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Michigan v. Minnesota Preview

September 30, 2011

 

   Quote That Most Represents This Game
    “The charts? Legit.
    Either work hard or you might as well quit.
    That’s word because you know..
   U can’t touch this.”

  — MC Hammer, song “U Can’t Touch This”

Names To Know

1. MarQueis Gray (QB #5) — The best athlete/player on the Minnesota roster…. and the guy who got benched in favor of true freshman Max Shortell in the fourth quarter when his team had the ball, down by 7, to North Dakota State with a couple minutes left in the game.  A four-star commit in the 2008 recruiting class for Minnesota, MarQueis was actually a potential Michigan QB target for awhile after Rich Rodriguez realized Terrelle Pryor was seriously bad news when he officially visited campus (that’s a story for another time…). Gray is bigger (6’4″ 230lbs) and slower version of Denard Robinson, leading the Gophers in rushing by more than double their top RB (351 yards to 164 yards).  And just like Denard, he’s struggling with his passing, completing only 50% of his attempts with as many interceptions as touchdowns (3).  The only way Minnesota can hope to stay in this game is on the back of Gray, but who knows how much the Minnesota coaches will keep putting Shortell in ahead of him since they’ve done it every game this year, even at critical moments. 

2. Duane Bennett/Donnell Kirkwood (RBs #22 and #20) —  After Gray, the two running backs who get the most touches are Bennett and Kirkwood who combine for 289 yards and 4 touchdowns.  Bennett has gotten two-thirds of the carries, but Kirkwood has had more success averaging almost 2 ypc more and getting three of the four touchdowns.  Both backs are power-type backs rather than home-run threats, and if Minnesota wants to keep the Michigan offense off the field, one or both of them should see a lot of carries.

3. Da’Jon McKnight (WR #6) — Just like Michigan, Minnesota has not had a lot of success throwing the ball this season, only recording five touchdowns in four games.  When the ball is in the air though, it seems to go to McKnight most frequently.  He is a bigger receiver listed at 6’3″ 215 pounds who has 19 catches for 260 yards and 1 touchdown this season.  He has a size advantage going up against all of Michigan’s secondary players, so he’ll be one to watch when Gray or Shortell drop back to pass.

Offensive Strength

Minnesota is a balanced team in terms of offensive statistics, averaging 179 yards per game in the air and 173 yards per game on the ground.  Those numbers are more a result of being sub-par at both though, rather than being skilled in all areas.  My opinion is that the strength of this team is the run game.  Their best drives have come when MarQueis Gray is making plays with his feet and getting the two running backs touches.  In order to keep it close against Michigan, the offense will need to chew clock and sustain drives, which means a focus on the run game to try to force single coverage and try to open up some big pass plays.  Their true strength might be something Michigan fans envy, which is having a kicker who’s hit 5/6 field goals from within 40 yards, though he is 0/2 from 40+. 

Offensive Weakness

 Michigan is 110th in the country in their pass offense and Minnesota is not much better, currently sitting at 97th.  Previous opponents Western Michigan, Notre Dame, and San Diego State are 42nd, 37th, and 69th in the country, respectively.  So outside of Eastern (117th) this is the worst passing team we’ve faced.  Michigan will need to stop the run to force Minnesota to pass in hopes of continuing to force turnovers.  Last week both Minnesota QBs threw interceptions that were returned for touchdowns by North Dakota State.  This could be a good week to rest Troy Woolfolk and his injured ankles/arm a bit and give more playing time to freshman Blake Countess. 

Defensive Strength

When a team is 1-3 and giving up almost 27 points per game, it’s hard to say anything on defense is a strength.  When you look a little deeper though, you see the run defense hasn’t been that bad through four games.  Minnesota hasn’t allowed more than 139 yards rushing to a team yet, and managed to hold USC to only 67 yards in week 1 and Miami (Ohio) to 80 yards in week 3.  The front seven for the Gophers is made up of 3 seniors, 3 juniors, and 1 redshirt freshman, so that experience might be helping them contain teams on the ground…..

