After suffering a loss in Lincoln a week ago, Michigan's season rests on the edge of disappointment. One more loss down the stretch will surely ruin any chance of the Wolverines winning the Legends division title, and even winning out will require some help in the form of a Nebraska loss. Michigan's offense -- the unit that was widely believed to be the strength of the team coming into the season -- has a lot of questions to answer, including what could be the most important one for the rest of this season and beyond: what is life without Denard like?
The last two years the coaches have talked about lessening the burden on Denard Robinson. Giving him less carries, reducing his role in the rushing game to a counterpunch for when teams finally stop a heavy dose of runs from the array of tailback options. Let him earn those yards back through the air in the downfield passing game.
That none of this has come to pass -- Robinson is currently leading the team in carries by a wide margin -- says a lot more about the makeup of the team, and of Denard Robinson himself, than it does about the coaching staff's best laid plans. This is a team that, for whatever reason, cannot put together a solid rushing game outside of Denard Robinson. Fitzgerald Toussaint has failed to live up to the lofty expectations set before him this year, and it isn't all that clear just whose fault it is that this has continued to happen. After putting together a solid game against Illinois and looking like he was finally going to mount a serious challenge for the lion's share of the offense's non-Denard carries, Thomas Rawls has been conspicuously absent from the offense the past two weeks. Vincent Smith is still Vincent Smith: a utility back that can make some plays in the right situations, but is hard to build a between the tackles rush offense around.
More than any of that, the reason that Denard has remained such a strong focal point of the offense despite the coaches willingly and knowingly putting all their eggs in one basket contrary to The Plan, is that you just can't not give Denard Robinson the ball, man. Think about it. When it is third and three, who do you want with the ball in his hands? Denard. When the offense needs a score, who is the best bet to get it to the endzone? Denard.
Robinson's passing may be up and down, but one thing that is almost unwavering is his uncanny ability to turn nothing into something in the run game. His speed in the open field is one thing, but his lateral quickness and burst are almost unmatched in the college game. That kind of brilliance is hard to find, and impossible to ignore, and despite the offense's best efforts this year it has continually swung back around to Al Borges throwing up his hands and saying, "help us Denard Robinson, you're our only hope."
As long as Robinson is answering that call the offense is in good hands. When, like last week, he isn't able to go, things get a lot dicier.
Where do you turn when Hercules is draped in a coat, clutching his arm on the sideline?
After last week I think the whole Michigan football universe is even less sure.
When Michigan has the ball
There really isn't a simple answer to this one.
What we know is that Minnesota doesn't have a great defense. The Gophers are 82nd in rush yards allowed per game with an average of 178. This is despite facing just two teams in the top 50 nationally in rush yards per game (Northwestern is 15th and Wisconsin 44th). Those two teams put up 208 and 337 yards respectively.
The Gophers depend heavily on a pair of secondary players (Troy Stoudermire and Derrick Wells) when it comes to stopping plays. Those two lead the team in tackles. Close behind is a trio of linebackers. Keanon Cooper, Mike Rallis, and Aaron Hill. None of them are the dangerous get-into-the-backfield type (They have combined for 6 TFLs this season). For that, Minnesota has a pair of talented defensive linemen. DL Wilhite and Ra'Shede Hageman are first and second on the team in sacks and TFLs, and both are productive when compared to the rest of the Big Ten. Wilhite is a pass rushing specialist from more of a weakside end position (he is 6'3 244lbs) while Hageman is an athletic freak at 6'6 301 lbs on the end. While the rest of the defense isn't too scary, these two are capable of making life hard on Michigan.
The Gophers also sport one of the nation's best pass defenses. The Gophers are in the top ten nationally in both pass yards allowed per game and pass efficiency defense, however both numbers come with one caveat: schedule.
Much like Michigan, the Gophers haven't faced a murderer's row of passing offenses. Of the four Big Ten teams that the Gophers have played, the most productive pass offense has been Purdue's (which should in turn tell you just how disappointing Iowa, Wisconsin, and Northwestern's pass offenses have been this year). On top of this, when you can run as easily as the numbers suggest against Minnesota, putting the ball in the air becomes a bit of a luxury.
Now, what this means for Michigan is anyone's guess.
