Preview: Minnesota 2014

Submitted by Brian on September 26th, 2014 at 12:19 PM

Essentials

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WHAT Michigan vs Minnesota
WHERE Michigan Stadium
Ann Arbor MI
WHEN 3:30 Eastern
September 27th, 2014
THE LINE M –13
TELEVISION ABC/ESPN reverse mirror
TICKETS From 18 dollars. Soon they will cost as much as the original jug.
WEATHER mid 70s, clear
0% chance of rain
light winds

Image via MVictors

Overview

Minnesota is probably not real good. They've got quarterback issues up the wazoo, they lost 30-7 to a middling-at-best Big 12 team, they completed one pass last week. They are, in short, a Big Ten team. So I'm sayin' there's a chance. 

Run Offense vs Minnesota

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Cameron Botticelli exists

With Shane Morris probably starting, about which more later, Michigan figures to lean heavily on its ground game one week after it blorped out just over three yards a carry against an undersized and probably not very good Utah team. Since Michigan doesn't incorporate the quarterback as a runner you have to account for regularly, that means a lot of stacked boxes without recourse to actually-threatening play action and a lot of meh. Michigan had two runs that weren't meh against Utah: one pin and pull zone and a power play that Derrick Green cut back when a Utah DT went blorp himself. It was ugly.

They go up against a Minnesota defense that we have little data on. They crushed SJSU last week; SJSU employs GERG and can be safely discounted as a relevant data point. The week before TCU ripped them for 6.3 yards a carry but on only 27 attempts; Middle Tennessee had a respectable 4.4 yards a pop on 43.

FWIW, last year the Gophers were highly variable leaning towards bad, allowing 4.5  yards a carry overall. Six of their Big Ten opponents went over 180 yards while averaging at least 4.4 yards a carry; the exceptions were Northwestern and of course Michigan. Remember how we were all mildly intrigued by tackle over? Yeah, that was 3.2 YPC, the worst performance against the Gophers last year by any Power 5 school. Only Northwestern was within a yard.

So that's depressing.

This year Michigan seems better, at least most of the time. Minnesota has a reasonable case they will be as well, with three of their defensive linemen returning along with their best linebacker. It did not show against their one competent opponent, and Ace looked at a game where they were playing a team that employs GERG. Yes, on the other side of the ball. It does not matter. So who knows?

Key Matchup: Michigan OL versus slants and stunts from Minnesota. Michigan had a hard time IDing them against Utah and Minnesota brings a similarly smallish but mobile front that will attempt to mess up Michigan's gaps.

[Hit THE JUMP for they fart, and sludge / sludge, and fart / fart fart fart, sludge sludge sludge / the Sludgey And Farty Show!]

Pass Offense vs Minnesota

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[Bryan Fuller]

This preview assumes that Shane Morris will be starting Saturday.

So: new starter Shane Morris comes in after Michigan finished murdering Devin Gardner into tiny bits. Thus far in his career Morris has been a disaster waiting to happen, whether that's in brief cameos at the end of games or in Michigan's public and semi-public scrimmages. Morris has a cannon of an arm that he uses to throw NFL level darts. A quarter of these go to the other team. This is our issue, Clark.

When Morris got into the Utah game, he made a series of bad decisions about when to stay in the pocket culminating in a scramble on which he fumbled; he threw some four-yard passes; he threw a ball about ten yards over Jehu Chesson's head that was intercepted; he threw a ball about 65 yards to Dennis Norfleet on the run. He is a poorly-aimed bazooka at the moment. Who can run, weirdly.

I'm not expecting much here, as Morris looked as confused as Gardner when he got in the game. Maybe that was nerves and he'll be better. I'll have to see something that looks vaguely like progress before believing it at this point. Right now I'm half expecting Gardner is on the field in the third quarter.

As for the Gophers, they've done well against a bunch of teams that don't seem particularly good. They did hold TCU to 5.6 yards an attempt, and for the year they're at 5.8—even if that's against mostly bad teams, 5.8 is 5.8 is 5.8 for a secondary that hasn't been described as anything other than "beleaguered" for the past 30 years. And San Jose State did significantly better against Auburn than they did the Gophers. It is possible they are improved here. Data is still thin.

Ace did note that the Gopher safeties are wobbly at times, and with Everybody's Michigan State Cover 4 now installed in Minneapolis there could be opportunities downfield:

Thompson (the near-side safety this time) again gets way too far outside, and the defensive back in the slot, Wells, isn't in position to bail him out:

I wasn't particularly impressed with Minnesota's safety play in this game; they're definitely susceptible to the occasional coverage bust, and I also thought Boddy-Calhoun took a couple poor routes to the ball in run support that could lead to big plays for Michigan, as well.

