Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE
In preparation for this weekend's game against Minnesota -- another installment in the battle for Brown Jug supremacy -- I got in touch with Jeff of SBN's great Gopher blog, The Daily Gopher to talk about the upcoming game.
(You can check out my Q&A with Jeff over there as well).
One of the big surprises of the non-conference season was that Minnesota was one of the teams to make it through the opening month unscathed. Now, Minnesota is still 1-3 in the conference, but this has still been a solid second season for Kill. What factors are the biggest in this team being one win away from bowl eligibility?
Wait, you mean Jerry Kill's done ok in his second season here? Like taking over a gawd-awful Tim Brewsterized team two seasons ago and already having them on the brink of a bowl game is a good thing? You might want to say that to the media and some of the Gopher faithful, who have soured on Kill already. No really. After the 4-0 start raised expectations, things came crashing back to earth with the three game losing streak to f***ing Iowa, Northwestern, and D-bag Bielma and Wisconsin.
If the three losses weren't bad enough (and in their own way, each one certainly was) the past few weeks have not been good for Kill's PR. Besides the Philip Nelson kerfufel (that's probably not a word but let's pretend it is), Kill convinced the Minnesota AD to cancel a home-and-home series in 2013 and 2014 with football juggernaut North Carolina. What's that? UNC is NOT a football juggernaut? Well then, I guess that was just one problem the fanbase and media had with the decision. Kill said he wants to build confidence in his young program, and needs as many wins as possible to do so. If UNC was at worst a 50/50 bet for a win, he would rather trade that in for an 80 or 90% chance to beat some non-BCS patsy.
That looked bad but to add insult to injury it came out soon after the annoucement that in order to cancel the series, the U had to pay UNC $800,000! Not surprisingly, that didn't go over very well with anyone. Even Mrs Kill probably said "really Jerry?" I understand the philosophy, but to cancel a home-and-home with a medicore BCS school because you're worried about losing to them looks bad. To have it cost $800,000 makes it that much worse.
But what's done is done. All of that aside, according to the preseason expectations of our blog and most of "Gopher Nation", this team is about where we thought they'd be at this point in the season, which is still on track for six wins and a bowl game. The biggest reason is the defense has been much, much better, while the offense has done enough (in most games) to get them this far.
Last year MarQueis Gray was the big hope for the beginning of the Jerry Kill tenure, and he put together some solid play as the season progressed. Despite positive reports from the off season about his development, the Gophers have moved away from Gray and backup Max Shortell and are now starting true freshman Phillip Nelson. What's up with that? Is he that good or are Minnesota's two more experienced options that underwhelming?
Here's the long story longer: Kill is getting some heat from the local media that he didn't start Nelson from the get-go after his wildly successful game against Purdue, but it's much easier to say that in hindsight now. Gray worked his tail off the past two years to be the starting QB, and showed signs of progress as the starter last year and in the spring leading into 2012. Backup Max Shortell was underwhelming on the field last season (he was the starter in the 58-0 massacre against you guys), but played well in spring and fall practice. Nelson was third on the depth chart and they planned to redshirt him because the coaches felt confident they had two solid options ahead of him (there's also rumors Nelson was hurt and couldn't have played until week 4 anyway), and there was no reason to start a true freshman. At that time, ZERO people in the media, fans or otherwise were arguing with the decision.
Then the first six games happened: Gray struggled passing the ball in wins over Vegas and New Hampshire before suffering a high ankle sprain against Western Michigan which put him out a month. Shortell filled in beautifully against the Broncos (10-17 188 yds 3TD's), and was solid in the 17-10 win over Syracuse (16-30 231 yards with no TD's or picks). Then he and the entire team looked awful against Iowa, and Shortell looked something far beyond awful again in relief of Gray against Northwestern (Shortell started, got concussed, then MarQueis played well until he hurt his ankle again).
What happened that next week leading up to the Wisconsin game only the coaches and players know for sure. Kill has said Gray and Shortell were too hurt to play, so Nelson was the only option. Others have pointed out Gray was healthy enough to play receiver against UW but somehow not QB, and that the coaches were just unhappy with Shortell's play, so they decided to burn Nelson's red shirt.
Nelson held his own in a hostile environment in Madison in his college debut, and after the game was named full-time starter at QB while Gray was moved back to receiver, where he hopes to play on Sundays next fall (at 6'4 and 250 with sub 4.6 speed he has a chance, although maybe as an H-back. But somebody will roll the dice on him). That brings us to last week where Nelson looked like some kind of quarterback Jesus against Purdue, which has some folks up in arms saying "if you knew he was this good why wasn't he starting all year?!?!?" Then they nash their teeth and raise their pitch forks and torches and say other crazy crap.
