Who: 3-1 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Time: 3:30 ET (ABC/ESPN2)
Date: Saturday, Sept. 27
Place: Michigan Stadium--Ann Arbor, Mich.
Sometimes in life, you just have to grind.
You make the drive to work, the mountain of work ahead of you weighing on your mind like an anvil. It all feels improbable, even impossible--how can all of that be accomplished?
For the many of you out there who are in such a predicament on a daily basis, one eyeroll-worthy sports cliche is especially resonant here: you've got to take it one play at a time. One email at a time, one task at a time, one sketched out plan at a time. Anything more than that, and the brittle superstructure threatens to fall on top of you.
That's what Michigan has before it now: a slow trudge through the mud (luckily they don't play on real grass, so that is figurative). Through four games, it's clear that Michigan is not a good football team. The defense is enough to push Michigan to six wins -- a bare minimum expectation, I know -- but if the light turns on for the offense, Michigan could finish with as many as nine wins, if that light burns especially brightly. Of course, that is a best case scenario.
The odds of that happening? Probably not excellent. But, here I am, looking ahead against my own advice.
For now, all that matters is the Jug. Keep the Jug. Keep it.
When Michigan has the ball
On the bright side for Michigan, Ra'Shede Hageman is no longer around for the Gophs, and Brock Vereen is already logging snaps for the Chicago Bears in their admittedly injury-ravaged secondary. Through four non-conference games, Minnesota gave up 20.3 ppg against three cupcakes (E. Illinois, Middle Tennessee and San Jose State) and one non-cupcake (TCU). Somehow, TCU has only played two games thus far, so who knows how good they really are; however, they pasted the Gophers, 30-7.
Despite going just 2-for-12 on third down, the Horned Frogs racked up 427 total yards and 6.3 yards per carry in the process. Quarterback Trevone Boykin dinked and dunked his way to 258 yards passing on 46 attempts (just 5.6 yards per attempt), so the Gophs didn't give up any truly big plays. TCU's longest run and pass of the day went for 34 and 21 yards, respectively.
Down 24-0 at halftime, it was clear no help was coming from the Gophers offense (sound familiar?). I admittedly haven't had the chance to watch much of Minnesota this year beyond a few plays here and there from the TCU game, this appears to be another version of the 2013 team: solid defense with a decent ability to run the ball. Of course, part of that imperative to run stems from their crippling inability to pass, but that's for the next section.
All talk of the 2014 Minnesota defense must begin with defensive end Thieren Cockran. He had 7.5 sacks last year, but only has one to his name thus far; this might be the result of defenses being able to avoid him, with Minnesota seeming to lack another major playmaking presence.
In the middle, Cameron Botticelli (I feel like we've been hearing his name for 12 years now) will be paired with true freshman Steven Richardson, who is filling in for Scott Ekpe (who went down for the season in the opener). As we know well, youth on the lines is never a good thing, especially at a position in which technique is a critical aspect.
On the other side, DE Henrick Ekpe actually has a slight edge in sacks right now, with 1.5.
Middle linebacker Damien Wilson leads the way with 44 total tackles (3.0 for loss). With Hageman (and Ekpe) no longer around, Wilson has to clean up a lot of the mess; so far, it seems like the 6-foot-2, 239-pound senior has done a nice job.
One possible explanation for Minnesota not giving up the big play (focusing on TCU, specifically, given the competition level in their other three games)? The Gophs start four upper classmen in the secondary, including safety Cedric Thompson (who has a humbling story, in case you haven't read it). They have two interceptions among the four of them (one from corner Eric Murray and another from safety Antonio Johnson).
However, Minnesota has been excellent at forcing turnovers thus far (again, competition caveats etc. etc.). The Gophs currently rank second nationally in forced turnovers, with six fumble recoveries and seven interceptions. For a Michigan team that is more than happy to give its opponent the ball, this is not good news for the Wolverines. Paired with the fact that Miinnesota doesn't seem like a team that will give up a great number of big plays, and Michigan could very well struggle mightily again on offense.
When the U-M defense is on the field
The situation is a great deal rosier here. For all of Michigan's struggles, Minnesota's passing offense has been catastrophically poor. The Gophers currently rank 121st in passing offense. Starting quarterback/Belldozer-esque Mitch Leidner missed the San Jose State game with an injury; his status still appears to be unclear as of Wednesday night. If he doesn't go, 6-foot-2 freshman Chris Streveler will. In Minnesota's 24-7 victory last week, Streveler completed one pass (1-for-7), that coming about halfway through the fourth quarter.
Like Leidner, Streveler seems to be a run-first guy, almost more of a running game complement than a quarterback (which reads like an insult but is not my intention--after all, he's just a freshman). Given the state of the program and the fanbase, I'm not sure if Michigan Stadium is all that imposing of a place to play right now; nonetheless, Streveler is a freshman, so a couple of mistakes when he is forced to pass wouldn't be surprising.
At tailback, the hard-running senior David Cobb has rushed for 539 yards on 5.9 yards per carry (four touchdowns). He's a solid back who can grind out some yards (cliche cliche cliche, but it's true). Like Utah, Minnesota boasts a very large, experienced offensive line, with all five guys weighing in at 300+ pounds. The youngest guy in that starting five is tackle Ben Lauer, and he's a redshirt sophomore, so it's not like they're trotting out a freshman Mason Cole.
At the receiving spots, tight end Maxx Williams is an NFL prospect and by far the Gophers' most talented pass catcher. Unfortunately for the other U of M, he might not play this Saturday. Without him, Minnesota OC Matt Limegrover is basically going to be trying to get blood from a stone.
Wide receiver Donovahn Jones is the leader pass catching wideout, with six receptions for 92 yards, but was blanked against TCU, and was not the recipient of Streveler's lone completion against SJSU. Overall, however, outside receiving talent continues to be an issue for Minnesota, despite vast improvements in other phases of the game.
Do you like good old-fashion Big Ten rock rights? Well, don't look here, because this will basically be two teams throwing pebbles at each other for 3+ hours.
Kidding aside, if Williams doesn't go, this is an offense Michigan should pretty much throttle. Even if Williams goes and Leidner doesn't, I have a hard time seeing Streveler going out and beating Michigan. If Leidner and Williams both play, things could get a little interesting. Jake Butt vs. Williams would certainly be an entertaining matchup of big time sophomore tight ends. Man, I just finished typing out that last sentence and now I am sad.
In any case, this is a game that will hinge on, you guessed it, Devin Gardner not making critical mistakes. The Gophs don't have a fearsome pass rush (8 sacks on the season, tied for 62nd nationally), but they've been an opportunistic defense.
The sad thing, when Michigan was listed as a 7-point favorite, I thought: why? I don't really know that Michigan is even much better than a Minnesota team that completed one pass last week.
I just don't know anymore. If Michigan plays like it can, maybe the game goes something like last year. If Michigan comes out looking as lifeless as it did at times at its worst this season, they could very easily lose.
With that said, I just don't see Minnesota scoring much, which will give the offense a decent bit of breathing room; if the defense gets on the scoreboard, as it did last year, this should be of the "uncomfortably close but not really close" variety of wins.
Really, who knows with these guys?
Michigan 24, Minnesota, 10.