Bruce Thorson-US PRESSWIRE
After an inauspicious beginning, the Wolverines easily handled an improved Minnesota team on the road. With a pair of winnable games at home coming up before the trip to Columbus, the Wolverines kept pace in the division despite not getting the help it sought elsewhere.
Michigan 35, Minnesota 13
All week, Denard Robinson being able to suit up on Saturday seemed to be a certainty. Of course, many, including myself, did not take into account that Brady Hoke is quietly the most accomplished troll of all time (which, for the record, I think is great and hilarious).
The news came down that Denard would not be able to go, an unfortunate outcome for a coach ostensibly looking for a stress-free birthday. To the delight of many, Devin Gardner got the start after a 8-game adventure as a talented but frustrating piece of Michigan's wide receiving corps.
After zipping a 7-yard pass to Jeremy Gallon on his first drive, there was a palpable sense that this wasn't last week. At the very least, Michigan didn't have to worry about its signal caller failing to connect on each of his first ten passes.* However, this sense of calm was immediately destroyed, as if someone had flipped a switch, plunging Michigan into the terrifying darkness of offensive ineptitude once more.
After taking a sack on the very next play, Gardner was picked near midfield on the second play of the next drive, throwing to a well-covered A.J. Williams after being pressured on the rollout. It was reminiscent of the 2007 game in Ann Arbor, in which Michigan was forced to start a freshman Ryan Mallett. After Minnesota returned a fumble 46 yards for a score, the Gophers were up 10-0 in a little over a quarter of play.
On Saturday, the early stages of the game were not quite as grim as its counterpart in the 2007 contest, but it was close. The Gophers possessed the ball for over 11 minutes in the first frame, Inception-ing the thought that there was no way this defense could do this again in all of our minds.
After an awful 22-yard shank from Will Hagerup, the Gophers started from the Michigan 43. Off of a play action from the Michigan 10, quarterback Philip Nelson found a wide open John Rabe on the back side for a touchdown. It was early in the second quarter, but with a pivotal game going on later in East Lansing, an impending sense of dread began to mar the proceedings.
Fortunately, after three mostly flailing first quarter drives, the offense hit its stride in the second. Most notably, Al Borges seemed to be in somewhat of a groove in the second quarter, although success was of course interlaced with some seriously spectacular back yard football maneuvers from Gardner. It was as if Borges had gotten up from the poker table, said bastante, and flipped said table to everyone's horror and surprise, cards and poker chips raining down all around him. Michigan one-upped the Gophers' first quarter TOP, holding it for over 12 minutes in the second and giving the defense a much needed rest in the process.
After a 90- and 91-yard drive, Michigan went into the half up 14-7 with a rested defense and, more importantly, immeasurable faith in its quarterback. A curious, ill-fated fake field goal attempt from the Gophers on 4th &19, even with the score still sitting at 14-7, might as well have been the straw that broke the gopher's back.
Michigan embarked on another odyssey of a drive, going 86 yards in seven plays en route to another touchdown and a 21-7 lead. As a famous man once said: Game Blouses.
*I don't write that to demean Russell Bellomy in any way. In fact, I think I'm probably one of only a few people that thinks that Bellomy is a better player than he showed last week in Lincoln.
As has been noted above, it was pretty much night and day for the offense within the scope of this game alone. After racking up fewer yards in the first quarter--nine, to be exact--than an un-maimed person has fingers (don't worry, that's a link to a tweet, not gross things), Borges flipped to the "touchdown plays" section of his playbook and everything began to turn up Milhouse.
Perhaps lost amid the collective sigh of relief was the fact that Michigan engineered two 90+ yard drives; it was apparently only the third time this has happened in Michigan history. Of course Michigan would do this in a game when it is forced to start a backup who had been playing wide receiver and on the heels of a lengthy touchdown-less streak. Naturally, this is how the crazed Being who pulls the strings of college football wishes things to be: nonsensical but always bold as all get-out.
Despite lacking a consistently threatening ground game, the Wolverines play actioned Minnesota to death, and this is where Devin flashed a skill that Denard still has yet to consistently (or, at all, really) demonstrate: knowing when to take the proverbial money and run. In this case, the "money" is acres and acres of daylight waiting to be seized like one trying to do his best G.V. Hudson impression (see, this is why you come here...topical, obscure references that I definitely didn't just find by googling "who invented daylight savings time").