Ace also noted that Gopher CB Eric Murray is one of the Big Ten's most underrated players; that figures to get a stiff test against Devin Funchess as long as Funchess's ankle is cooperating.

Also getting a test: those tackles again. Theiren Cockran had 7.5 sacks a year ago as a still-raw sophomore and will be licking his chops at the prospect of running at Morris's blind side with the wobbly Ben Braden trying to get in the way. The Gophers already have eight sacks from seven different players, and while all of those came against the non-power sections of the schedule they seem hugely improved in that department—despite having a cottony soft schedule last year they could only muster 18 sacks across a 13 game season.

Key matchup: Ben Braden versus Cockran. Expect Michigan to offer TE/FB help to him; expect Minnesota to try to overload it and get to Morris from behind, whereupon his clock may not go off at the right time and he will get exploded for sack/fumble action.

Run Defense vs Minnesota

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This will be a radical shift in approach from the opponent. After four straight spread offenses Michigan gets the BEEFCAKE Gophers and their determination to grind into the face of any number of guys in the box. There is no better expression of the Minnesota offense than their starters, which list a "WR/FB/TE" in lieu of a second WR:

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They are a truly weird, unique offense: a shotgun pro-style running game. I don't think there's anyone else in the country that does it. Maybe NIU, where Kill came from.

Anyway. Minnesota has a couple of key injuries that may or may not get worked out this weekend, and even though they are nominally part of the passing game everything is the run game so I'm talking about it now. Jerry Kill said he was "cautiously optimistic" QB Mitch Leidner would return Saturday; TE Maxxxxxx Williams seems farther away from the field:

“He was limited but practiced for the first time,” Kill said. “He moved Ok. We didn’t do anything drastic but he did do some things today, which was encouraging.”

No doubt this revelation has given Michigan the key to unlock the Gophers' treasury.

No matter who plays at TE and QB, the main man is going to be senior RB David Cobb. Cobb is not a Barber/Maroney level guy. He's a one cut, find the seam, go get some yards player. But he has been thoroughly productive despite not being a transcendent talent. He averaged 5.1 yard a  carry last year and those carries were biased away from Minnesota's cottony soft nonconference schedule. After being limited against Iowa and Michigan, Cobb went over 100 yards in 5 of his next 6 games, with 139 yards on 27 carries against Penn State—that seems to be slightly more yards than Fitzgerald Toussaint got on the same number of carries—and scraping over 100 against Michigan State(!), albeit in a 14-3 loss.

The Gopher offensive line is veteran, and middling. Zac Epping is an All Big Ten level guard who can expect to get his name called in the upcoming NFL draft, but the other guys top out at decent unless they've gotten radically better this offseason—not impossible. Also not likely. While the overall numbers look nice, TCU sounded an alarm: the Gophers got only 2.5 YPC against the Horned Frogs, had fewer than 100 rushing yards on the day, and were annihilated 30-7.

Michigan counters with a rush defense sporting gaudy stats and defensive linemen who have been winning one on one battles with anyone they've gone up against. This includes Notre Dame and Utah, test the rush D passed with flying colors. This will be another test, and while one game isn't much to go on, TCU indicates that this Gopher team can be bottled up by a good D. It seems like Michigan has that, at least.

Expect a lot of James Ross as Michigan finally goes up against a team that doesn't make them play a ton of nickel; expect a lot of two yard runs; expect a lot of third and medium.

Key Matchup: Ryan Glasgow and Willie Henry versus Epping and company. The strength of the Minnesota line is on the interior, and that interior line is the heart of their entire offense. I'm buffing the figgins and polishing the alabaster for the Order of St. Kovacs ceremony; shut Minnesota down and it's a done deal.

Pass Defense vs Minnesota

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Will there have to be one? Whether or not Leidner's back, Minnesota's extreme ground bias is usually only seen in flexbone teams. In fact, the only teams to throw it less than the Gophers did last year were Army, Navy, Air Force, Georgia Tech, and Bob Davie's New Mexico. That's four flexbones and a 404 not found. So far this year the Gophers are averaging just over 16 attempts a game.

And then there's the efficacy of those passes. Flexbone outfits use the pass as a deadly counter when you overplay their option (see Jordan Kovacs being asked to do way too much against Air Force); the Gophers are at 6.1 this year and were at 7.2 a year ago. Williams is their leading receiver with six catches for 110 yards; sophomore Donovahn Jones has six for 93, and  then there's a smattering of guys with 2-4 catches.

It probably doesn't matter much whether Leidner plays or not. He's completing 48% of his passes with two touchdowns and 4 interceptions; Streveler was 1 of 7 in his starting debut. They'll complete some dink things, like five yard hitches, and a couple of times their play action will get chunks. Passing downs are a lost cause.

