|WHAT||Michigan at Minnesota|
|WHERE||Homesure Lending Stadium
|WHEN||7 PM Eastern
October 31st, 2015
|THE LINE||Michigan –13.5|
|PARKING||Dunno, is road game|
|WEATHER||partly cloudy, low 50s dropping to 40s, small chance of rain|
This game took on added significance for Minnesota after the sudden retirement of Jerry Kill for health reasons. It was already pretty significant, though, as the Gophers took the piece of crockery pictured above on a Stanley Cup-like tour of the state after winning it a year ago.
For Michigan, this is a chance to exorcise demons on Halloween. It was this game last year when Michigan put in Shane Morris and stayed with Shane Morris long after that was a reasonable option and then the concussion catastrophe happened. It was last Halloween when Dave Brandon resigned and Jim Hackett took the first step towards completing the Harbaugh Hail Mary.
Oh and Michigan has a division to play for, even if a path to winning it looks a bit murky right now.
Run Offense vs Minnesota
Drake Johnson should be healthy [Barron]
This unit has been middling for the Gophers. Nebraska got one 69-yard touchdown on misdirection on which the Gophers blew a run fit and a safety had his head in the clouds; that was the cornerstone of a just-okay 203 yard, 39 carry day. Other opponents have run a lot with not very much efficiency. Only TCU and Colorado State have scraped above 4 YPC, though Ohio got close.
Neither have many opponents been shut down, though. Purdue and Kent State yes. Others not so much. Minnesota's rush defense is a lot like their rush offense: capable of setting up second and medium and not so much with the TFLs. They are really really average, and the stats say they are really really average.
Minnesota's front seven is a little dinged up. Cody Poock, normally a starter, was unable to practice before the Nebraska game and is listed as a backup on the Gopher depth chart; Tracy Claeys blamed himself for the long run because he spent much of the week prepping as if Poock would be available. DT Scott Epke is listed as questionable.
Michigan's ground game is a little bit better than average, but not by much. Plagued with questionable cuts from the backs and targeting issues but #blessed with fullbacks sprinting for 30 yards on the regular and other Harbaugh wrinkles, Michigan is making chicken salad this year.
Minnesota has shown itself vulnerable to misdirection as they play a lot of man with their excellent CBs and the safeties and linebackers tend to drift and then don't have great speed with which to recover. If Michigan can get their lines down with the various Harbaugh wrinkles they should have a number of chunk plays on which the playcall did a lot of the work; from there it's about controlling an average defensive line and making those three yard runs into five yard runs.
This won't be a blowout but I expect Michigan to do well enough here to string together productive drives—maybe not 80 yards but 30 will do if you're in a punting battle.
KEY MATCHUP: MICHIGAN TAILBACKS versus THEIR PERIPHERAL VISION and sometimes JUST THEIR VISION PERIOD
[Hit THE JUMP for A SECONDARY AS BIZARRELY GOOD AS NORTHWESTERN's and AN OFFENSE THAT IS ALSO BASICALLY NORTHWESTERN's]
Pass Offense vs Minnesota
there is another another, and his name is Myrick
This is the best unit the Gophers have. Injuries to Eric Murray and Breian Boddy-Calhoun have healed, and their absence allowed third corner Jalen Myrick to emerge into one of the best in the country according to PFF:
Jalen Myrick, Minnesota +14.4
Myrick was also on a bye, so he sticks as the No. 2 corner on the team as his +12.1 coverage grade now ranks third in the nation. He’s allowed 17 catches on 35 targets for 183 yards, while intercepting three and defending four others. He’ll need a big game this weekend against Michigan to hold onto his spot.
He is behind only Jourdan Lewis in their grading system.
Minnesota does have some holes. They're running out a walk-on as one of their starting safeties and he is pretty slow. Pass rush has also been a problem. Theiren Cockran never really worked out as the next big-deal Minnesota defensive lineman. He's stuck on two sacks this year. DT Stephen Richardson has 3.5; no other Gopher has more than one. Minnesota's only acquired more than one sack in the Purdue (3) and Ohio (2) games; they generate very little without blitzing. More than once against Nebraska the announcers marveled at the amount of time that Tommy Armstrong had, and one particular third and thirteen turned into a 31-yard touchdown because the Cornhuskers had an epoch to work their way open against the Gopher corners.
The results here have still been quite good until last week, when Tommy Armstrong went off for 10 YPA on 69% completions. Even with that Minnesota is only giving up 5.6 YPA and has almost as many intercetions as touchdowns allowed; that they've done this without their top corners for chunks of the year is legit impressive. Fancy stats like 'em a lot too, with Minnesota 12th in pass D S&P.