Gardner looked like a guy who had been playing the position all season. He did take a couple sacks, most notably in the opening drive of the third quarter, where he stretched the fabric of his luck by trying to duplicate his ridiculous TD strike to Dileo, only to be sacked by Cameron "I am not an Italian Renaissance painter" Botticelli. Otherwise, Gardner generally possessed a firm understanding of when to tuck it and just go. Seeing him go through his first couple of reads and go when nothing was there was a welcome change of pace, and that is in no way me making a case for starting Gardner next week, unless Denard is still beset with his malevolent nerve-based boo boo. If you were thinking that or are planning to think that, just stop it. NO. Stop it.
Unfortunately, it was another mediocre output on the ground for Michigan; as will probably be detailed throughout the week, it wasn't a very good day for the interior of the line. Michigan carried the ball 41 times for only 155 yards, good for 3.8 YPC, a number that would look even worse if not for Fitzgerald Toussaint's 41-yard dash for a score on Michigan's last actual drive of the game.
As Brian showed on Friday, Minnesota's run defense had been, to put it nicely, fairly malleable thus far in the B1G schedule, giving up over 6 YPC to Iowa, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Purdue. So, it's a little disheartening that Michigan wasn't able to do the same on Saturday, but, then again, Michigan hasn't really been able to get its non-Denard ground game going against anyone this season.
Otherwise, let's just end this with an ode via haiku to the wide receivers, who had by far their best collective effort of the season:
A jump ball, seems right
The Minnesota Man frowns
That guy is five-eight?
Calling Baton Rouge
Dileo is on the line
The White Receiver
A comeback, pish posh
Don't call it that, he boasted
'Tree's been here for years
At this point, I'm running out of breathless superlatives for how great this defense has been, particularly in light of the offense's ongoing battle with the yips. Michigan held the decidedly run-first Gopher offense to under 300 yards and only 13 points, despite the Gophers being gifted ideal field position on multiple occasions.
Other than the one Minnesota touchdown, in which Jordan Kovacs lost the tight end who had cut back against the grain of the play unhindered, Michigan once again made like LL Cool J and shut 'em down. Michigan did not allow the Gophers to get on the board again until the fourth quarter, when the game was fairly in hand.
Michigan's 3rd/4th and short defense has to come in for praise: when will teams ever learn? You don't simply run the ball on this Michigan defense when you need a yard on 3rd/4th down. You just don't. Michigan stuffed Minnesota on 4th & 1 in the first quarter at the Michigan 41, and then again on 3rd & 1 early on in the second half (although Minnesota did convert on 4th).
Although Michigan didn't pick Nelson, they did hold him to a paltry 4.9 YPA (13/29, 142 yards). Michigan wasn't giving up anything easy, if at all. Speaking of things not being easy for people, existence was troublesome for Nelson circa this play:
2012 Michigan at Minnesota 1st Half (via umichfootball)
That's what happens when you overload one side of the line and you have a freshman quarterback slow to recognize that that guy is Jordan Kovacs and he is coming OH GOD RUN RUN FOR YOUR LIFE. Michigan didn't seem to generate that much organic pass rush on the day, but it didn't really matter against an offense like Minnesota's.
Other than five decent runs from Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams in the first quarter, Michigan put the clamps down on the Minnesota run game the rest of the way. Nelson ran it 12 times for a total of 41 yards and a long of nine. As you would expect, shutting down the ground game of a team that desperately needs to run the ball goes just about how Saturday went.
When Nelson was able to connect with his receivers, they were mostly plays of the harmless intermediate variety. Minnesota never really challenged Michigan deep, and J.T. Floyd was able to get in there and rack up a couple PBUs during what was a pretty solid day for him, two pass interference penalties on the same drive in the fourth quarter notwithstanding.