There is one scenario where Denard Robinson returns to the lineup as close to healthy as you can expect at this point in the season. One has to imagine that the Michigan offense will be able to roll against this Minnesota defense much the same as it did against Purdue and Illinois. Minnesota isn't talented top to bottom, and despite having a few good players, there are too many holes to exploit. Even last week against Nebraska, Michigan looked like it was beginning to round into form before Robinson left the game with an injury. If Robinson can go the distance there is no reason why he doesn't eclipse 100 yards on the ground with Michigan's grab bag of running back options combining for another 100+. Another 150 yards through the air would be gravy at that point, and enough to keep the margin of victory respectable for Michigan.
The other scenarios, simply called "OHMYGODWE"REALLGONNADIEWHYISHEHURTWHYDOYOUHATEUSGOD" is a little more tough to measure. Does Russell Bellomy get the call off the bench if/when something bad happens to Robinson? Does Gardner -- who is now taking more practice snaps -- come in the game first? Does any of it even matter at that point?
If Michigan does indeed have to face WORST CASE SCENARIO then buckle up for what could be a pretty ugly game that ends somewhere around 10-7 and leaves you balled up in a corner shivering and sucking on a bottle of whiskey for comfort.
The freak nature of last week's injury is disconcerting, but I think ultimately Robinson is able to go for enough of the game to build a solid lead before hitting the sidelines and giving Bellomy/Gardner time near the end to get comfortable.
Unless I'm wrong, in which case: have whiskey.
Advantage: Michigan until its Minnesota
When Minnesota has the ball
One thing that wasn't talked about nearly enough in the wake of last weekend's game is just how phenomenally the defense played in what was probably the worst circumstances you could force on it. The Fightin' Mattisons held Nebraska nearly 200 yards under the season average for yards and nearly half the season average for points per game. This was despite playing opposite an offense that twice in the third quarter set up the Huskers with field position that was already within field goal range, and couldn't sustain a drive long enough to give the defense a decent chance to get some rest.
This defense is, for the most part, for real. The rush defense once again bottled up almost everything thrown at it -- only breaking down late in the game as it became more and more clear that the offense just wasn't going to be able to do anything worth anything. The pass defense looked a little worse for wear, but after the first half of the season that was a problem that we were all pretty much expecting to arise.
The good news for Michigan is that even if the Wolverine offense is self-immolating, the Minnesota offense is not on the same level as what Nebraska ran out a week ago. The Gophers are a pedestrian 61st in rush yards per game, but part of that number can be attributed to MarQueis Gray, who up until a couple weeks ago was still the starting quarterback for this team, and one of it's best rushing threats. Gray has since been replaced by true freshman Phillip Nelson, who isn't nearly the run threat that Gray is, but is still capable of picking up a few yards if you give him enough space.
The main running option is Donnell Kirkwood, a redshirt sophomore who was the third option last year in the run game but has taken to the starting role well this season having already went over 600 yards with an average of 76 per game. He only has three touchdowns and his long on the season is just 26 yards, so containing him in the run game shouldn't be out of the question, however, he has shown the ability to consistently pick up yards (4.4 ypc average).
That is pretty much it when it comes to viable rushing options for Minnesota. Gray is the second leading rusher with over 300 yards, but he is now permanently at receiver and hasn't taken one rushing attempt since the move. Nelson is just over 100 yards rushing, but he is decidedly a secondary option in the Minnesota run game.
Thus, much of this game and Minnesota's ability to threaten anything on the scoreboard will come down to how true freshman Phillip Nelson can hold up passing against Michigan's still somewhat untested secondary.
Nelson doesn't have much of a statline to go off of. In his first game -- a rout vs. Wisconsin -- Nelson completed 13 of 24 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns, but added two interceptions. The next game against Purdue, Nelson improved significantly completing 15 of 22 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. This coincided with a big offensive day for the Gophers as the team put up 212 yards on the ground vs. the Boilermakers.
The top receiving option on the season has been AJ Barker, who leads the team with 577 yards and seven touchdowns on 30 receptions. Five other receivers have over 100 yards on the season and four of them have caught touchdown passes. What's more, MarQuies Gray is back at receiver where he played the entirety of 2010.
Minnesota will test Michigan down the field in the passing game. The Wolverines still aren't generating much of a pass rush (just 1.25 sacks per game) and both corners have struggled downfield against vertical threats. Michigan's control of the run game should hopefully allow the team to drop more help into pass defense, as well as open up more opportunities for Greg Mattison's evil blitzes.
