Choppin’ It Up with Fringe Bowl Team
A couple of things happened during the USC game. First, the Trojans are an above average team but certainly not a powerhouse (by Sagarin predictor ratings, the Trojans are the 5th best team on the Gophers’ schedule). Second, and this may be most critical, the Trojans effectively “Kiffin’d” themselves by taking their foot off the gas in the second half and making a number of mistakes that kept the Gophers in the game, especially a botched snap on 4th down that Minnesota eventually recovered at the USC 30. The Trojans also built their entire game plan on stopping MarQueis Gray’s rushing ability, so when he left in the fourth quarter due to cramps and was replaced by a pocket passer in Max Shortell, USC was ill-prepared and called off the dogs a bit.
The subsequent New Mexico State and North Dakota State losses really came down to turnovers and other mental mistakes by the Gophers, which they simply can’t overcome due their overall talent level. Head coach Jerry Kill was correct after the Miami-Ohio win when he suggested his team needed to play hard and mistake-free football every week because they have little to no margin for error.
I see that Marquise Gray has been named the starting QB. Should Michigan fear the legs or the arm of Mr. Gray?
His legs, for sure. Gray is completing about 50% of his passes with an average of 6.77 yards per attempt, far below a comparable 8.7 YPA average from Denard. He’s still not entirely comfortable in the pocket, so on passing downs he often checks his primary read then scrambles if his man isn’t open — that is, when he isn’t getting sacked, since the offensive line is surrendering a sack for every 11 dropbacks. USC and NDSU made the decision to take away his designed running plays off zone reads and make Gray beat them through the air, something he was unable to do consistently. He also threw key interceptions against New Mexico State and the Bison which led to touchdowns for the opposition.
Who is Minny’s best offensive threat Michigan fans should keep their eye on?
I would say senior receiver Da’Jon McKnight but his attitude and play this season have been substandard. Aside from Gray, redshirt freshman Donnell Kirkwood has established himself over the last two games as our best running back, picking up 125 yards on 23 carries and 3 rushing TDs. I’d expect to see a lot of him and Duane Bennett running the ball, since the Wolverines have allowed two backs to go for over 100 yards in somewhat close games this season.
Who is the playmaker on D?
Uhhhhhh, well, things haven’t gone too well for the Gopher defense much of this season — most notably against the pass. The lone bright spots on defense are 6th-year senior Kim Royston (leading the B1G in tackles) and senior MLB Gary Tinsley. Troy Stoudermire is tied for the conference lead in interceptions and also has 3 PBUs, though he’s playing with a broken bone in his wrist that hampered him both in coverage and prevented him from returning kicks. Losing Troy on KOR’s really hurts Minnesota’s special teams because he’s the B1G’s all-time KOR yardage leader.
Speaking of the defense…how is Minny’s D? Michigan’s offense has been all Denard’s legs through 4 games. Might Denard get his passing game back on track?
In order of your questions: not very good and probably. The defensive line has managed only one sack all season (this was against OLs who gave up a total of 28 combined sacks through four games) after logging only 8 sacks in 2010. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has been forced to blitz more often then he’d like, leaving the secondary in the precarious position of defending receivers against QB’s with all day to throw. The Gophers are giving up 7.68 yards per attempt, which is a yard better per pass than last season but still not great by any stretch of the imagination.
Claeys will probably do what every team tries against Denard and stuff the box with defenders to take away his designed runs. This probably won’t work: despite the fact that the Gophers are fairly decent against the run (ranking 50th in yards per rush allowed), those numbers are skewed by playing two of the worst rushing offenses in the country (New Mexico State and Miami-OH). The defense did not do as good a job against the Bison, one of the best rushing attacks at the FCS level. This group of defenders have not faced a player with Denard’s speed before, so I’d expect Robinson to get his on the ground.
My guess is Claeys will try to force Denard into obvious passing situations where he’ll then try to confuse Denard by showing different coverages and zone blitzes. The problem is Michigan is incredibly successful on obvious passing downs, while the Gopher defense is bad under the same situations. So, expect a big game from Denard all around.
How does Coach Kill’s health impact the team? Will the mantra be “win it for coach”?
I don’t know often the players can use the “win for the coach” card as a motivating factor before mentally exhausting themselves. The coaches don’t want to say it but the players were devastated when Coach Kill seized on the field and the trauma from witnessing the event is something that won’t go away no matter how much the staff, doctors and Jerry explain the true severity of grand mal seizures (it looks worse than it actually is). They came out and played their best game the week following Kill’s seizure, though they fell flat on their face last week against the Bison.
There’s still a possibility Kill could make the trip to Ann Arbor this Saturday, though I have my doubts after he checked into the Mayo Clinic. On a human level, Jerry, his family and his team of doctors need to get full control over his disorder before he returns to the grind of coaching because this is a brutal and demanding profession. As such, the Gopher coaching staff will prepare this week much like they would any other: years of continuity is an advantage for the Minnesota staff, especially in situations like these.
Off topic – What happens in Columbus when the Spartans come to town? Or, could you care less? You know us Michigan fans keep a close eye.
Sparty has a balanced, good offense but they’ve really benefited from playing lousy defenses; the only team they’ve faced with a comparable defense to Ohio State’s was the Irish, who stymied MSU. On the flip side, the Buckeyes offense is lackluster with or without Braxton Miller at quarterback, though they’re better in the running game with Miller versus Bauserman. I see a relatively low scoring game, as both teams struggle to generate any offense. I think Ohio State wins it by a field goal.
How do you see this game playing out? Don’t shy away from a prediction…
This group of Gopher players have an incredible tendency to play up or down to the level of the opponent from week-to-week: they are 7-2 ATS as double digit road dogs since 2008, while going 0-7 ATS the spread as a 7 point or greater favorite over the same time. [For reference's sake, Glen Mason was 18-6 ATS as a 7+ point favorite from '01-'06 while going 1-7 ATS as a double digit road dog] To me, that’s the hallmark of a team that lacks mental toughness and the consistency needed to play every week. Until Jerry Kill and his staff change the losing culture of the team and land players matching the toughness and tenacity of their head coach, I’d expect this same type of outcome in nearly every game where the Gophers are big road underdogs and, conversely, touchdown or greater favorites. They will come in riding high on emotion, especially if Kill isn’t present to coach the team in AA, playing above their heads and keeping the score closer than it should be before ultimately falling short.
The only way I see Minnesota making this game interesting is if they force Denard into some early turnovers or grab a big special teams play in the first half that leads to quick and easy touchdowns. If they can build an early lead and the Wolverines stumble out of the gate a bit, I think the offense with MarQueis Gray can mix things up enough to keep them in the game until the fourth quarter. If, however, they make a number of mistakes on both sides of the ball like they did against NMSU and NDSU, this game will get ugly in a hurry.
I think Greg Mattison is going to do the same thing Monte Kiffin and NDSU’s defensive coordinator did, which is take away Gray’s ability to rush on designed QB runs, stuff the line of scrimmage and really come after him on passing downs. Backup QB Max Shortell will likely get 2-3 series in this game, which will test Michigan’s preparation against a pocket passer in the same game. Since Shortell and Gray really have the same effectiveness through the air despite the difference in style, I don’t expect either QB to stand out through the air unless we’re looking at a complete outlier game. I think Michigan wins in the neighborhood of 31-17, though they’ll probably have close to 500 yards of offense (Denard will have over 300 by himself).