Michigan is going to shut this down unless they screw up, and since football is hard they are likely to screw up at least a little bit. Minnesota drives that cover appreciable territory other than that one 17-play slog they are guaranteed to have will be built on busted assignments and missed tackles. These have not been frequent of late, but they have neither been unheard of either.

Key Matchup: Michigan safeties versus I Turned 20 Yards Into 80. Jeremy Clark had a goof last week that did so; let's hope to prevent a repeat performance.

1489254_592601440805540_1449197844_n[1]Special Teams

Freshman kicker Ryan Santoso has been shaky so far, going 1/3. Both misses were from outside 40; his make was from 38. Gopher punter Ryan Mortell has been very good so far in his career, averaging 43 yards an attempt last year and 46 so far this year. Opponents have been able to get off a number of returns against the Gophers. Opponents are averaging over ten yards a punt return this year and last.

There's not much notable about the Gopher return teams, though it's not like that matters against Michigan.

Key Matchup: YOU PUT ELEVEN MEN ON THE FIELD FOR PUNT RETURNS

Intangibles

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Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • Epping and company are handling the Michigan DTs.
  • Morris throws directly to a Minnesota player a lot.
  • Wilton Speight comes in.

Cackle with knowing glee if...

  • It's third and long for Minnesota.
  • I'm out of things.
  • Pants!

Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 (Baseline 5; –1 for They Suck, +1 for We Suck, –1 for Their Offense Is Pointed At The Best Part Of The Team, –1 for And They May Not Have Their Starting QB, +1 for Our Starting QB Is In The Fetal Position Asking For The Ghosts Of Sacks Past To Leave Him Be, –1 for Vegas Thinks They Really Really Suck)

Desperate need to win level: 4 (Baseline 5; –1 for Well That Would Be Definitive, –1 for I Feel Nossing, +1 for It Must Suck For The Players, +1 for We Can Still Win The Big Ten, –1 for If Michigan State Is Abducted By Aliens Midseason)

Loss will cause me to... publish that post I'm drafting about coaches to keep an eye on, probably advocate Bob Stitt way too much, but seriously Bob Stitt is football Beilein you like Beilein don't you LET'S GO BOB STITT.

Win will cause me to... seriously you should consider Bob Stitt but I guess it can wait

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

Sludgefart will meet its sludgefart match on Saturday, increasing sludge and fart levels to dangerous heights last seen when Iowa played Penn State that one time. This figures to be a ridiculously boring slog, with Michigan and Minnesota plunging into the line in an attempt to protect their quarterback. The game should remain close the whole way, so no one will be forced out of their shell.

As to who wins, the obliteration of the Gopher run game by TCU and possible/probable absence of Maxxxx should tip the scales to Michigan, which can always throw it to Funchess downfield and see what happens.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:

  • Shane Morris starts, Gardner plays.
  • Special K plays Sir Mix A Lot.
  • This looks nothing like either of the games that went on Thursday.
  • Michigan, 11-5

Comments

JFW

September 26th, 2014 at 1:43 PM ^

I read this: 

http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/2012/10/29/bob-stitt-fly-swe…

 

Is this a guy who is going to implement something that our guys can't run, making us wait another several years to get 'his type of guys', or can he use what we have? 

Also, what's his defense like?

I'd prefer a team like State's, but if we win I'm happy. 

For now, I'm pulling for Brady. I hope we come out and the offense starts to click on the way to developing into something real. Much better for that than to take another shot on another coach. 

uminks

September 26th, 2014 at 12:54 PM ^

cannot run or pass the ball. I look forward to the offense not doing much. The defense should play hard but TO by the offense and special team mistakes will allow the Gophers to squeak out a victory 24-22!

The FannMan

September 26th, 2014 at 1:06 PM ^

Frist, the picture of those three kids at the top of the post has to be the most Minnesota thing ever.

I predict at least one safety. Brian is being slightly bold in predicting that Minnesota will get a safety and we will get two.  (I assume he is also predicting a defensive touchdown for us.)  I will not be surprised if we see exacly that.

What is surprising is the utter lack of feeling I have about this game.  We are 26:30 hours from Michigan football and I just can't seem to get any level of anticipation going for this one. 

I wonder what the over/under on missed FGs is?  I would feel confident on anything south of 4.

Md23Rewls

September 26th, 2014 at 1:21 PM ^

I will not be able to leave this planet happily until I see a football game end 5-4. This game could provide that, and let's hope so, because that would mean I could get out of watching the rest of this season.

jmblue

September 26th, 2014 at 1:28 PM ^

Thus far in his career Morris has been a disaster waiting to happen, whether that's in brief cameos at the end of games or in Michigan's public and semi-public scrimmages.

