Each week we scout Michigan's opponent. We’ll start with the basics, and then explore some relevant match-ups. For those that want to know more, we’ll sprinkle in a mixture of history, reflection, and philosophy for a comprehensive look.
Michigan (5-3) (3-1) vs. Minnesota (5-3) (1-3)
(L) Alabama (in Dallas Tx) 41-14
(W) Air Force 31-25
(W) UMASS 63-13
(L) at Notre Dame 13-6
(W) at Purdue 44-13
(W) Illinois 45-0
(W) Michigan State 12-10
(L) at Nebraska 23-9
(W) at UNLV 30-27
(W) New Hampshire 44-7
(W) Western Michigan 28-23
(W) Syracuse 17-10
(L) at Iowa 31-13
(L) Northwestern 21-13
(L) at Wisconsin 38-13
(W) Purdue 44-28
Minnesota Players to Watch:
WR MarQueis Gray (Sr. #5) Former dual-threat QB switched positions three weeks ago.
QB Philip Nelson (Fr. #9) Making his 3rd start; first Gopher to win the Big Ten’s Freshman Player o/t Week
RB Donnell Kirkwood (So. #20) Had a career high 134 yards last week; season: 76 ypg, three touchdowns.
WR A.J. Barker (Jr. #82) Former walk-on with 30 catches, 577 yards, seven touchdowns.
CB Michael Carter (Sr. #6) Tied a school record with 6 passes-broken up last week; 13 on the year.
What a win means for Michigan: The Brown Jug remains in Ann Arbor; Michigan becomes bowl eligible;
What a win means for Minnesota: The Brown Jug returns for the first time since 2005; Minnesota’s first home win vs. Michigan since 1977, two stadiums ago; would become bowl eligible; would win two straight conference games for the first time since 2010
What Minnesota Brags About: The home of Bronko Nagurski; seven national championships; six NFL Hall of Fame members; they beat Alabama (2004, pre-Nick Saban, post- Bear Bryant); you can buy beer there.
That’s right. You can buy beer at TCF Stadium and they’re proud of it. Alcohol sales at the new stadium have probably been their biggest off-field story, and the headlines have lasted a few years. For 27 seasons between 1982 and 2008, fans have been enjoying suds at the Metrodome, an off campus site that’s also the home to the Vikings and Twins. They found themselves alcohol dependent when the games moved back to campus in 2009 and the battle has been brewing ever since.
First seen as a way to boost suite and club room sales for a sub .500 football team for the past 50 years, the state legislature intervened and demanded that beer and wine must be available for everyone at the game instead of just for the financially elite. The University balked and for the next few years the two sides battled and compromised over what, how much and where alcohol could be served. News coverage was equivalent to a new bridge to Windsor and certainly bigger than the football team itself. Slogans like “Beer for one, beer for all” were created as if the issue was on par with the nation’s Bill of Rights.
Approved for the 2012 and 2013 football seasons, you can get a 16 oz. beer for $7.25 at the Beer Garden at the West Plaza through halftime. Actual sales have doubled their expectations. Perhaps now that they can drink, the University can pay for their 300 million dollar stadium, and the fans may now be able to better tolerate the play on the field.
Starting wide receiver A.J. Barker (Jr. #82) rolled his ankle during last week’s game. He didn’t practice through Thursday and is doubtful.
Starting left tackle Ed Olson (Jr. #58) has missed the last two games with an ankle injury. He didn’t practice Tuesday.
Starting defensive end D.L. Wilhite (Sr. #95) is listed as questionable by the Gophers twitter account. He leads the team with 6.5 sacks.
Starting safety Derrick Wells (So. #13) (leg) is listed as questionable by the Gophers twitter account.
Starting linebacker Mike Rallis (Sr. #26) also has an ankle injury. He missed practice through Tuesday but is expected to play.
The Last Time They Met
What’s a bigger black eye? Being shutout or giving up 58?
It was a clinic and it was historic. Michigan dominated Minnesota 58-0 in Ann Arbor to open up conference play. It was the first Big Ten shutout for the Wolverines since beating Penn State 21-0 in 2001. It was also Michigan’s largest margin of victory over the Golden Gophers in 98 meetings.
