You can find Justin at Maize & Go Blue for more thoughts on this weekend's game and Michigan sports in general.
JDMill: I think most pundits had Michigan vying for a B1G championship in 2013, but I'd be curious what the expectations of the fanbase looked like? B1G Championship? National Title?
Justin Potts: Entering the season I don't think there was a Michigan fan that didn't expect this team to, at the very least, seriously contend for the Big Ten title. After the Notre Dame game, most Michigan fans felt like we were the team to beat. The last two games, however, coupled with Notre Dame's performance since then, have tempered those expectations dramatically. The Legends Division is certainly up for grabs at this point - we'll have a much better picture of Northwestern after this weekend - but Ohio State is standing in the way at season's end. I think, despite the two close calls against Akron and UConn, most Michigan fans would tell you they expect to win the Legends Division at least.
JD: The Wolverines are 4-0 but struggled mightily against the final two non-con foes. Michigan was down to both Akron & UConn in the 4th quarter of those respective games. What is the confidence level from the fanbase regarding this football team right now, and how does it compare to the expectations coming into the season?
JP: After the first one (Akron) we all wanted to write it off as a letdown game following the big, emotional win over Notre Dame. But then UConn happened. And then a bye week, and by now we've all had two weeks to try to rationalize what happened. The truth is that it's still a very young team and young teams sometimes struggle with the ups and downs of a season. Most Michigan fans realize this, but still hold out hope that eventually things will come together. There's plenty of talent on the team and when it all comes together there's not a team on the schedule Michigan shouldn't beat. The question is, when will that happen? And because that question remains as a result of the Akron and UConn games, most Michigan fans probably don't expect a Big Ten title at this point. But they do still expect Michigan to challenge for the Legends Division title and wouldn't be surprised to see the Wolverines in Indianapolis on Dec. 7.
JD: Michigan ranks in the bottom 3rd of the B1G this season in rushing offense, which seems a bit uncharacteristic for Michigan, and considering most of the competition the Wolverines have played. What gives?
JP: The best way to describe it right now is basically a running game struggling to find its identity. It's no secret that Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges want to run a power running game like the Michigan offenses of old. There was a big expectation that when Denard Robinson graduated it would be able to make the switch. The problem is we have a running back, Fitz Toussaint, and a young interior offensive line that are better at running zone plays. Even so, Borges has tried running power and it has mostly failed.
There is some hope that it will improve with an offensive line shakeup this week. Chris Bryant enters the lineup at left guard, sliding Graham Glasgow over to center to replace Jack Miller. Bryant has been heavily hyped since last season but has been battling injuries that kept him from being the starter at LG from day one. He's finally healthy enough to play and his big, athletic body next to Taylor Lewan should bolster the left side of the line. Miller was undersized at center and has not looked good all season while Glasgow has shown promise. As long as he's able to snap the ball to Gardner without any issues, the line should be instantly improved to where it would have been at the start of the season if Bryant had been healthy.
In addition, look for freshman Derrick Green to get some more carries going forward. He's the big, power runner Borges wants. He's not going to take the job from Toussaint, but will likely start to get some carries to take some of the weight off of Toussaint. There were high expectations for Green entering the season based on his five-star recruiting ranking, but he came in a little heavy. Now that he's had all of camp, plus five weeks to trim down and learn the offense, he's in line for a bigger role, and along with the improved line, Green could be a pretty effective boost to the running game.
It's also important to mention that Toussaint had a gruesome broken leg late in the season last year. Physically, he's fully recovered, but he said early on that the mental part was tough to get over. He may not be as good as he was in 2011, but he's only going to improve as the season goes on.
JD: It's safe to say that as far as trophy games go, the Little Brown Jug ranks 3rd among most Gopher fans (behind The Axe & Floyd) as far as importance. Michigan is certainly a game we want to win, but I think most fans would prefer to have wins over Wisconsin & Iowa any given season. How does the Michigan program, and Wolverine fans, view the Little Brown Jug?