Whatever. Barring catastrophe (which is not out of the realm of possibility considering Minnesota has had real trouble keeping their QB's healthy in Kill's run-heavy system), Nelson will get six starts this season, and should make a very young team even better for 2013.
Minnesota's pass defense is one of the stronger units in the Big Ten (although when the best Big Ten passing offense you've faced resides in West Lafayette, scheduling is a caveat -- ditto for Michigan vs. its schedule). Now, Michigan isn't much of a threat to light the scoreboard up in the passing game, but what will Minnesota's 84th ranked rush defense be able to accomplish against the run heavy Wolverines knowing that Michigan won't put the ball in the air much?
I'm not expecting Minnesota's run D to accomplish much of anything against Michigan, other than helping the Wolverines offense to get back on track. The Gophers have really struggled to stop a strong rushing attack for more than a half. Against Iowa and Northwestern, the Gophers got destroyed in the 1st half (Iowa scored 24 points and had over 300 yards of offense in the first half while Northwestern scored 21 and had about 200 yards rushing in the half), only to make halftime adjustments and shut them down in the second (Iowa's only 2nd half points were on a pick-six and they gained about 75 total yards while Northwestern was shutout in the second half and failed to gain more than 60 total yards of offense). It was the opposite against Wisconsin as it was 14-6 at half before Montee Ball and Co. got rolling, scoring 24 second half points and finishing with 337 yards rushing for the game (that, unfortunately, is not a typo).
It remains a mystery why Minnesota can't put a full game together stopping the run, and chances are it's not going to happen against Denard Robinson and Michigan
MarQueis Gray was one of the biggest reasons Minnesota was able to field a competent rush offense a season ago, and he is still Minnesota's second most productive running back despite moving back to receiver. Where are the Gophers getting ground production from now that Nelson is in the backfield?
Donnell Kirkwood has stepped up to be the lead ballcarrier this season. Still a far cry from the Maroney and Barber "glory" days, Kirkwood is a bowling ball-type back who runs well between the tackles,and leads the team with 609 yards at 4.4 yards per carry. It took them six games and four different backs before hopefully finding a complement to Kirkwood in true freshman Roderick Williams. At 235+ pounds, he's not exactly a change of pace guy, but in three games in limited action has done ok (18 carries for 83 and a score), and right now, ok will have to do.
Last year in Ann Arbor Michigan demolished the Gophers in one of the more lopsided games of the season. This year things look to be significantly closer. What are three keys to a Minnesota upset on Saturday?
While all three of these will be obvious, it doesn't make them any less true: The first, and by far the most important, is whether Minnesota can slow Robinson and the Michigan rushing attack. If, somehow, they can then I like the Gophers' chances of getting to the QB and stopping the pass too. Second key is whether Donnell Kirkwood can get going. Nelson led the team in rushing attempts and yards in the loss to Wisconsin, and while he's a capable ball carrier, the Gopher offense really struggled. They have all season if they can't get a running threat from the running backs, and since Kirkwood is the only viable running back...it has to come from Kirkwood. Third key is Minnesota limiting or, dare I say it, even eliminating mistakes. It's still a very young team, and especially in the losses to Iowa, Northwestern, and Wisconsin, key mistakes have just killed them. They have a few things go wrong and they haven't shown the ability to recover yet, which is not uncommon for young teams. If they want to hang with Michigan they can't beat themselves.
How do you see this game playing out? Does Michigan still put the fear of god into you, or did last week's collapse after the Robinson injury, and the ongoing offensive woes keep you optimistic in this staying a close game? Do you think Minnesota can move the ball against Michigan's impressive defense? Is this another 14-9 type slugfest, or do these teams both head north of 20 points in a (relative) shootout?
Michigan is clearly the better team, but they don't put the fear of god in me the way last year's group did. Part of that is Minnesota is better than last year, and Michigan is possibly worse. That's not to say the Gophers will win though. I wish I had the confidence to say Minnesota can stop a potent rushing attack for four quarters, but we just haven't seen it yet, and I'm doubting it happens Saturday. I would love to be proven wrong, though. With such a young QB and offense, I don't see the Gophers being able to win a shoot-out against a good Michigan defense, so if the Gophers win it'll have to be ugly. While I'd love to see Minnesota get the Little Brown Jug for the first time since 2005, IF Robinson is healthy enough to play like he's capable of then Michigan wins 24-13.