Michigan's side of this is not great, Bob. Jake Rudock spurned yet more opportunities to hit receivers downfield, and underneath passing remains erratic due to both the wide receivers—Jehu Chesson is very fast and very inconsistent—and Rudock. Jake Butt has dropped out of the offense as teams seek to move throws away from him; Michigan has not responded with much other than the occasional (and delightful) AJ Williams rumble down the sideline. The line also struggled to protect against MSU's defensive line.
Rudock should have time, at least. Whether he can find an open guy is in question. Rudock has been extremely hesitant to pull the trigger when given shots downfield in one-on-one coverage; he is both slow to read where he should go and questionably accurate. It's all around not so hot.
Michigan should be able to hit some things as long as they focus on the linebackers and safeties, which is reasonably possible. Rudock should be able to get comfortable in the pocket, which has helped him in his better games this season like Northwestern.
KEY MATCHUP: JAKE RUDOCK versus MY 100% DEAD CERTAINTY THAT HE WILL NEVER COMPLETE A PASS OF 30 OR MORE YARDS
Run Defense vs Minnesota
Brooks is averaging seven yards a carry in limited time
Minnesota is a team built on running the ball, and they've struggled to do so against anyone of middling or better competence. They ripped Ohio (204 yards at 5.7 a carry) and Purdue (326 at 6.8 a carry); they have struggled mightily outside of those games, averaging 2.4 yards a carry against Kent State, Northwestern, and Nebraska. Those teams range from 28th to about 50th in S&P+'s schedule-adjusted rushing defense rankings—they have been good but not great rushing Ds this year.
Injuries and departures have hit Minnesota hard. David Cobb was rather good a year ago; he's in the NFL. Starting center Brian Bobek has been out the last few weeks and is once again not on the depth chart for this weekend; left tackle Josh Campion is also out. That leaves the Gophers trying to fend off Hurst and Glasgow with true freshman Tyler Moore. Moore was a reasonably high-ranked recruit with a grayshirt offer from Texas, but that's not ideal.
I do like Minnesota's freshman tailback battery. Shannon Brooks is a little reminiscent of Mike Hart, albeit without the unreplicable Hart-ness. He's a darting runner who sets up his blocks and explodes outside of them.
Like Hart, he's not the fastest dude in the world. He had a 71-yard touchdown against Purdue on which the last 40 came when he barely outran a trundling Boiler linebacker. He's been used surprisingly sparingly. He didn't get his first carries until the Ohio game and he's averaging just over 10 per game over the last four despite a 7 YPC average.
It's fellow freshman Rodney Smith who's gotten the bulk of the work. Smith is in the tough-but-boring running back quadrant, more likely to pick up short yardage but not particularly explosive. Brooks has eaten into his carries; they split things about down the middle now.
Minnesota also runs quarterback Mitch Leidner regularly. Leidner is more Tebow than Denard and hasn't done much of note. He's averaging 3.9 YPC on non-sack carries with a long of 19. Minnesota will make you account for him; they prefer to give the ball to a tailback.
All this adds up to some grim advanced stats. Minnesota is 99th in overall rushing efficiency. The picture painted is a team that loads up to prevent outright negative plays (Minnesota is good in line yards and stuff rate) and ends up with a ton of second and eights (they are bad in success rate and opportunity rate). Then when it comes down to it they aren't very good at converting short yardage.
That's a sad combination for a team that needs to grind the opponent down to do much on offense, and this week they get S&P's number 2 rush defense. That's an order of magnitude better than the Gophers' next-best opponent to date, and against half-competent defenses Minnesota has found tough sledding.
This should look a lot like Michigan's rush defense in the Michigan State game, where Minnesota doubles Michigan's DTs a bunch just to get what they can get and see if they can get into a manageable third down. The answer will generally be "no."
KEY MATCHUP: What's that you have a TRUE FRESHMAN CENTER going up against MAURICE HURST and RYAN GLASGOW? This seems INADVISABLE.
Pass Defense vs Minnesota
Leidner is iffy
Football is weird: after consecutive days held under 100 passing yards against Northwestern (okay I guess) and Purdue (whaaaaaat), Mitch Leidner completed 65% of his passes for 301 yards against Nebraska. Nebraska has a terrible, terrible pass defense this year and Leidner threw two picks in that game, but even so that's weird. A possible explanation: about half of those yards came in the fourth quarter after the Gophers had fallen behind 38-14.
Leidner did display an ability to go downfield that was missing in basically all of his previous games. Minnesota rolled the pocket a lot and Leidner made a number of good-enough throws on the run. An early touchdown saw him throw his WR open excellently; the Nebraska game represented real progress. Unfortunately for Minnesota it was real progress against a poor pass defense and Michigan has an outstanding one. (Note, however, that the advanced stats are much less down on the Huskers than the raw stats. Nebraska is 127th in passing yards allowed but around 80th in S&P.)
