Before each Minnesota football game, GopherDigest will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we spoke with Michigan beat writer Brice Marich, journalist of Michigan's Scout.com site (Ann Arbor, Michigan) to preview the Gophers' Week 9 home game against the 5-2 Michigan Wolverines.
1) Michigan is 5-2 to start the season and ranked #15 in the country, what's been the biggest difference under Harbaugh and what have you learned about this team through the first seven games?
BM: The biggest difference I have seen is the physicality and aggressiveness of this team. Just like former Wolverine legendary head coach Bo Schembechler, Head Coach Jim Harbaugh wants to run the ball, control the time of possession and play great defense. This team is doing just that and has been in position to win every game this season and it shows sitting as the highest ranked two-loss team in the nation.
2) Opponents are only averaging 9.3 points per game against this Wolverine defense, what makes this defense so stout and who are a few guys to keep an eye on for Saturday?
BM: Michigan’s defense last season was pretty good, but those players have grown up and lots of experience under their belt too. Each unit has been outstanding starting with the defensive line that features a possible future NFL talent in defensive tackle Willie Henry. He has been very disruptive and a run stopper up the middle. The linebackers have the most experience with seniors at all positions from Joe Bolden, James Ross and Desmond Morgan. Lastly, the secondary has received probably the most praise and rightfully so. Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers are two fan static defenders that will most likely be playing on Sundays as well. Each level of this defense is playing at a high level and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has them believing they can be the best defense in the country and it is showing too.
3) How has the offense looked under Iowa transfer quarterback Jake Rudock his season and what are your thoughts on his play so far?
BM: Michigan looks to be 50/50 on offense, but they clearly want to establish the line of scrimmage and run the ball first. It frees up the play action and who Coach Harbaugh really likes to get involved, which are the tight ends. Although Rudock doesn’t have the biggest arm or greatest legs, he has been a game manager and someone who targets everyone. Rudock has targeted 18 different targets this season, but his main target being senior wide receiver Amara Darboh, who has 28 receptions for 332 yards and two touchdowns. Since the Utah game, where he threw 3 interceptions including a pick-six, he has only thrown 3 more interceptions in the last six games. His numbers won’t wow you and neither will his physical attributes, but he does know how to win and has provided the best chance for this team to win each week and has done a pretty good job at that.
4) Coming off a devastating last second loss to rival Michigan State before the bye, what's the vibe around this team right now heading into Minneapolis this weekend?
BM: Right now, the team is using this past Michigan State game as a learning one and while it was very disappointing, have moved on and understand the goal ahead, which is Minnesota. They will be definitely motivated as Coach Harbaugh mentioned in his Monday presser that they got whipped last year and will once again be a tough challenge. The Wolverines focus will be on the Gophers and won’t be reliving that Spartan game any longer.
5) What are the keys for the Wolverines if they're going to beat the Gophers on the road and what's your prediction for the Michigan vs. Minnesota game and why?
BM: The keys for a Wolverine win in my opinion will come down to three things. The first is they need to shut down the Gophers’ rushing attack and make quarterback Mitch Leidner beat them with his arm. With the departure of David Cobb to the NFL, Leidner’s role in this offense has already went up having thrown 211 attempts compared to only 237 pass attempts last season. They always look to make an offense one-dimensional and will continue to try and execute that. The next key for the Wolverines is get that running game going again. Two weeks ago, they struggled rushing against Michigan State, but Coach Harbaugh said the offensive line didn’t regress and those were very hard fought yards. That will be important to chew up the clock and take less weight off Rudock’s shoulders. Lastly, Michigan must get off to a fast start. They can’t afford to get down on the road early and let the crowd get into it.
With the recent news of Jerry Kill, I think the Gophers will play more inspired and get out to that early lead, but the Wolverines will settle down and pull away in the second half.
Prediction: Michigan over Minnesota 24-13 and reclaim the Little Brown Jug