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 (4-0) vs. Minnesota (1-3)
(W) Western MI 34-10
(W) Notre Dame 35-31
(W) Eastern MI 31-3
(W) San Diego State 28-7
(L) at USC 19-17
(L) New Mexico State 28-21
(W) Miami (OH) 29-23
(L) North Dakota State 37-24
Minnesota Players to Watch:
The non-conference season tune-ups are over and it’s time for Big 10 play. Maybe that’s not the case for Michigan? Without a doubt the Wolverines have already played two tougher opponents and it can be argued that this game ranks 4th on the degree of difficulty. The Golden Gophers won’t contend for the Big Ten title and won’t contend for the Legends Division title either. They’ll just continue to contend with Indiana as the team furthest away from a title by almost trying to one-up one another with embarrassing games or astonishing setbacks.
Once again, most of the offseason discussion follows the yearly debate of selling alcohol at the games to non-suite holders inside TCF Bank Stadium (For a short time it was a focal point during the legislative budget debates in April). The athletic department needs the estimated two-to-three million dollars in revenue and it’s no secret that they’re looking for reasons to fill their new modern stadium that can’t sell out. Looks like that idea of having a seating capacity of less than 51,000 (10th in the Big 10) wasn’t so bad after all.
However, all kidding aside for a moment. The news and status of head coach Jerry Kill is very sobering. Kill will be coaching on the sidelines in Ann Arbor this week, just days after many believed he was taking a leave of absence in an attempt to control debilitating seizures he’s endured since 2001.
Golden Gopher fans and a television audience became witnesses to Kill’s collapse late in the New Mexico State game, September 10th. Kill would come back to coach the following week and guide Minnesota to their first win of the season, and was on the sideline this past week against North Dakota State, but admitted that he’s had at least 20 more seizures in the six days that followed the New Mexico State game.
It wasn’t his first in-game seizure. In 2005, as Head Coach of Southern Illinois, Kill was taken by ambulance from the field to the hospital, where he eventually was diagnosed with cancer. After surgery, the cancer went into remission, but the seizures continued and so did Kill on the sidelines.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys was asked to take over Sunday for Kill. It wasn’t the first time. It’s the fourth time Claeys has been asked to fill-in during the past ten seasons. Each time, Kill showed up at the stadium that same week. Claeys may have been the only one who thought Kill would return this Saturday.
"I just said I expect him to be there," Claeys said almost defiantly Monday to a group of reporters. "We've done this every time, even when he was gone last time... I'll be shocked if he's not there, okay?"
Two days later Kill returned to conduct practice.
"I have a complicated issue. It's not something I'm going to die from, but it's complicated right now," Kill said after conducting practice Wednesday.
Kill has decided to tackle another problem, his football team.
This Year’s Team
The team surprised everyone in their opener by being a few first downs short of attempting a late field goal that could have beaten USC. Kill has a reputation for turning around teams but no one expected that it could come so soon. Since then, the road to glory, redemption, and or promise has been dealt with steady body blows.
Since the beginning of the 2008 season, New Mexico State has won six games and the win over the Gophers in Week 2 gave them their first win over a BCS school since 1999. Last week’s game marked the 2nd time in five years that Minnesota has lost to North Dakota State and the third time in five years they’ve lost to a directional school from the Dakotas (University of South Dakota in 2010). The Bison had two defensive touchdowns and sacked Minnesota quarterbacks five times. The two defensive scores came from Marcus Williams, a former Twin Cities prep cornerback never recruited by the Gophers.
Minnesota Offense vs. Michigan Defense
If Minnesota has a marquee player, than that player may not see the field. MarQueis Gray (Jr. #5) is being listed as a game-time decision by Kill as of Thursday night. It was revealed Wednesday that he has an ankle and toe injury that is hampering his greatest asset, his feet. Compared by some as being similar to Denard Robinson (Jr. #16), Coach Brady Hoke believes it’s more accurate to say he’s like Terrelle Pryor because he’s 6’4” and 240 lbs. He’s big, strong and elusive.
Just like at Michigan, Gray has as many carries and more yards than all of the running backs combined. Gray is averaging 81 ypg, but he would be averaging more than 100 if he could learn not to take a sack. Since he’s passing just 50.6% and has as many interceptions (3) as he has touchdowns (3), Gray has been splitting time with Max Shortell (Fr. #11).
Gray and Shortell have rotated in and out quite a bit, even to the point of where Kill was rotating both within the same series. Shortell was the QB that nearly led the Gophers to a comeback victory against USC, but his efficiency rating is just a couple of points higher than Grays (114.5 vs. 112.5). The translation is that both aren’t very effective, but until this week, Gray had an advantage that he could run for first downs. Even if Gray can go, Saturday, expect Shortell to play even more.
Ironically, Hoke recruited Gray, an Indianapolis native, when Hoke was at Ball State. Hoke recruited Shortell when Hoke was at SDSU.