Vincent Smith became the fifth Big Ten player in 16 years to rush, receive and throw a touchdown. The Wolverines scored on their first six possessions and led 38-0 at half. Minnesota, who played without versatile quarterback MarQueis Gray (Sr. #5), was held to 177 yards of total offense. They had more penalty yards than rushing yards.
"It was just embarrassing to our program and to our state," Troy Stoudermire (Sr. # 2) said. "We're looking for a little revenge this year.”
Their Season So Far
The Golden Gophers started the season with an unblemished non-conference and a 4-0 record for the first time since 2008. Gray injured his ankle in week three and missed the next two games against Syracuse and Iowa. Gray returned for the Northwestern game, playing both quarterback and receiver but barely made it past halftime before having to leave the game. It has derailed what appeared to be a promising senior season for the former four star dual-threat recruit.
In a surprise move, head coach Jerry Kill decided to permanently move Gray back to receiver to finish his collegiate career and go with a decorated freshman at quarterback, Philip Nelson (#9). Nelson’s accolades are a bit subjective. A three-star QB according to Scout and others, Tom Lemming ranked him the 2nd best pro-style quarterback and was named the best player in Minnesota by several publications. At Wisconsin, Nelson became the 3rd different quarterback to start for the Golden Gophers.
Most fans expected an improvement from last year’s 3-9 record and they’ve got it. Five wins was the preseason outlook, so if they win again they’ll surpass most everyone’s expectations.
At the same time the Michigan offense has raised some serious doubts the Wolverines future in 2012, Minnesota hasn’t been more confident after beating Purdue 44-28. Seen initially as raising the white flag and preparing for 2013, Nelson was very impressive in the first half throwing three touchdowns from 34, 38, and 63 yards. A 33 yard pass to Gray set up Minnesota’s only rushing touchdown.
Purdue with its strong defensive front and playmaking corners appeared to have a perfect formula to blitz the true freshman quarterback making his 2nd career start. It seemed elementary if not a fundamental strategy middle-school aged kids would understand, but pressuring Nelson like Nebraska blitzed Bellomy would be the Boliermaker’s undoing.
Minnesota’s patchwork offensive line held up. Purdue predictably played tight on the receivers and the Gophers got free on double-moves, in particular, the slant and go for open looks. Nelson wasn’t afraid to put it up and he hit his receivers in stride even when he didn’t have to.
"We bit on a post-corner and they made a huge play out of it, said Purdue Head coach Danny Hope. “Next thing you know, we were far behind."
By halftime Minnesota was up 34-7 and Nelson was 15-17 for 246 yards. Gopher cornerback Michael Carter’s (Sr. #6) interception for a touchdown in the opening minute of the 2nd half allowed the Gophers to take it easy the rest of the way. Carter’s pick-six was the first for Minnesota since 2008.
Gophers head coach Jerry Kill acknowledged after the game it was the best they played all year.
The Minnesota Offense vs. Michigan’s Defense
There’s some hesitancy into hyping a freshman quarterback, who Minnesota planned to redshirt and talk about him as a threat to the Michigan defense. However, if you didn’t know anything about Nelson, prior to watching his game last weekend, you’d think Minnesota and Purdue switched jerseys and that Nelson was an upperclassman and not a true freshman.
Nelson had very few easy throws, but he hit receivers in stride in tight coverage. Nelson put it in places that wouldn’t get him intercepted, and he stood in the pocket releasing the ball and taking a hit. He made it look easy. I haven’t seen a single Penn State game this season with Matt McGloin, but in just the one game alone, Nelson looked as good as any pro-style quarterback in the Big Ten (notice the qualifiers).
Nelson is also rushing 52 yards per game and is a threat to run with it.
“He’ll take off and run as much as anybody,” says Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. “I think they really like him and I can see why. He’s a spark. He’s a real spark to their offense and looks to me like he’s a tough kid and a good football player.”
The offensive line has a different starting line-up since week three. Only the right tackle has played every game, but the rest of the line has been juggled. One player, Zac Eppling (So. #52) has started two games at right guard, two at left guard and four at center. The left guard and center positions have seen three different starters and only two players are expected to play Saturday that started in the season opener.
Michigan’s defensive line has done as well as fans have expected, but not the coaches. The staff again this week, pointed out that Michigan’s sack totals are 11th in the conference and that only five have come from the line.
