Preview: Minnesota 2017

Submitted by Brian on November 3rd, 2017 at 1:48 PM


WHAT Michigan (6-2) vs
Minnesota (4-4)
WHERE Michigan Stadium,
Ann Arbor MI
November 4th, 2017
THE LINE Vegas: M –15.5
S&P+: M –9.3
TICKETS can be had
WEATHER mid 40s, 50% chance of rain, minimal wind
Minnesota isn't wearing this helmet, and this makes me sad.


Minnesota is in "year zero" under boat-rowing maniac PJ Fleck and, like so many Minnesota teams before them, is trying to scrape out bowl eligibility. They need two more wins in their closing stretch of Michigan-Nebraska-Northwestern-Wisconsin, so an upset here would get them most of the way towards that—have you seen Nebraska this year folks?—and secure the Brown Jug for what would no doubt be another statewide tour, except with groupies and amphetamines. Lose and it's mostly a shrug, because year zero, people!

So that's good for them because they're probably going to lose.

One complicating factor: the weather. Current assertions have backed off the 90% chance of rain and dialed it down to 50%. MGoWeather is saying there will be an "occasional shower" and warns about "a few raindrops." Also, MLive has a detailed article on the situation as of yesterday; it asserts that even if the rain does come it will be "a few hundredths to one-tenth of an inch," which is a light drizzle I think? So probably nothing that would impact the game.

Run Offense vs Minnesota



Michigan will attempt to maintain their level of performance from last week against an outright bad rush defense. Minnesota is 82nd in S&P+, which is five spots worse than Rutgers even after they got gashed for 7.6 YPC last week. Their most relevant previous outing was against Michigan State; LJ Scott went for 194 yards on 25 carries with Madre London chipping in 74 on 17 as MSU won while completing nine passes. (Hey! I bet we can complete nine passes!) Notably, this is the only game against a non-tomato can in which MSU's rushing offense has done anything. They're stuck at 88th in S&P+.

Maryland and Purdue also gashed the Gophers for around 6.4 YPC; outings against Iowa and Illinois were more competitive against rush offenses ranked around 70th. Michigan's month-long upswing finds them nearing legitimately good at 21st. This should be another productive outing and possibly another paving.

If it's not one major reason will be Minnesota's willingness to be aggressive. Per Seth this was their usual deployment against Iowa heavy sets.


That is an 8.5 man box; Rutgers was willing to go at Michigan with 7 or 7.5 much of the day.

But Minnesota's been doing that much of the year and they're still scuffling badly. Minnesota's status here is a bit of a surprise since they entered the year with a hyped-up NFL draft prospect at nose tackle named Steven Richardson. Richardson is in the Glasgow vein and will be a tough handle:

Iowa spent most of the day running outside zone away from this guy but that meant trying to double the 330-pound DT who’s really more like 360 pounds and Richardson would just flow down the line and stop it anyway. Michigan was able to run power (which attacks much the same spot as outside zone) all day against the good DTs of Rutgers but Kugler is going to find keeping Richardson out of the backfield hard enough; cuts to the backside are unlikely to feature nearly as much. ...

Needless to say I really hope Onwenu’s ding last week was precautionary. Kugler and Runyan versus this guy sounds like a bad day.

Seth did the recent Minnesota-Iowa game and came away with a different picture of the Minnesota defense than the stats show; that may be an artifact of an Iowa offensive line that is struggling badly.

Minnesota starts a 245 pound sophomore and a 270 pound freshman at DE, so expect Michigan tight ends to continue getting after it on the ground. Seth:

Former blue chip SDE Carter Coughlin is undersized for a 4-3 over strongside end and makes up for it by getting aggressive, for better and worse. In their passing down sets Coughlin will often drop into coverage, where he was a consistent disaster. WDE Nate Umlor is just a guy; he’s solid against the run and not much of a pass rush threat.

The Gophers' top spacebacker is out and Seth marked both safeties—also injury replacements—with cyan this week. This looks like another situation where the edges are going to be caved in with some frequency, whether it's on power or the occasional crack sweep that catches the opposition off guard. Given the prevalence that crack has featured in the last couple games, Michigan might find it profitable to bring out various zone plays and the like that rely on defensive overreaction to the threat of a crack; that split-action pitch from Purdue that they've shelved might be a winner.

