Friday, October 4, 2013

Breaking Points: Little Brown Jug/Homecoming Edition

After spending the bye week focusing on the rest of the Big Ten (and simultaneously trying not to think about the Akron and UConn games), Michigan will returns to the Big House this Saturday for its Big Ten opener (and Homecoming).

The Gophers, on the other hand, ran through their weak nonconference schedule with ease, only to drop its own conference opener against Iowa last week in disappointing fashion. In the 23-7 loss at TCF Bank Stadium, the Gophers rushed for just 30 yards on 27 carries (40 yards on 18 if you remove QB Philip Nelson's numbers). For a Minnesota squad without much serious receiving talent, if you shut down the ground game, you're in business. After the Gophers ran a pass-heavy spread-type offense for some time, a return to this sort of ground-based football seems appropriate to me.

So, what will be the key matchups heading into this one, as the Wolverines look to cover what seems to be a generous 19-point spread? Once again, the same things will likely continue to pop up all season:

Chris Bryant vs. jumping into the starting lineup. This will be Bryant's first meaningful game action, which would be encouraging under ordinary circumstances. As it stands, Bryant is getting the start out of necessity, what with Jack Miller struggling at center, forcing a Graham Glasgow move to that spot so Bryant can slide in at left guard. How Glasgow adapts to the center position is another story entirely, but, at minimum, Bryant should bring quite a bit more run-blocking oomph at the guard spot (and it's not as if Glasgow was particularly bad at LG anyway). Assuming Bryant is truly healthy and ready to play, if he can give Michigan a boost this week, perhaps the Michigan ground game will start to trend upward at just the right time.

Michigan front seven vs. Minnesota ground game. Simply put, whether it's Philip Nelson or Mitch Leidner in the game, this will be a classic Big Ten "stop the run" game, written without a hint of snark. It's difficult to get a feel for what Leidner can really do in the passing game, given that he's only played against Western Illinois and San Jose State (12-for-20, 176 yards, 60%, 0 TDs, 0 INTs). Nelson, on the other hand, has struggled, completing just 50.8% of his passes and throwing four interceptions to just two touchdowns. For all of the consternation about the UConn game, the Wolverine defense actually held the Huskies passing game in check (Chandler Whitmer passed for just 5.0 yards per attempt); Greg Mattison's side of the ball will need another performance like that if the Wolverines plan on its first comfortable victory since the Central Michigan game.

At tailback, Donnell Kirkwood has been limited by an ankle injury since the opener, and carried the ball just three times for six yards against Iowa. Kirkwood had a decent 2012 season; if healthy, he could be a challenge, but not unless the quarterbacks offer any sort of relief. If Kirkwood can't go, Rodrick Williams Jr. (5.8 YPC) and David Cobb (5.8 YPC) will carry the mail. Cobb is 5'11 225, whereas Williams Jr. is 5'11 235. In short, expect several Desmond Morgan thumpacolypses.

Lastly, whether Nelson or Leidner (or both) enter the game, both will carry the ball quite a bit themselves. In five games, the two signal carries have carried it 42 and 46 times, respectively.

Devin Gardner vs. mistakes. This will continue to be a point of concern for the rest of the season. Without entering the discourse of what his confidence level must be like after Akron and UConn (and even the Notre Dame pick six if you'd like to include that), Gardner must have a clean, relatively mistake-free game. Despite having explosive DT Ra'Shede Hageman, the Gophers are just 108th in sacks, with six in five games. Gardner will have time, but time has often been Gardner's enemy. As spectacular as Gardner's touchdown strike to Drew Dileo was last season against Minnesota, I'll take some conservative dinking and dunking before any wild, desultory scrambling. At the same time, that is who Gardner is as a quarterback, and asking him not to improvise is like trying to bottle up the wind.

Iowa's Jake Rudock went 15-for-25 for 218 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Quite honestly, this would be an encouraging line for Gardner, especially if he connects on a big play or two like Rudock did.

Hageman vs. non-Lewan offensive linemen. Hageman is a defensive tackle but is a type who will probably do some moving around on the line. With that said, I wouldn't be surprised to see him lined up on the edges, although I'd bet not against Lewan. So, whether it's Schofield, Kalis, Glasgow or Bryant, if Michigan is going to avoid another parade of 2-yard losses, they must account for Hageman's quickness. He hasn't had an especially dominant season to date, with only one sack to his name, but he is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss (5.5). Given the smack talk that has gone on this week, Hageman will be looking to prove himself and up his stock against a name brand like Michigan (if you're into that line of thinking). I usually dismiss that sort of thing, but, after all, these players are people, not automatons derived from meticulous calculus.

Jehu Chesson vs. incorporation into the offense. There is a minor undercard of a story for this week, but Chesson's incremental incorporation into the swing of things should hopefully take another step forward this Saturday. With all due respect to Jeremy Jackson and Joe Reynolds, Michigan is much better served with Chesson on the field. He took a leap forward in that department against UConn, but wasn't quite able to make those plays downfield. The Gophers gave up a couple of big plays against Iowa, including a 74-yarder to Damond Powell. This Saturday will be another opportunity to build up some trust with the coaches--he's already proven himself as a surprisingly effective blocker--as the Wolverines start to approach the challenging part of the schedule.

Other than that, Michigan is a better football team, and the Iowa game last week shed light on the weaknesses of this Minnesota squad. If Philip Nelson is tearing Michigan up through the air--and I feel like I've said this thirty times this season already--then run for cover.

Minnesota's only somewhat productive receiver is the 6'2'' 187-pound senior Derrick Engel, and even he has just 12 grabs thus far (160 yards, 1 touchdown). Assuming Michigan locks down on him like they should, I don't know where the receiving production will come from for Minnesota.

Roll your eyes if you must, but if Michigan runs the ball with any success and stops the run, then they do have a pretty good chance to cover that spread. On the heels of the Gophers' 16-point loss at home against Iowa, maybe I'm being a bit pessimistic, but I need to see Michigan put it together for a whole game against an overmatched opponent before I can start to breathe easy again.

It's a bit strange to think that Gardner's debut came against Minnesota last season, and that a year later against that same team, there are more questions than answers regarding his play. Saturday will provide the first of many opportunities to beat back the ghosts of Akron and UConn.

I think Michigan looks much better than it did against either of those teams, but isn't quite what it was against Notre Dame. Score: Michigan 31, Minnesota 13. 

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