Of course, the same Big Ten-centric caveats apply: Minnesota, like Illinois, Purdue, and Michigan State, just isn't very good offensively. However, we only have these results to go by, and these results show that this Michigan defense is pretty good. We probably won't find out where on the spectrum of good this D actually falls until Ohio State/the bowl game (pending the opponent), but it's safe to say that this is a unit worthy of heaps and heaps of uninhibited praise. Just remember how things used to be, as recently as two years ago, and marvel at the transformation. If Chrysler were to make an Eminem-backed ad for the Michigan defense, I would nod along without even a hint of the snark and sarcasm that the Internet has made king.
The Special Teams
Not to put a damper on the festivities here, but this was far from Michigan's finest hour re: special teams. Jeremy Gallon mishandled another punt, and I have to wonder if we wouldn't be thinking about a change there if it wasn't so late in the season.
Minnesota KJ Maye returned a kick for 45 yards on the kickoff following Michigan's first score, but it was brought back 15 yards after a personal foul penalty. Conversely, just imagine a bunch of tumbleweeds taking the place here of what I would write about Michigan's return game in this one.
Will Hagerup, as mentioned, had what had to have been the roughest game of his career, one that featured multiple shanks that offered up tremendous field position for the Gophers. He booted three for a total of 88 yards and a long of 40, the other two being the aforementioned shanks.
Brendan Gibbons did not attempt a field goal, but he did knock an extra point off the upright following Toussaint's 41-yard score. Fortunately, Minnesota's Troy Stoudermire jumped offside, because of course he did. Gibbons got a mulligan and converted, finishing the day 5/5 on XPs.
- This week in "Jake Ryan Drinks Your Milkshake, He Drinks It Up!" After spending much of the first quarter getting cut to the ground by Minnesota blockers foolish enough to enrage Michigan's leading playmakerbacker (hey, if Merill Hoge can make up things like "factorbacks", why can't I?), Jake Ryan began checking off names on his weekly list titled "People Whose Milkshakes I Need To Steal." Ryan tallied 9 tackles, 3 for loss, on the day. Late in the third quarter, he blew up what was supposedly going to be a wide receiver screen by jumping out on the edge like a basketball defender jumping the passing lane or hard hedging a pick and roll. Nelson was forced to tuck it and run for a minimal gain, all the while lamenting the loss of what was going to be a probably delicious milkshake.
- Keith Heitzman. The redshirt freshman actually had a solid day. He made a nice TFL in the first half, and generally doesn't seem to be completely overwhelmed when he's out there. The value of these sorts of rotational depth guys cannot be overstated, especially as Michigan's offense has left the defense out there far longer than is ideal at times. Heitzman looks like he might be a player who can do some things for us and this great Michigan community that we have, next year and beyond.
- Red zone offense. It appears that Rawls is definitively the goal line back, which makes sense. Otherwise, Michigan's best option other than that seems to be the Devin Funchess fade. On 2nd & goal late in the first half, Gardner attempted to thread the needle to Funchess in the end zone. On 3rd & goal, Michigan motioned Funchess out wide, which basically screams THIS IS GOING TO BE A FADE. Unfortunately for defenses, there's not much you can do there other than hoping the defensive back somehow makes the play. Once again, the ball wasn't where it needed to be but Funchess did draw a pass interference penalty in the process (albeit a questionable one). So, there's your red zone offense: Funchess fades, Rawls smashing into the line, and Denard/Devin improv.
- RIP throwback screen? For the second week in a row, Michigan went to this trusty play only to see it get blown up by a team that was clearly ready for it. On Michigan's second TD drive, with 1st & 10 at the Minnesota 41, Gardner came out of his fake only to have a Gopher defender all up his in line of sight, leading to an errant throw at Gallon's feet. Even if the pass was completed, Minnesota's Derrick Wells was right there to make the play. I'm not going to be the one to do it, but maybe it's time for someone to start writing a eulogy for our old friend, the throwback screen.
- Notes! Here are your little rays of sunshine for the week. Thank you, MGoBlue "Notes." A couple worth singling out: Michigan is one of only two Big Ten teams to have not allowed an opponent to score on its opening drive (the other being Penn State) and Kenny Demens has notched double-digit tackles in back-to-back games. After a shaky start, Demens has quietly re-asserted himself as a key cog in Michigan's defensive machine. All the gold stars to you, Mr. Demens.