Game Five Preview: Michigan vs. Minnesota

Leon Halip

Michigan is back from its bye week for the start of the Big Ten season.

Michigan vs. Minnesota

3:30PM, ABC/ESPN2

Enemy Blog: The Daily Gopher

If ever there was a perfect time for a bye week, Michigan found it last weekend.  Two straight letdown games vs. teams that Michigan was expected to coast by easily left plenty of questions that the team needed to answer, and quickly.  The offense was capable of blowing up at any minute — in both the good and bad way — and special teams mistakes gave away a lot of points.  Devin Gardner no longer looked like one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten.  He hardly looked like one of the best quarterbacks in Ann Arbor's city limits at time.

Michigan didn't hit rock bottom, not even close.  The Wolverines are still undefeated at 4-0 and the rest of the Big Ten's member programs (outside of that one in Columbus) have looked varying levels of vulnerable over the first five weeks of the season.  Brady Hoke and his staff just got as well-timed a chance as any to head the team's problems off at the pass.  Saturday we see just how much you can do in two weeks.

When Michigan has the ball

I can say one thing for sure: it will either be really, really good or really, really bad.  That is how the offense has looked thus far this season.  In games against Central Michigan and Notre Dame the Michigan offense looked downright deadly.  A mix of zone runs (with varying levels of success), spread option football, and downfield passing.  Devin Gardner flashed every bit of athletic potential he has in the first two games.

Of course it didn't last.  The last two games featured a flurry of turnovers that ranged from bad luck to just bad decisions, the run game was continually stopped short, and Michigan's third-down conversion rate was hampered by the fact that third-and-nine or ten is a whole lot harder to pick up than third-and-three.

This is all a bit disingenuous, however.  The stark divide wasn't between games two and three.  It wasn't really even there.  All four games featured the same offensive line issues wherein Michigan struggled to move the ball on the ground because of missed assignments, unlucky playcalls, and plain old getting beat at the point of attack.  Michigan is currently 111th in TFLs allowed (8.0 per game).  Devin Gardner was still throwing ill advised interceptions and carrying the ball carelessly over the first two games.  Michigan was able to overcome these issues in the first two games because other things were working and bad luck and mistakes weren't able to snowball into more problems.  In the last two games the issues piled on too quickly and all the sudden panic set in.  Michigan had the same offense out there in all four games, and the wild swings in production show just how good and how far off this group is.

The big story is the change up front.  Michigan will look to solve its offensive line woes with a shift in personnel.  Chris Bryant will take over at left guard while Graham Glasgow will move down to center sending Jack Miller to the bench.  If you claim to know how this will work out, you're a liar.  There is hope to be had.  Michigan will be getting more size up front and Bryant has been praised in the past for his hitting ability.  However, Michigan has went to the zone stretch well many times, and this isn't something that is in Bryant's wheelhouse.  Issue one: Michigan is going to have to adjust what it looked like it primarily wanted to run the first month of the season.  Less outside zone, more Iso and inside zone.  Issue two: while Glasgow practiced at center on and off this last year, the coaches ultimately went with the more reliable Miller.  Can Glasgow make the calls and reliably snap the ball?  Issue three (which mitigates issue two): one of the reasons Michigan went with Miller is that Bryant has been chronically injured since he stepped on campus.  If he is slowed by injury or goes down, Michigan just spent the last week or two adjusting to something else that it will have to ditch.

The good news is that Michigan's run offense shouldn't be much worse, and looks to be a degree or two better depending on a few different factors.  Don't expect miracles — especially in the first game.

As for the pass game, this one all falls to Gardner.  He has enough proven weapons as he showed early in the season.  He has to cool down, go through his progressions, set his feet, and make the throws he can make.  If the bye week was used for nothing other than resetting Gardner's head, it will have been a success.

I don't want this to be a place where I pile on Minnesota's defense....but I'm about to pile on Minnesota's defense.  That might not be entirely fair, as Minnesota has held opponents to 131 yards rushing and 260 yards passing for just 20.6 points/game.  Although that is against the murderer's row of UNLV, NMSU, SJSU, Western Illinois, and Iowa.  I'm not exactly quaking in my boots.

Outlook

This is again on Michigan.  The Wolverines have the talent and firepower to move the ball and score on Minnesota.  Crippling turnovers, long third-downs, and a continued inability to run the ball for anything other than consistent losses will be the biggest impediments to Michigan scoring enough points to win.  Thankfully....

When Minnesota has the ball

The Gophers are scoring an average of 34 points per game.  This is despite having the 102nd most yards per game nationally at 343.  It is tough to get into the top 99 nationally when you can't pass to save your life.  Minnesota is averaging just 111 yards passing per game.  Yes, read that number again.  I double checked it before I wrote it down here because I didn't believe it either.  Gophers are bad, yo.

This has come with two quarterbacks getting time.  Philip Nelson is back after taking over late last season and looking like the heir apparent.  He hasn't proven to be that just yet and four interceptions to just two touchdowns have shortened his leash considerably.  Mitch Leidner has also played, stealing one start from Nelson that was partially because Nelson was banged up.  Neither of these guys looks to be a serious threat through the air, and Michigan has just dealt with four passing-spread teams with quarterbacks that range from pretty good to Chance Whitmer.  Minnesota's two headed monster is probably more Whitmer than anything, and he was 16/32 for 159 yards against Michigan.  If the safeties don't get lulled to sleep by the constant threat of run, Michigan should be fine here.

