'm interested to see if he'll be able to run in his old style with all of that extra beef. If he can maintain his shiftiness while also finishing runs, that's a great combo.

Higdon, of course, is hopeful to stay fast. That speed burst he has has converted good plays into great ones, including that magnificent OT TD against Indiana where he was just able to elude the outstretched arms of a defender down the sideline. Evans might be able to make the same cutback (recall that the play was completely broken at the line) but only Higdon has the jets to turn it into a TD.

I'm really optimistic about the running game this year. I think we have two terrific options. And, man, ever since we flipped him from Iowa and he made That One Run against Northwestern, I've wanted Higdon to excel.

He could dominate.

stephenrjking

August 27th, 2018 at 7:06 PM ^

Man I hope so. Even just average pass blocking completely revolutionizes this offense; if Shea has time to step back and gun it deep, and the receivers can catch those passes, safeties will be forced away from the LOS. And the road grading will come. 

The margins are so small. If Shea is just accurate enough, the protection just good enough, the receivers just reliable enough...

And it's all there. Because all of these things are possible with the talent we have; even, probably. If JBB and Runyan can just keep Shea clean for a few seconds.

Tomorrow Brian will drop the OL preview and all of this will melt away.

BrewCityBlue

August 27th, 2018 at 7:31 PM ^

Usually when I am this optimistic I am able to check myself, step outside the box, attribute the appropriate % of homerism involved, recalculate... I just don't know anymore. 

I have a feeling this team will play with a fire we haven't seen before.

I'm all in on the hype train so what's the point in looking back?

Higdon 1350 yds 

Shea NYC invite 

Consensus #1 D with 3 AAs 

11-1

Big Complicit Champs

Final 4

?

Let's go get it.

 

MGoStrength

August 27th, 2018 at 7:56 PM ^

Not to take anything away from Higdon because he absolutely packed on some muscle this offseason and looks great.  However, the exercise scientist in me always feel obliged to educate folks on the intracacies of weight change regarding this common belief:

Higdon went from 187 pounds on last year's roster to 202, and apparently if you're 5'10" adding 15 pounds of muscle turns you into The Rock.

There is weight gain, there is lean mass gain, and there is muscle gain and all three are different.  Not all weight gain is lean mass and not all lean mass is muscle, which also consists of bone, organs, etc.  It's a common, although misguided belief that if you have 15 pounds of lean mass it is the equivalent of saying you have 15 pounds of skeletal muscle.  It is highly unlikely that Higdon gained 15 pounds of skeletal muscle in 8 months, particularly for someone that is not untrained as muscle gains slow down as resistance training experience goes up.

Maize and Bloop

August 27th, 2018 at 9:10 PM ^

I just want a Big Donkey to ram at 'em.

And then ram at 'em again.

All defenses will succumb to the Big Donkey and all the ramming.

Problem is-- I just don't see a Big Donkey on this roster.  Maybe the catchy/blocky preview will leave me feeling more satisfied.

gte896u

August 27th, 2018 at 9:14 PM ^

I saw DLS-King in 2015 and Wilson didnt look slow vs King's defense.  Allen Stritzenger got most of the carries that day, but Wilson contributed.

He probably left a lot of career yardage off the table by not playing A-Back for Navy or Army.

JWG Wolverine

August 28th, 2018 at 12:51 AM ^

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readyourguard

August 28th, 2018 at 6:43 AM ^

Please God, let us do something consistently right against teams not named Indiana, Minnesota, Maryland, Rutgers, and Purdue.  

Highlights against ND, MSU, PSU, Wisconsin, and Ohio State would be greatly appreciated.

In Seth's name we pray: Ah man.