We chat with Zach Travis of the SB Nation Michigan Wolverines blog Maize n Brew about the 93rd meeting between Minnesota and Michigan for the oldest rivalry trophy in college football, the Little Brown Jug. Zach will tell you about the status of QB Denard Robinson, what mesmerizes DC Greg Mattison, how Brady Hoke is doing in year two of definitely NOT rebuilding the program in Ann Arbor, whether Michigan will take home the Little Brown Jug for the sixth meeting in a row, and much more.
The Daily Gopher: Denard Robinson should suit up on Saturday, but how much will the arm injury effect his passing?
Maize n Brew: I don't think his injury is going to have a noticeable effect on his passing mostly because this seems to be a reoccurring thing that he has been struggling with for a while. If the coaches have faith in Robinson to start, I think he will be his normal passing self -- dangerous with a chance of horrific self destructions -- and given the offensive shift these past few weeks he should be able to put up 150 yards on somewhere between 15-20 throws; enough to pick up some third downs and take a little pressure off the run game. If Robinson can't go, things are going to get ugly.
TDG: Greg Mattison has done a helluva job in two seasons with a Michigan defense that was just awful under Greg Robinson and fan favorite RichRod (just kidding!). What has made Mattison and the D so successful?
Maize n Brew: Mattison's defense has been successful because he is a master of the little things. I've read stories about him giving talks at coaching clinics and getting mesmerized by a defensive lineman's footwork on the video screen. He is a stickler that demands players do the little things right, and by drilling these players in how to hold contain or attack the lineman's outside shoulder, or use hands to occupy blockers he sets his players up for success on an individual level. On top of that his schemes have been mostly excellent. He puts his players in good positions on each play and quickly corrects any problem on the sideline when they fail to execute. He has created a defense that works together almost like a complex organism. All the pieces execute and there are few breakdowns. Opposing run plays get bottled up for one or two yards and pass plays are well covered. He gets the most out of his players (evidenced by the stellar play of the defensive line this year after losing three starters from the 2011 team) and more often than not calls a defensive gameplan that is one step ahead of the defense. This is all night and day from Gerg Robinson who did all of this, except the exact opposite of it.
TDG: On the other hand the offense still isn't back to the Lloyd Carr Era of balance and efficiency. The running game has obviously been great with Shoelace at QB, but do you think the passing game will improve this season as long as he's healthy? Or is this just what a Michigan offense looks like with Robinson "running" the show?
Maize n Brew: I think the passing game is what it is at this point: a complimentary piece that works best as an outlet to take pressure off the run game and pick up intermediate gains underneath to keep the chains moving. Denard Robinson isn't a great passer, but he is capable of throwing great passes. He is just inconsistent. This year's receivers haven't been great either. If Michigan is forced to go to the air a lot you can imagine the game isn't going to work out too well. Michigan is probably two or three years away from having a fully functioning offense (the talent level is low and next year's offense is going to get a lot younger at some key spots). The future looks bright, but there are going to be some growing pains past just this year.
TDG: Minnesota has been rebuilding since 1967, but for Michigan and your fan base, this whole rebuilding thing is a new idea. How do you think Brady Hoke is doing in year two, and will he get you back to being a nationally elite program?
Maize n Brew: The funny thing is that Hoke got kind of upset when originally asked this question last year. He doesn't think Michigan is ever "rebuilding", (fergodsakes). To his credit he went out in his first season and won 10 games, a BCS bowl, and beat Ohio State for the first time in the better part of a decade.
That being said, you can only coach-speak around rebuilding so much, and this team definitely has some things it needs to do over the next few years. The biggest step has been reestablishing some sort of defense, which has continually defied Michigan fans' expectations. I think the process on offense is going to go slower. The offensive line is about to get really young (thanks to Rich Rodriguez's O-Line recruiting) and after Robinson there isn't much of an answer at quarterback. The skill positions are still largely "who-dat" types with some intriguing young guys already on campus or coming in next year. Michigan is rebuilding, but you'll never hear it from Hoke. He expects this team to compete for the Big Ten title every year. That is exactly the kind of thing Michigan fans want to hear. Whether they can live through the next couple lean years as the offense comes together is another story entirely.
TDG: The Little Brown Jug: does anybody in Ann Arbor care much about this trophy, or is it just one of those things that's taken out of the trophy case once a year, only to be put back a week later?
Maize n Brew: Despite the lopsided nature of the Michigan-Minnesota rivalry, the Little Brown Jug is a pretty big deal to Michigan and its fan base. There are few fan bases in the country that like to pat themselves on the back more than Michigan because of something that happened 100 years ago, and the Jug being the first rivalry game trophy is a really cool piece of college football history. Some Michigan fans may write it off because it is just Minnesota, but I tend to think those types are crazy.
TDG: What are Michigan's advantages Saturday, and how do you see the game playing out?
Maize n Brew: Michigan's advantages are two-fold. First, is the defense. Normally I would go right to Denard Robinson (about which, more later) because, duh. However, this season has been much more about the steady brilliance of this defense than anything the offense has done. This defense has completely buried two bottom-feeding Big Ten teams, kept Michigan in the game for its biggest win of the year (MSU), and given Michigan a chance to win two other games (Nebraska, Notre Dame) despite the offense falling apart in both. Outside of the Alabama game (lol) and Air Force game (option) this defense has been lights out all season. I think it is on the short list of best defenses in the conference with Michigan State and Penn State, and I don't see Minnesota gaining much more than 300 yards.
That might still be enough to get Michigan the win on its own, but it might not either. Michigan's second advantage is Denard Robinson, if he is healthy and effective. Minnesota fans know what he is capable of, and if Robinson is rolling in the run game that opens up doors for the rest of the team to get yards. Robinson is the alpha and omega of this offense, and if he is in the game and productive, this offense is hard to contain. If he is gone, it's anyone's guess if the offense can score enough to help the defense out.
I think Robinson gets going early on the ground and Fitz Toussaint finally has a bit of a good game on the ground. Meanwhile, the defense stifles Minnesota's offense for most of the first three quarters allowing Michigan to build a decent lead that holds up as the Gophers put up 7-10 points in the fourth quarter. Michigan escapes with a 27-14 win.