Up front, signs point to Michigan being able to slow the Gopher run offense considerably, but there is some uncertainty as this is a very different offense than what Michigan has seen so far this season.  Minnesota is averaging 231 yards per game and four players already have more than 40 attempts and 200 yards on the season.  Tailbacks David Cobb and Rodrick Williams Jr. lead the way with both quarterbacks in the 40car/200yard club.  Donnell Kirkwood, the main back from last year is still around.  He has 14 carries so far as an ankle injury has kept him sidelined.

Michigan has minimized the importance of the nose tackle position on defense in the first four games, but that won't be the case in this one as you can expect Quinton Washington and Ondre Pipkins to get a lot of time.  So far returns have been good on both of them, but games against run first teams with mediocre talent are where you want to see your team's NT set up camp a yard into the other team's backfield and invite two interior lineman over for an extended tea party.  If Michigan's NTs can do this, it will be time for the linebackers to finally get the kind of game in which they show their run support and down spend all day dropping into hook zones and snagging awesome one-handed interceptions.

Michigan has sacrificed size over the last few in an effort to attack passing spread offenses.  This one will feature more beef up front.  Jibreel Black will need to prove viable on the inside and Willie Henry gets his first taste at 3-tech of life against Manball.  I think the Heitzman/Wormley/Godin combo outside at 5-tech should be solid if a bit unspectacular.  Frank Clark will need to not continually bust on run plays.  This is a fairly new situation for everyone involved.

Outlook

I am confident that Michigan's defense can do what it needs to shut down Minnesota.  The Gophers don't present a lot of challenges or change ups.  The team will just line up and try to run over and over with a bunch of different heavy spread option runs.  Stay in gaps, occupy blockers on the line, and let the linebackers do what they do best.

Special Teams

Freshmen mistakes.  Outside of Wile — who seems to have started the process or getting his head right after a few hiccups — the biggest problems Michigan has had have been related to freshman doing freshman-y things and giving away yards because of penalties.  Gibbons is solid and Wile looks to have followed the teachings of zen-master Hoke.  Let's go young guys.  Heads up.

Other Stuff

Key Matchups:

- Don't feed Devin Gardner after midnight. Let's hope I can put away the Gremlin's references soon.

- More size = more production. The offensive line has shifted Chris Bryant into the lineup. This could benefit the run game if Michigan can use his size and skills while minimizing the mistakes and missed reads.

- Hold the middle. On defense Michigan needs its NT and 3-tech to setup shop on the inside, hold up to double teams, and let the linebackers flow to the ball without eating blocks.  If this happens, Minnesota will spend the day punting.

- Don't fall asleep. Minnesota isn't much of a passing team, but by committing so many resources to the run the Gophers could force Michigan to put eight or nine in the box regularly, and that opens up opportunities for big play action passes when the safeties and corners get too comfortable jumping into run support at the snap.

Alternate Programming: In the noon game there are a couple options.  FSU-Maryland looks to be the most competitive football game.  Michigan State and Iowa will also be playing a Cro-Magnon game that resembles football but is actually a bloodsport in which a team is judged on number of punts.  I wish I were joking.  The afternoon slot is all Michigan (of course),not much else worth watching for the casual observer.  The night slate is good with Oklahoma-TCU, Auburn-Ole Miss, and Florida-Arkansas kicking things off at 7pm.  Notre Dame takes on Arizona State in Jerryworld a half hour later, and OSU-Northwestern is the 8pm game.  If you have the juice to stay up (or live on the west coast you lucky bastard) you can flip over to ESPN for Stanford-Washington.  That's a nice bunch of night games.

Inanimate Object Threat Level: 4. Michigan is playing a poor offensive team with a heavy run-first mentality and a questionable defense.  I will still probably break something small and inexpensive when Devin Gardner throws the worst interception in history.  Let's hope the rest of his throws are more on target this game.

Final Thoughts: This is the Jug game, and as such it does carry a special meaning outside of being against a team that doesn't look to present a credible threat unless Michigan once again plays turnover-special-teams-roulette for 55 minutes of game action only to pull out of the nose dive at the end.

Really, this game is about as nice a post-bye-week test as Michigan can have.  Minnesota isn't explosive — preferring to ground a game out on the ground and avoid passing — and the defense's reputation looks to be propped up by the fact that Minnesota played a garbage platter the first four weeks.

If this game isn't a big bounceback for Michigan's offense and yet another feather in the cap of Greg Mattison, you can start to dial up the worry another notch or two.  Michigan just had an extra week to settle Devin Gardner down, reevaluate its approach to the offensive line, and get its defense ready for a more run-oriented Big Ten schedule.  Rust in the beginning is expected (two weeks off and all), but Michigan needs to take control of the game in the way it most certainly hasn't been able to the last two weeks.  I think it happens, but I also wouldn't put my money on that.

Michigan 34 - Minnesota 10

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