Injuries have knocked out big chunks of the Minnesota receiving corps and both Isaiah Genry and Jeff Jones are expected to miss the game. KJ Maye is Minnesota's main dude; he doesn't have a great catch rate but as the main downfield target on a team that's real bad at passing downfield that's more on Leidner than him. Expect Lewis to trail him around the field, especially since he'll be the only WR out there for big chunks of the day.
#2 WR Drew Wolitarsky is in the mold of upper Midwest possession receivers from time immemorial: lanky, good hands, not too fast, could be put in a blender with Iowa's Matt Vandenberg and then molded into two different entities again and neither guy would seem any different. Eric Carter is a slot type; 6'5" freshman Rashad Still is occasionally targeted on bombs downfield that have a very low strike rate. The rest of the passing offense is the usual profusion of tight ends and RBs and FBs and H-backs; without Maxxxxxx Williams the Gophers have lost all of their explosive plays from the position.
Minnesota's offensive line has maintained a solid sack rate (35th) but that's largely because Minnesota passes alternate between max-protect two man routes, rollouts, and dink play action. When forced to protect straight up things can be ugly; mitigating clear issues is a major tentpole of the passing game.
For Michigan's part, they came through a tough matchup against a first round NFL QB/WR battery mostly intact. They took a slight hit to their fancy stats but most are still around tenth nationally; a relatively low sack count is mostly a problem with counting stats—they are 17th nationally and have a ton of hurries besides. Jourdan Lewis is an All-American; they are very deep in both pass rush and the secondary.
This should be a blowout for M, with the main problems coming when linebackers bite on play action, leaving the flat routes and flares and outs and such open for conversions. If forced into third and long Minnesota is going to end up punting up deep balls and hoping; those don't project to go very well, or be particularly on target.
KEY MATCHUP: JAMES ROSS and JOE BOLDEN against SETTING THAT FULLBACK FREE FOR 15 YARDS
Minus one very bad thing that I'll forgo describing, Michigan has the best special teams in the country. They are solid in all aspects, ranking no worse than 31st in any FEI category except punt efficiency, where they are still dead average even after the very bad thing.
Minnesota has been thoroughly average. They've done nothing on returns all year except for 30 yards on two returns by Maye against Purdue; Craig James (remember the five) has an incredible statline of 12 returns for –7 yards after losing 27 against Ohio in what must have been some sort of hilarious muff panic yakety sax event. He has not played the last two weeks. (Surprise!)
Meanwhile the Gophers have given up big punt returns against Northwestern and Nebraska and a long-ish kick return against Ohio. Their overall punting efficiency is still good because Peter Mortell bangs 'em long, with a 44 yard average. Opponents don't get to return a ton of punts but when they do there is always a chance of a big return.
Ryan Santoso, the kicker, is 10/13 on the year and pretty good.
This should be a Michigan advantage. If one plays out it looks like it will be Peppers taking a return opportunity a long way.
KEY MATCHUP: MATE PUT THE BALL THROUGH THE BIG STICKS NO WORRIES
- Rudock dries up and floats away.
- Leidner keeps rolling out to find nobody trying to contain him.
- It's close enough for a bad thing to matter at the end.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- It's third and long for the eighth consecutive Gopher drive.
- Mortell outkicks his coverage.
- Peppers lines up on offense.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 (Baseline 5; +1 for It's Spooky, It's Halloween, +1 for Now That Jerry Kill Has Retired The Gophers Will Try To Win Or Something, –1 for How Is Minnesota Going To Move The Ball, –1 for I Would Like To See Minnesota Try To Replicate MSU's Strategy, –1 for Special Teams Advantage Again, –1 for Seriously How Does Minnesota Even Cross Midfield After That One Drive With The Fancy Business They'll Have After A Bye)
Desperate need to win level: 8 (Baseline 5; +1 for We're Still In This Division Race, +1 for Acquire The Jug, +1 for Also Acquire It For A Bit Longer Since M Does Not Play M Next Year, +1 for Losing This Game Would Be A Severe Meltdown)
Loss will cause me to... be the subject of a terrible black magic curse in which my soul is ripped from my body, deposited in the Jug, and exhibited all across the all-right state of Minnesota for all eternity.
Win will cause me to... decorously march across the internet to reclaim the e-Jug from e-Gophers.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Minnesota can only move the ball through chicanery and the occasional blocky/catchy guy getting open on play action. That is not going to be enough.
Michigan's not a ton better in the throwing department but should have enough of a run game and return game to tilt the field and eventually stack up sufficient points for a win; Harbaugh will also have his share of chicanery, and Minnesota has fared poorly against such things of late.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Minnesota does not break 200 yards
- Drake Johnson gets 15 carries and intrigues as a potential lead back
- Peppers gets a back-breaking return and one big play on offense
- Michigan, 22-0