If Minnesota puts up over 100 rush yards on the day I'll eat my hat. Donnell Kirkwood is just a guy and without Gray Minnesota is missing its second best rushing threat. If Michigan can hold Taylor Martinez to 58 yards rushing, Nelson shouldn't be much of a threat. He will leak out of the pocket once or twice for a 10-15 yard first down run that makes you slam your remote on the floor, but Michigan's rush defense is too solid to let much more slide.
The pass defense could end the game lookng a bit worse. Now, I have little outside of circumstantial evidence for this, but Nelson getting the job at quarterback with Gray moving to receiver and Shortell to the bench speaks volumes about the kid. He was an early enrollee, so he has had some time to learn and get comfortable in the offense. He also seems to be the kind of quarterback that could give Michigan problems (just elusive enough to buy time and find someone open downfield). Minnesota won't put up 300 yards passing, but there will be a couple busts and probably a couple more PI calls (thank you in advance, JT Floyd). As long as Michigan's offense is rolling and the defense is saying "no soup for you, Donnell Kirkwood" none of this should matter. However, don't let WORST CASE SCENARIO get too far out of mind.
When someone is kicking the ball
Gibbons for president, Matt Wile for vice president.
As for Minnesota, the Gophers have Jordan Wettstein handling kicking duties. On the year he is 9/16 and his career long is 51 yards. Handling punting duties is Christian Eldred, an Aussie in his first year on the team. His average isn't very good (37 ypp) and the Gopher's net punting average is even worse (35 ypp, 90th nationally).
All we are saying, is give Norfleet a chance.
Advantage: Brunette girls in the Twin Cities area
- Denard Robinson vs. our worst fears - If Robinson stays upright for this one, Michigan shouldn't sweat much.
- The tailbacks vs. My eternal frustration - Y U NO LIKE YARDS, HUH?
- Jake Ryan and the Big Ten defense welcoming committee vs. Phillip Nelson's youthful exuberance - "Oh, so you've played Wisconsin and Purdue so far? How quaint." /sacks
- JT Floyd and Raymon Taylor vs. My habit of yelling their names and shaking my fist - Let's not do that whole "huge coverage bust" thing this weekend, mmkay?
Alternate Programming: Of the noon games you'll be best served watching either TAMU-MSU or Iowa State-Oklahoma. The afternoon slate of games doesn't offer much more, but MSU is taking on Nebraska in a game Michigan needs to see the Spartans win (badly). Nighttime brings Oregon-USC, Oklahoma State-Kansas State, Alabama-LSU, and Arizona-UCLA.
Inanimate Object Threat Level: 3 - This is entirely contained in that one play where JT Floyd will wildly flail his arms while covering MarQueis Gray down the sideline on a fade route. Will Gray get the touchdown? Will Floyd pick up a PI? Both?
Final Predictions: These aren't as easy to make in good faith when the big question hanging over the game is OH MY GOD WILL THE ENTIRETY OF THE TEAM"S OFFENSE MAKE IT THROUGH FOUR QUARTERS? I watched that injury to Robinson last week. If that kind of hit is all it takes, Michigan is playing with fire the rest of the way*.
When this team has Robinson healthy, it is probably one of the best in the Big Ten. While the offense has been up and down this year, it has found a way to score against all but the very best defenses (which, there aren't any of those left on the schedule) and probably would have put up 20-30 points a week ago had Robinson not gone down.
When your defense is looking like it is right up there with Michigan State for "best in the conference", 20 points is more than likely going to be more than enough -- at least it has been most of the way this season.
I think Michigan wins. Even if Robinson goes down early-ish I think Michigan wins. It won't be pretty, but this defense is too good and the other team too Minnesota for things to get that ugly.
Despite all of this, I think Robinson makes it through three quarters before heading to the bench in one piece. Michigan puts up a solid lead and lets the defense slowly suck the life out of Minnesota's chances over the second half.
Michigan 31 - Minnesota 10
*(This is in no way me calling Robinson a wuss or a pussy or a sniveling baby who needs to "suck it up" or "rub some dirt on it". Injuries hurt, and just because his flares up because of weird contact or freak occurances doesn't make it any less of a legit injury. If you say anything to the contrary, let me just cut you off real quick. You're an asshole.)