Defensive Weakness

…….Or it could mean that they are really bad against the pass. While USC and Miami(OH) had small numbers on the ground, they both had over 300 yards in the air.  The combined starting quarterbacks for their opponents through four games are also completing over 67% of their passes, which would be like facing Andrew Luck, Kirk Cousins, Landry Jones, and Matt Barkley in four consecutive games.  Minnesota did play Matt Barkley in week 1, but the rest of the quarterbacks they faced are averaging close to 10% less on their completion percentage in the other games they’ve played this season.  There is a lot of experience in the secondary with four seniors, two juniors, and two sophomores in the 2-deep, but they just aren’t performing so far this season.  Another big factor in a successful pass defense, as Michigan fans know all too well from the last two years, is getting pressure on the quarterback.  Minnesota’s four starting defensive lineman only have 4 sacks, combined, in their careers, which is not a good stat with two seniors and a junior included. 

My Game Expectations

Last week, Michigan fans on the internet were getting worried for the game because of the teams San Diego State had beat this year.  This week, some Michigan fans are worrying themselves because of the teams Minnesota hasn’t beat this season.  Some fans are claiming Minnesota is much better than their record because the only lost at USC by 2 points and pointing out North Dakota State is this year’s Appalachian State of the FCS league scoring close to 50 points a game.  Some are also saying Michigan might be over-confident getting some national media praise and being ranked #19 in the country, and coming off an emotional victory over Coach Hoke’s former team could make them come out flat.  I’m one of the people in the other corner though, and believe our current spot at #19 on the charts is legit.  With a solid defense so far and Denard running, we’ve only had one close game out of three.  While we’ve won games against Western, Eastern, and SDSU by at least three touchdowns, Minnesota’s lost to New Mexico State by 7, North Dakota State by 13, and their only win came by 6 points at home to Miami (OH).  

I have no doubt the coaching staff will have this team working hard this week as opposed to slacking off after getting some praise.  Since Coach Hoke has taken over, he’s preached that winning the Big Ten is a goal every year, tradition is extremely important, and the biggest thing they want the team to show is mental and physical toughness.  This week’s game is the perfect way for the staff to instill all three of those things in this team.  They’ve already had a team meeting to learn about the history of the Little Brown Jug and how it’s the the oldest trophy in college football history.  It’s also the first game of the Big Ten schedule, as well as the first ever against another member of the Legends division.  And I’m sure they are keeping players focused by telling them that even though Minnesota appears to be down, if anyone on the team is OK being only the 3rd team since 1978 to hand the Jug over to the Gophers after they game, they might as well quit right now.

An interesting tidbit during the press conference this week with Coach Borges came when he talked briefly about some problems with the wide receivers running routes.  Denard has been very bad throwing the ball this year, and one common thing there is he’s picking the wrong receivers to throw to when the routes are slow to develop.  He looks for the home-run more frequently than the short route, which has caused some of the receivers to not execute the short routes as effectively.  The coaches are constantly tweaking the playbook, and this week is critical to establish a passing game before the meat of the Big Ten schedule begins.  I think we will see a change in the passing game this week with the receivers running shorter routes to give Denard less time to think about it and instead make the quick pass.  This will help get the receivers involved and open things up for the running backs.  Minnesota is probably the worst defense we will face the rest of the season, so if the passing game still struggles as much as it has the first four games, it’s going to be a big problem. 

Defensively, it’s the first time we will truly face a dual-threat quarterback this season.  Alex Gillett for Eastern was a running threat, but only attempted 5 passes, and Lindley, Carder, and Rees were not looking to scramble.  Going against Denard in practice all week should help the defense, but it will be interesting to see if Coach Mattison brings pressure with MarQueis Gray being capable of escaping and making big plays.  I think we will see a similar game plan to Notre Dame and Western Michigan where we see blitzes coming on obvious passing downs to force quick passes, and some zone defenses to make sure people are in position to contain Gray if he scrambles.  If Max Shortell comes in to replace Gray at all, the pressure dial will be turned to 11 to try to confuse the true freshman and force him into mistakes.  

With Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill back in the hospital this week after suffering another seizure, it’s hard to know how this team will come out.  Will they rally for their ailing coach and play inspired, redeeming themselves after losing for the second time in 3 years to North Dakota State?  Or will they come out flat after an embarrassing loss and uncertainty around what’s going on with their headman?  My guess is the latter, but I also think Michigan comes out a little flat trying to fix the passing game and struggling a bit with Gray escaping pressure and making plays.  When the game ends though, Michigan legend Jon Falk will again walk out of the stadium with the Little Brown Jug, hopefully telling Minnesota fans, “Sorry, but U can’t touch this.” 

Outcome: Michigan 31 Minnesota 17

-Mike Randazzo

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