Preview: Minnesota 2011

Submitted by Brian on September 30th, 2011 at 2:12 PM

Previously here: Minnesota FFFF. Jamie has a really interesting diary on the line moves for Michigan games. We are favored in all except Michigan State. WTF.

Other stuff: The Wolverine Blog exchanges questions with Gopher Nation. MGoFootball does likewise with Fringe Bowl Team.

MNBN preview. Maize Pages preview. M&GB preview. BWS preview.

Daily says Mattison says Michigan has to "chase the rabbit" to stop Minnesota. The MZone provides Know Your Foe. Holdin' the Rope asks Who Are You and Why Do We Care?


WHAT Michigan vs Minnesota
WHERE Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI
WHEN Noon EDT, October 1st 2011
THE LINE Michigan –20
WEATHER mid-40s, cloudy, 20% chance of rain

Run Offense vs. Minnesota

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.

But Gray is injured:

"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."

And their line is a mess:

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.

Martin via Blue Seoul:


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.

Special Teams

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.



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:


Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • Minnesota can block anyone on the line.
  • Michigan can't handle the zone read, man.

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.
  • Black, Ryan and Roh combine for three sacks.
  • The positive turnover margin run continues.
  • Michigan, 39-14.



September 30th, 2011 at 2:30 PM ^

Gotta love the game previews.

I think we start fast on offense this week. Fitz and Vinny rack up 100 yards each tomorrow. We win by 4 scores. Martin eats a 50 gallon drum of termites before the game for protein. Easy peasy

Enjoy Life

September 30th, 2011 at 2:40 PM ^

Until 3 years ago, I would watch as the games and season unfolded with a quiet confidence that M would always win it in the end. Because they almost always did.

The last 3 years have shaken my confidence and I still sit here wondering what the next weeks will bring.

All of the players are saying it over and over again. "We've been 4-0 before and it doesn't mean anything. We have to play a lot better."


September 30th, 2011 at 2:46 PM ^

However, that fire of confidence is slowly starting to rebuild itself in my gut. Sure, I'm still not as sure today as I was about 5 years ago hat we'd "easily" win 9 games every season, but what I'm feeling is definitely more positive than negative.

I think the worst part is just having to wait until the actually games are played, as always.


September 30th, 2011 at 2:44 PM ^

The positive turnover margin run continues.


IIRC, didn't we have a negative TO margin against SDSU with -1? Unless of course the reference is to our season TO margin, which is a very nice +5, which, like, WOOOOOOOO!!!

Six Zero

September 30th, 2011 at 2:49 PM ^

but I REALLY wish this game was on the road.  Sure, the five straight home game thing is great for getting bowl-eligible and everything, but getting the boys in their white shirts and on another team's field-- especially one held together by safety pins, and crappy plastic ones at that-- would really pay dividends moving into October.

Next week will see the first true road test, at night no less, against a team that is more than capable of pulling the upset.  There were always two big hiccups in every Lloyd season:  Beating Notre Dame and winning the first road game.  It always seemed that if both of those things would swing Michigan's way, they'd be in for a great season.

I'll certainly be happy getting the win and the Jug at home, but it might have really helped to do this up there in Minneapolis.  The road jitters are real, and right now they're not just bottled up, they're on the back of the shelf.


September 30th, 2011 at 5:19 PM ^

I wish UM's entire conference schedule was flipped (home becomes away, away becomes home). If that were the case, I think UM would win at least 5 conference games: @Minnesota, N'Western, @Purdue, Iowa and Illinois. UM would likely lose to Nebraska and OSU on the road but have a decent chance to beat MSU in AA. That would result in a 9-3 or 10-2 record for UM.


September 30th, 2011 at 3:21 PM ^

Yes.  I would love if Denard was able to produce with his arm.  We already know his is an amazing runner, and can escape and break open a game with his feet if needed.  I really wouldn't mind seeing him get 8-10 carries a game an 80ish yards a game if he was able to win with his arm.  This would be the best senario.


September 30th, 2011 at 4:10 PM ^

If he was able to complete passes commensurate with the # of positive runs, then maybe. The issue with passing is that even if you get 200 yards, you probably get zero yards on at least 1/3 of those attempts, which makes it harder to get first downs. Since Denard almost never makes zero or negative yards on a run, he would have to be nearly 100% on completion percentage for it to be equally valuable even though the total yardage is the same.

That's why 100 yards for a running back is considered good while 250 passing is good.


September 30th, 2011 at 4:03 PM ^

I'll take 200 yards rushing by Denard over 200 yards passing by Gardner any day. Denard is what makes this team special, in my estimation.  Not that I don't always love Michigan football, but Denard is a once in a century kind of player and I, for one, would be pissed to see him riding pine (except in mop-up time).



September 30th, 2011 at 3:16 PM ^

Gardner was also completing at a rate 5-10% behind Denard. The evidence we have so far is that he's a slower, albeit bigger, version of Denard with less accuracy. I think Devin will be a star here in 2013 and 2014, but Denard is clearly better right now.

That being said, I would love to see Denard on the bench with a thirty point lead.

Six Zero

September 30th, 2011 at 3:12 PM ^

I am absolutely convinced and am awaiting solid intelligence to prove that the kid inside that Gopher suit was regularly beaten, stomped and stuffed into a locker regularly before setting foot on campus.

Since we do not, and God willing never will, have a mascot of our
own, it sounds like a job for this man/bobcat/honorary Wolverine:


September 30th, 2011 at 3:15 PM ^

Or 6 touchdowns with three hilariously missed extra points. 

Or 5 touchdowns, two missed extra points, and 2 made field goals.

Wow...its actually pretty hard to get to 39 without some 2-point plays. Missing any more than 1 extra point is actually pretty rare, even for AHHHH GIBBONS. And expecting anything greater than 1 field goal out of Gibbons is...well...let's just say unlikely. 



September 30th, 2011 at 3:56 PM ^

I decided to search google for "football team scored 39 points" and the first result was Michigan beating Michigan Agricultural(which became MSU, according to Wikipedia) 39-0 in their inagural meeting in 1898. It's like Google knows me too well and made sure to list a Michigan score first...