For its part Michigan is coming off a paving of Rutgers unparalleled in recent history, but there are some injury question marks after Ty Isaac, Kareem Walker, and Mike Onwenu all limped or staggered off the field late in that game. If the two running backs can't go, expect a much heavier dose of Chris Evans as he picks up carries after Higdon; O'Maury Samuels also figures to get his first carries outside of garbage time. Onwenu's absence would be much bigger, figuratively and literally. Jon Runyan Jr has deputized at times this year and played fairly well, but he is not a man-planet with ballerina feet.

Michigan's moved closer to MSU philosophically as the season's gone on (ie: run a bunch more gap schemes) and won't mechanically pound the same zone plays like Iowa did; also they seem definitively better than the ground games of Minnesota's other opponents. I don't know if you can ever expect a 300 yard outing, but 200 seems in the offing at a solid 5-6 yard clip.

KEY MATCHUP: A MAN IN THE DESERT vs AN OASIS ON THE HORIZON. Please don't be a figment of our addled imagination. Please be real, with water and... coconuts? Is that a thing? Or is that just islands?

[Hit THE JUMP for... the same barely functional Big Ten QB]

Pass Offense vs Minnesota


Kunle Ayinde, unlike many other Gophers DBs, has been on the field

Unless the ground game crawls in an unexpected hole and dies this will be another game where Brandon Peters has the luxury of surprise, and possibly max protection, when he drops back on a standard down. When he does so he will survey an injury-decimated landscape:

The Gophers subsequently lost both starting cornerbacks, Kiondre Thomas and Antonio Shenault. Replacing one meant moving the Troy Woolfolk-like Kunle Ayinde to cornerback and dimeback Jacob Huff to starting free safety. This worked and didn’t: Ayinde is more natural at corner and his run defense is as valuable off the edge as it was coming down from on high. If Ayinde is Woolfolk, Huff is Michael Williams, i.e. a born nickelback who’s a bust waiting to happen as the deep safety. Losing Shenault was the last straw: true freshman CB Justus Harris started against Iowa and there’s your Boubacar Cissoko. They’ve also pulled the redshirt off of safety Ken Handy-Holly, the highest rated player of Fleck’s first class; he tends to fall down at an alarming rate.

Save your emails. Management has already requested that the Rodriguez-era secondary be permanently memory-holed, to prevent disabling flashbacks in the fanbase. Please assist any motorists you see pulled over with a cellphone displaying Seth's FFFF dangling in one useless hand.

Minnesota's injuries haven't caught up to them statistically quite yet. Nate Stanley and Iowa managed just 7 yards an attempt and one INT despite Stanley's inexplicable status as the All Big Ten PFF quarterback this week (see: Barrett, JT). Brian Lewerke, as mentioned, completed just 9 passes because he attempted only 18. Purdue hit 7 YPA on 36 attempts, etc., etc. Nobody has been able to crack the Minnesota pass defense for a big day. They're 32nd in S&P+.

Yes, the level of opposition has a lot to do with that. I have a sneaking suspicion that S&P+ is overrating Big Ten pass defenses on the whole because it is not capable of understanding the desperation at quarterback across the league when teams like Minnesota play Buffalo, Oregon State, and Middle Tennessee in the nonconference portion of the schedule.

But Michigan is not the kind of team that is likely to defy those numbers, under Brandon Peters or anyone else. Beset by terrible pass protection and a wide receiving corps barely out of the nursery, Michigan's passing game is 80th nationally and the good bit was a clear outlier against Purdue. It hasn't been steady crappiness but an excellent blip surrounded by acres of despair.

Peters offers hope that it will be otherwise but if Michigan has to lean on him the results are likely to be explosive in all directions. Rely on the ground game, hit some first and ten play action, dump balls off to all the blocky/catchy guys, and get out of this game with 20-25 attempts and that 7 YPA and we'll call it a win.

KEY MATCHUP: BRANDON PETERS vs PEOPLE TRYING TO ANOINT HIM WITH VARIOUS OILS AND PERFUMES. I'll settle for "clearly better than Demry Croft"; the Muad'Dib phase can wait for next year.