Was his bowl performance disastrous? He didn't work miracles but for a true freshman who basically hadn't played a football game in two years (due to the mono his senior year), I thought it was a solid outing. That was the only other time he got to prepare to be the starter. I read more into that game than I do his mop-up duty.

UMfan21

September 26th, 2014 at 1:52 PM ^

Agreed.  His mop up time has largely been run, run, obvious passing down, punt.  Coaches don't put him in good positions to do easy short yardage passes to open the run.  With a week to prepare, I think Morris could be better than we have seen.

 

Good enough to beat Minnesota?  I'm not sure.  I think he's prone to mental mistakes, and he is a freshman.  He's no Chad Henne, but he's no slouch either.

GoBLUinTX

September 26th, 2014 at 2:06 PM ^

to the Michigan D.  Another DL inspired TD plus two safeties = 11 points.  The offense, unable to move the ball past the Michigan 30 yard line gives up a couple of obligatory turnovers which immediately puts Minnesota within FG range.

Ziff72

September 26th, 2014 at 1:31 PM ^

For those of you that don't bet a line moving 2-3 points during the week is huge.  A 5-6 pt swing is like learning Peyton Manning went from starting to getting hit by a bus on the way to the game.  The line movement in this game is head scratching.

 

Michigan opened at -7.5 and now sits at -13.  Who is putting heavy money on Michigan with the only news being were putting in a new QB?  

 

Jamie Mac this has to be one of the strangest  line moves you've seen in a while.

 

 

robpollard

September 26th, 2014 at 1:32 PM ^

I understand why Brian put it so low, but on a basic level, if this team can NOT beat a bad Minny team, at home....I highly doubt I will pay attention to much of the rest of the season. So I am at least at an 8.

I mean, I know 10-2 and 9-3 (which were common record predictions before the season) are very, very likely pipe dreams now, but a loss to Minn. means we likely won't even have a winning record -- the floor could be 4-8 or 3-9. I have no desire to spend much time with that.

Even more importantly, it would undercut one of the pillars of the "Hey, Hoke might not be a good coach, but at least we have stockpiled some talent, so next year with Harbaugh/Miles/Gruden/etc will be a lot better." Teams with good talent, even with coaching issues, need to be bad teams at home.

So, just win, baby.

cjpops

September 26th, 2014 at 1:47 PM ^

Predicting a loss is one thing, but, saying "I don't care" is weak sauce. Never figured mgoblog readers to be such fair weather fans...only caring if the team is a national championship contender. The apathy is nauseating.

Michigan wins, 24-10, FWIW.

"Buck up, little camper!"

 

Danny Bonaduce

September 26th, 2014 at 1:50 PM ^

17-9 Michigan.  Michigan gets another defensive touchdown and an all around dominant defensive performance overcome another 3+ turnover game from the offense.  Michigan holds Minnesota below 200 total yards of offense.

maize-blue

September 26th, 2014 at 1:54 PM ^

I want to see more NORFLEET!!! He's one of the smallest guys but seems to have the biggest fight in him. I remember on on specific play in the Utah game it seemed if a defensive player took a semi-cheap shot on Gardner after a QB run. The one and only UM player to get in the grill of this Utah guy was Norfleet and even though he was much shorter he got right in his face. I seen a quote recently, maybe it was from Hoke even, that said he was becoming a leader in the locker room. I hope desperately that Norfleet's fight is picked up by the team.

Hannibal.

September 26th, 2014 at 1:57 PM ^

20-16 Michigan.  Minny grinds out a bunch of infuriating drives that consume 5+ minutes.  Michigan hits a couple of big plays to Funchess and kicks a field goal or two that come directly off of a turnover with zero first downs. 

mgolund

September 26th, 2014 at 1:58 PM ^

Loved the score prediction. Maybe Hoke decides to ball it up and go for 2 after the defensive TD and then gives Wile a chance to make a FG. Minny gets a mind-boggling safety when Morris steps into pressure while an escape valve opens to his left.

I think he got the need to win level right. This team likely is already toast for the season. A loss just confirms that the Titanic has sunk. A win is a few more women and children getting into the lifeboat. I'll still watch the game, but probably not with any significant emotion. Five years of total abuse (2008-present, excepting 2011) has left me a shell of the fan I used to be.

Finally, where do you find all of these hilarious cat pics, Brian? Is there a website devoted to feline headshots?

pinkfloyd2000

September 26th, 2014 at 3:15 PM ^

I'd say this is a full 10.

I just Hoke remembers that it goes to 11.

"Well, it's one more man, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most coaches, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your punt coverage team. Where can you go from there? Where?"

Salinger

September 26th, 2014 at 3:47 PM ^

The winner will be the team that deploys the most TEs. Michigan will deploy ALL the TEs.

Score: 3 - 2 to the Not-as-Bad-Guys.... that is to say, Michigan wins?