Barker, the team’s leading receiver may not play in this game. He had 135 yards and two touchdowns on five catches. Barker is fourth in the Big Ten with 577 yards. He has three 100 yard receiving games this weekend, so it’s important for them to have him out there. Barker is expected to test his injured ankle for the first time on Friday.
Gray will be the top threat if Barker can’t play. Anything you can say about Devin Gardner (Jr. #12) can be said about Gray except Gray had experience playing receiver as a sophomore. So he can leap and he can run and looks gifted doing it. After two games at receiver he has eight catches for 89 yards.
Leading rusher Donnell Kirkwood (So. #20) is averaging 76 yards per game but his carries could increase now that Gray, a rushing threat is exclusively at receiver.
Realistically, this is a battle Michigan should win. The defense should be able to hold the new look Gophers under 20 points. Yes, the linebackers are the Wolverines strongest position group right now and the D-Line should win the battle in the trenches. The secondary will have learned from the Purdue tape what not to do, but Michigan fans shouldn’t take for granted that Minnesota’s offense will be totally shutdown. The Wolverines are #1 in pass defense (145 ypg), yet Michigan State had some opportunities for some plays deep, but they couldn’t connect. Minnesota somehow ranks 2nd in the Big Ten in passing efficiency (143).
"I think it's the toughest defense we've seen to this point in time,” Coach Kill said. That's not to disrespect anybody. It's just the truth.”
The Minnesota Defense vs. the Michigan Offense
Minnesota won’t be giving up 58 points this year against the Wolverines like they did in Ann Arbor a year ago. Purdue and Illinois can keep Indiana company as defensive sieves in the conference. Most defensive stats have Minnesota in the middle of the conference. The defense has improved by 11 pts per game compared to the first eight games last year.
It’s ironic because Minnesota’s two best defensive players from last year exhausted their eligibility. (*On a sad note, one of them, linebacker Gary Tinsley died this past year, and it would be insensitive not to mention that if I’m going to mention what is lost from 2011). The Gophers had to replace both their defensive tackles and last year had a conference low four interceptions. This year they’ve already doubled that with eight.
Wells has eight pass break-ups. Carter had six pass breakups last week tying the school record. The team has 40 passes defended. Michigan has just 14 as a comparison.
The Wolverines are 1st in pass defense, but the Gophers are #2 at (160 ypg), but that’s primarily due to teams running on them. Minnesota yields 178 ypg, 10th in the conference.
Ra’Shede Haggeman (Jr. #99) has four sacks to go along with Wilhite’s 6.5.
There have been only five missed starts on defense this year, but injuries may be evening things out. Two defensive starters, Wilhite and Wells are questionable while Rallis will play but won’t be 100%.
Michigan has its own issues on offense. You have to expect that Michigan will score touchdowns again, but many will be holding their breath every time Denard Robinson (Sr. #16) carries the football, gets tackled or even when he falls down. Without him, the Wolverines will have difficulties scoring touchdowns let alone getting first downs. This isn’t based entirely on the Nebraska game. The Wolverines have had difficulties moving the ball when Robinson had to take some series off in other games this year.
While the team is finding out whether Gardner can become the #2 or #3 QB by taking the majority of the reps this week in practice, he’s missing time and reps at receiver. It’s necessary compromise in order to be prepared in case Denard were to go down again. Offensive coordinator Al Borges is preparing for anything.
“Denard’s going to play, but again you don’t know because of the injury, so we kind of have to prepare for any eventuality and we’re going to kind of compete for the backup if you will and see how that goes and go from there.”
Whoever would have to step-in at quarterback will need some cooperation from his receivers and the running game. Coaches this week have spoken about needing to run better, to stop dropping passes and improve in the red zone.
It’s not “now or never” but it’s been eight games and the Wolverines are looking for someone else to contribute significantly to the offense. Doing so by committee isn’t horrible, but Michigan’s offense was at its best in 2011 when Fitzgerald Toussaint (Jr. #28) emerged in the 2nd half of the season.
There’s a reason Stoudermire is about to set the NCAA record for kickoff return yardage. It sort of an indicator how good your defense is.
ENJOY THE GAME! THANKS FOR READING!!