Run Defense vs Minnesota

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Brooks(left) and Smith are peas in a pod that never goes deep

This is the nominally interesting bit of the defensive matchup. The insertion of quarterback-type-substance Demry Croft has cratered the passing game, as will be (briefly) discussed in the following section. Minnesota made that tradeoff in an attempt to go full Denard-era Rich Rod with their offense, except without Denard. Croft is relatively mobile and has been productive on the ground in about 2.5 games, with just over 10 non-sack carries per full game going for 6.4 yards a pop.

The catch: 11 of those carries and 75 of those yards came against Buffalo or a Michigan State team playing run-out-the-clock up big in the fourth quarter. Croft has 18 rushes for 52 yards as a full time starter in competitive contests. That's 2.9 YPC and clearly not worth the massive downgrade in the passing game.

It is possible that the threat of Croft is opening up avenues for Minnesota's talented backfield, which features Kobe McCrary, Rodney Smith, and Shannon Brooks as a three-headed monster. McCrary and Smith combined for 256 yards against Illinois, and the trio had 144 yards at 4.6 YPC against Iowa. But... uh, those are the #111 and #97 rush defenses in America. That's not enough if you're going to torpedo the other half of your offense. The #57 rush offense is no way to live when you're a permanent wildcat team.

The thing is, I like both Smith and Brooks a lot. (McCrary is unfamiliar to me.) Smith is a pile-moving pounder in the vein of Gus Edwards, the Rutgers guy you just watched hoss out a fair number of yards in tough situations. Brooks burst on the scene as an explosive, shifty freshman a couple years back. Fast forward to 2017 and both guys are below 5 YPC, fumbling some, and almost entirely unable to break anything long. Minnesota is almost dead last nationally in run explosiveness.

The Gophers are good at converting short yardage and inching the ball forward in regular increments. That paired with the extreme aversion to completing passes gives the offense the feel of a triple option team that's fine as long as its ahead of the sticks but immediately curls into a ball and dies when a negative play occurs.

Michigan specializes in putting opponents behind the sticks, with the #2 havoc rate in the country. Minnesota has to drive the field to score and it is extremely unlikely they will be able to do so against Michigan. Michigan gives up a lot of big plays when folks manage to get those first five yards, usually because someone's not in the right place in an aggressive defense. That's Minnesota's best bet.


Pass Defense vs Minnesota

Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Tyler Johnson (6) rushes with the ball after making a catch as Buffalo Bulls cornerback Cameron Lewis (39) plays defense during their game last week in Minneapolis. Johnson, a Minneapolis native and former Minneapolis North standout, is becoming the Gophers' go-to receiver. Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Johnson, converted QB, might be better than Actual QB

There won't be one. The end.


What? Oh, fine. Minnesota turned to Demry Croft midway through the Michigan State game. He led a furious, if futile, comeback against the Spartans, averaging 8.2 YPC and throwing three touchdowns in 20 attempts. He threw a pick, and MSU was in one of those fourth quarters where you're going to win if you don't do anything stupid like give up a quick TD. Croft was more or less allowed to gradually matriculate down the field.

Since he's been a disaster, completing about a third of his passes with a 1-3 TD-INT ratio and barely edging over four yards an attempt against Illinois and Iowa. Minnesota is 121st in passing S&P+, and that includes a big chunk of the season under still-terrible-but-not-that-terrible Conor Rhoda, who is averaging 7.4 yards an attempt to Croft's 4.6. Croft has also radically increased Minnesota's sack rate allowed. Rhoda was going down under 2% of the time. Croft is getting sacked four times as often. Croft's insertion is a desperate attempt to be a ground-and-pound outfit that doesn't have to pass.

Minnesota does have an interesting WR matchup for the cornerbacks. WR Tyler Johnson is getting over a third of Minnesota targets and has a YPT over ten because he averages nearly 20 yards a catch. Seth notes that he got 12 targets against Iowa, catching just four but for 92 yards. Those included a slick and probably intentional back shoulder throw and a nice corner route against Iowa's zone; a "Burbridge v. Lewis" battle ensued versus Iowa CB Josh Jackson, except with Croft instead of Connor Cook.

Michigan's seemingly obvious response to this rudimentary passing offense is to have Hill follow this dude around like a probation officer dealing with LJ Scott. If that takes a safety out to man coverage against uh... freshmen Demetrius Douglas and Phillip Howard, so be it. If Michigan is content to put Kinnel over any and all slot receivers including Johnson... well, it'll almost certainly be fine even if Croft does find the range on a corner route or two.