So it would appear the burden may fall on the running backs. Duane Bennett (Sr. #22) has started each game, but is averaging only 41 yards and has just a single touchdown. The guy who has gotten the more ink lately is Donnell Kirkwood (RS FR. #20) who made his season debut two weeks ago. In just two games, Kirkwood’s three touchdowns lead the team. Don’t expect much here.
Receiver Da’Jon McKnight (Sr. #6) leads the team in receiving but the absence of solid quarterback play has limited him to just one touchdown. Last season he scored ten times. He had a career best 146 yards against New Mexico State, but that means he’s averaging less than 40 ypg in the other three games. Tight End Eric Lair (Sr. #85) may be their big play weapon. He has only six catches, but averages more than 31 yds per completion. Freshman Marcus Jones (#15), who has seven catches for 101 yards is still suffering from a concussion and is questionable for the game.
The offensive line has three fifth year seniors, but they could continue to be confidence builders for a maligned Michigan defensive front. Hoke challenged his front seven last week before the San Diego State game and the Wolverines clearly responded. They contained an All-Conference caliber running back and despite getting only one sack, Michigan’s D-Line rattled SDSU’s four-year starting quarterback into errant throws.
“Sacking the quarterback isn’t what measures your pass rush, it’s harassing him and getting to him right when he throws,” says Michigan offensive coordinator Greg Mattison. We haven’t had enough of that where we’re hitting him right when he throws, and we’ve addressed that.”
So it would seem. Michigan’s defense has been a bit of an eye opener. They’ve given up a lot of yards, but are yielding only 10 pts in their last two games. The Wolverines scoring defense ranks 13th in the nation.
If the defense continues their improvement into the next week, Minnesota doesn’t have enough weapons to seriously threaten the Wolverines for the third straight game.
Michigan Offense vs. Minnesota Defense
Therefore, it’s not too late for Michigan to build depth through experience. There’s still time for Devin Gardner (So. #7) to get some on-field practice. The running backs can still audition for more carries the rest of the season. This game should provide that potential.
Starting cornerback Troy Stoudermire (Sr. #11) is out for Saturday. He’s been playing with a broken arm and Kill admitted Wednesday that the injury affected his play last week and continues to bother him. Stoudermire leads the team with two interceptions and is the Big Ten’s career leading kickoff returner.
Teams have been racking up touchdowns and yards against Minnesota through the air. Of the 13 touchdowns the defense has given up, eight have been by the pass. Four of those have come from over 25 yards. Without their best corner, Robinson has a shot of making a couple of long strike touchdowns. He likes to throw long, but he has to throw on target and his receivers have to be running crisper routes. Michigan coaches are letting it being known this week that the passing game struggles aren’t’ strictly Robinson’s fault.
“I’ve got to get him some better throws,” says Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges. “I’ve got to put him in position to complete some more balls so he can gain some confidence and gain some rhythm and get in a little bit of a zone. He’s a capable passer, but as a play caller, we have to consider everything we’re calling with regard to the passing game.”
Minnesota’s defensive front hasn’t done a good job of putting pressure on the quarterback. The team had nine sacks a year ago, which was the lowest in all of the FBS. This season, they’ve tallied just one sack, again the lowest in the FBS, and it was done by a true freshman. The Gophers are starting two freshmen at their defensive ends. With Michigan having Taylor Lewan (So. #77) on one side and potentially Kevin Koger (Sr. #86) on the other, the Wolverines should be able to dictate their rushing attack on the outsides.
Expect the Wolverines to try to do a little more with the passing game to get it on track. Defenses are already creeping up on the line of scrimmage daring Robinson to throw long to beat them. If they are unsuccessful in making the Gophers pay, defenses will continue to stack it up front.
Most Likely Wolverine to Have a Career Game: Fitzgerald Toussaint
Hoke said last week that Smith would start, but instead he went with Toussaint. He had 13 carries for 67 yards to lead Michigan backs not named Robinson. Speaking of #16, he’ll probably have the most impressive numbers again, but he won’t have a career game this week. He’s off the list by default. Robinson has done so much already in his career. If he were to top it, he’d have to do so in a win against a big-time opponent (Hint: Minnesota isn’t one of them) or put up over 500 yards of total offense. Robinson won’t achieve that number because mercifully, they’ll rest Denard and give Gardner some reps.
Most Likely Golden Gopher You’ll Remember After the Game is Over: Coach Jerry Kill
A coach is never intended to be the answer here, but with a team devoid of stars who make little impact, Kill’s ordeal and subsequent perseverance is what we’ll remember about the Golden Gophers for years to come. Not convinced? Who do you remember more from 1992-96, Omar Douglass, Cory Sauter, Tutu Atwell or Coach Jim Wacker?
ENJOY THE GAME! THANKS FOR READING!!