The over/under on Minnesota completions is ten.


Special Teams

Kicker Emmitt Carpenter is 11 of 15 on the year and a dead average #collegekicker. He was 22/24 a year ago and ranked sixth in FG efficiency, so the misses this year are more of a blip than a pattern. Punter Ryan Santoso is yet another mad bomber of a punter. He's averaging 44 yards a kick and hasn't seen a ton of return yardage against, just 62 on 12 returns. He has 30 punts that weren't inside the 20. Santoso also kicks off, where he's less good. He's getting 38% to the endzone.

Minnesota hasn't done anything on returns this year. They use their running backs as their kick returners so there's danger there, just not any that's been realized so far. Smith had a kick return TD last year.

Michigan might have an issue here if a rumored injury to Quinn Nordin is in fact true. Michigan's backups looked good in the spring game, and that is all the data we have.




Cheap Thrills

Worry if... 

  • The running game sputters after a month of promise.
  • Nordin is out.
  • Mike McCray is in man coverage on Tyler Johnson?

Cackle with knowing glee if...

  • Demry Croft is in a passing down.
  • Brandon Peters skips to the Muad'Dib stage. Or he's fine. Fine is good. Fine is great.
  • It's dry. For the people in the stands, mostly.

Fear/Paranoia Level: 2 (Baseline 5; –1 for Look, Another Passing Game Less Functional Than Ours, –1 for And A Rush Defense Less Functional Than That Of Rutgers, –1 for The Minnesota Passing Game Is One Guy Hill Can Lock Up, +1 for Peters (FIGURATIVE) Hangover Potential, +1 for Potential Weather Goofiness, +1 for Why Is This Spread Only 15, That Spooks Me, –1 for Because Minnesota Does Almost Literally Nothing Well.)

Desperate need to win level: 9 (Baseline 5; +1 for See Last Week About Inane Brady Hoke Comparisons, +1 for Hard To Get Hype About Peters Era Off A Loss To Minnesota, +1 for Brown Jug, +1 for Solid Win Raises Faint Hopes For Narrative Bending Turnaround To End The Season, –1 for Stakes Don't Seem Real High In Cosmic Sense, +1 for Irritatingly Accurate Thing Fleck Said About M-MSU).

Loss will cause me to... be captured by Barbary Pirates on the high seas and lashed to an oar for the remainder of my days, forever taunted by the lash of the whip as it comes down. I row. I row. I row. There is nothing but the chain and the oar. An image of the Brown Jug appears on the horizon from time to time but I know it is a foul shade, an apparition of the mind. So too the distant laughter of PJ Fleck, but the fact that I know I invented these tortures for myself only makes their impact all the crueler.

Win will cause me to... complain about the 17 commercial breaks in the fourth quarter of a rainy night game nobody wants, probably.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

Michigan should be able to move the ball with some consistency against an iffy rush defense. MSU demonstrated the efficiency of manball against the Gophers, and they are very bad at manball. Michigan's getting there. Peters will be the difference between a bunch of drives that go 30 yards and stall and touchdowns; survey says there are a fair number of the former and a few of the latter.

On the other side of the ball, Minnesota has no ability to pass and has only been able to run against two very bad rush defenses. Michigan will load up with four DL and probably Furbush and clobber the Gopher offense until Rhoda comes in at some point and tries to pass the Gophers back into it. This won't go well. Michigan's probably going to give up a couple of long plays here and there because that's the pattern of this defense, which is awesome unless someone's reminding you they're a first-year starter. The rest? Bupkis.

This will seem a lot like the Rutgers game, and have a similar outcome.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:  

  • I'm taking the under on that Minnesota completion number if Croft plays the whole game.
  • Michigan exceeds 6 YPC once sacks and garbage time (if any) are removed.
  • Lavert Hill gets an INT on one of many attempts to hit Johnson deep.
  • Michigan, 23-5



November 3rd, 2017 at 2:57 PM ^

lock in three teams that each teams plays every year (OSU, MSU and Minn for us), and then rotate the other six games evenly amongst the remaining ten teams. That way you'll never go more than two years without facing any one team.  Top two teams play for the title (like the big 12).

Solves the "No-one-wants-to-play-Rutgers-every-year" problem and the "Wisconsin-automatic-division-champs/West-division-is-terrible" problem.

It would require a rule change to allow it to happen, but they just changed the rules for the big 12 to have a title game.  Easy to change the rules to allow a 12-team-or-larger conference to have a title game without divisions.  Really no reason not to.


November 3rd, 2017 at 3:03 PM ^

I don't care who they are. Texas? Fine. Central Florida? Fine. Pick four more and we're good. 

Then we put the new teams in a division with Rutgers, Maryland, Penn State and Nebraska, make the schedules so that there are zero (0) cross-divisional games and call it a day.

The only down side is the B1G championship game, but I can live with that. 


November 3rd, 2017 at 5:30 PM ^

Kick Rutgers/Maryland/Nebraksa out and make the remainder one division.  Add the Pac-12 minus Colorado and Utah and make that the other division.  Zero to one crossover game(s) in the regular season.  I'm feeling generous, so we let the other division can host the B1G championship game every year.  Perhaps in Pasedena, since they have a neat stadium.


November 3rd, 2017 at 4:02 PM ^

We've had two-year hiatuses before, both of which were before all three of Nebraska/Rutgers/Maryland joined.

  • Michigan and Minnesota did not play in 2009 or 2010. 
  • Ditto for 1999 and 2000. 
  • 2016 is the only other off year for the Jug since 1919
  • (Michigan and Minnesota played every year from 1919-1998, 2001-2008 and 2011-2015). 





November 3rd, 2017 at 1:55 PM ^

Every week i wait for these previews and every week i enjoy the heck out of it. Gonna b fun to watch the guys kick ass tomorrow night. Go Blue fellas!


November 3rd, 2017 at 2:01 PM ^

My hope is for a ground game that cruises, a passing attack in which Peters hits 60% of his throws for like 150 yards and no major mistakes, and the defense to hold Minnesota down to fewer than the two TDs they've been giving up in every game.

I expect Michigan to look neolithic on offense, and this is fine if neolithic produces 5 yards a carry.


November 3rd, 2017 at 2:08 PM ^

“Michigan's seemingly obvious response to this rudimentary passing offense is to have Hill follow this dude around like a probation officer dealing with LJ Scott.”


This feels like a game where Peters is used sparingly, the run game does the bulk of the work, it’s maybe 7-7 early and we all get worried but the final score is 35-10

yossarians tree

November 3rd, 2017 at 2:11 PM ^

I can't ever remember the quarterback play in the Big 10 being this crappy. That said I think the defenses are getting faster and more aggressive and by the time a guy figures out how to deal wiith it, he graduates.

yossarians tree

November 3rd, 2017 at 2:45 PM ^

Something to the effect that it was not a surprise for MSU to beat Michigan because they've been doing it with regularity. Which, even if there is some truth to it, fuck that. I will always be surprised when we lose to them and will never talk trash when we win because I fully expect it every time.


November 3rd, 2017 at 2:46 PM ^

After some brief Google research, looks like it's this:

> The Spartans are ranked for the first time this season, fresh off a win at then-No. 7 Michigan.

>"I think they've beaten them eight out of the last 10 times so I don't think you can be surprised at all," Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck told reporters this week. "I think it would almost be the other way. If Michigan beats Michigan State, you should be surprised in these times."

> That’s not a dig. It’s a perfectly fair assessment of how that rivalry’s broken in the last decade.



November 3rd, 2017 at 4:11 PM ^

The first sentence is fine: "I think they've beaten them eight out of the last 10 times so I don't think you can be surprised at all,"

It's perfectly fine to not be surprised about a result that was (statistically) somewhat unlikely because you acknowledge that it's a rivalry, MSU has played well in the medium term, it could go either way, etc.

It's the second statement that is some serious trolling/ignorance: "If Michigan beats Michigan State, you should be surprised in these times."

That is not an assessment of the prior decade.  That is an absurd statement about expectations for current results. To say you would be surprised if a more talented team, playing at home, as double digit favorites, coming off a pretty convincing win over said opponent the prior year, with coaching that has been excellent in the past 2.5 years (very different coaching than the coaching responsible for 7 of 8 of those MSU wins) won the game, that's just stupid.

There is absolutely no way before that game Fleck would have said, yeah, I'd be surprised if Michigan wins this game.