JP: As far as most Michigan fans are concerned the Little Brown Jug is more of a cherished piece of Michigan football history than a rivalry trophy. Most Michigan fans weren't around back in the late 30s/early40s when the Gophers took it home nine straight times. Anyone under 25 has only seen Michigan lose it one time in their entire life and anyone under 45 has only seen it happen three times. It's something that Michigan expects to win every single time.
That being said, the game itself isn't something that ranks very highly among Michigan fans when compared to Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State. But only one of those - MSU - has a trophy involved and the Jug has a bit more history to it than Paul Bunyan does.
I mean, come on, it's college football's oldest rivalry trophy. The way it was formed by Michigan leaving their jug behind 110 years ago and Minnesota painting it and forcing them to win it back, and then the mysterious disappearance of it in the late 20s and the war of words between Oscar Munson and Fielding Yost...those are the things that make rivalry trophies special. So in other words, the Little Brown Jug is Michigan's most cherished rivalry trophy but the game itself is down the list.
JD: The Wolverines have been pretty stout against the run, giving up just 79 yards/game. The loss to Iowa notwithstanding, Minnesota's strength is supposed to be running the ball. Unstoppable force (again, forgetting that whole Iowa thing) meets immovable object. Do you think the Michigan run defense has an advantage over the Gophers run offense and why?
JP: I think Michigan's rush defense numbers are little bit misleading because they haven't really been tested on the ground. Michigan has really faced only one good offense so far this season and no good rushing offenses. If Brian Kelly had run the ball more, especially in the second half, Notre Dame may have beaten Michigan. Instead, he played right into Michigan's hands by throwing the ball 51 times. Akron threw the ball 49 times. Opponents are averaging less than 20 rush attempts per game, sacks and scrambles excluded.
I am interested to see how Greg Mattison approaches this game with two weeks to prepare. The past few weeks he has sat his safeties back and played loose coverage to avoid giving up the big play, keeping everything in front of them. He got more aggressive against UConn and will surely do the same this week, aiming to stop the run and force Minnesota to pass the ball. They might get beat over the top a couple times, but they won't get beat on the ground.
One thing Michigan has on defense is good, smart linebackers. They've made some mistakes in pass coverage this season but are solid at stopping the run, so that's where Michigan's advantage lies.
JD: Devin Gardner has been extraordinarily average through your non-conference schedule. He's averaging about 200 yards passing/game, is completing less than 60% of his passes (both numbers Gopher fans would take in a Minneapolis minute), and has more INT's (8) than TD passes (7). The interceptions are clearly a problem. What's going on with Gardner? Also, whatever you guys have been putting in the water to make him throw those interceptions, please let us know where we can buy it and the address where Gardner receives his mail.
JP: Ah yes, the curious case of Devin Gardner. He has all the tools to be a star and he showed that against Notre Dame. Unlike Denard, he can make every throw in the book, but we all have to remember that he has just nine career starts under his belt. He's still a work in progress when it comes to game management, maintaining solid mechanics week-in and week-out, and confidence. The main thing I have been impressed with while covering him the past few years is how smart and cerebral he is. He graduated from Michigan in three years and is very well spoken. All of that tells me that he's going to get it together, and when he does this offense will be hard to stop.
Hoke has said several times that Gardner's athleticism is a blessing and a curse. He can make plays most players can't, but it also leads to some of the mistakes he has made because he thinks he can make something out of nothing instead of just throwing it away. Gardner said this week that many of his mistakes were a result of poor mechanics and those things are correctable.
I also think confidence has a lot to do with it. He played nearly flawless against Notre Dame, but almost lost the game with one very big mistake in the fourth quarter. And he knew it. I can't help but think that stuck in his mind the next two games forcing him to try a little bit to hard to not make the mistake again, instead of just playing. Then when he threw a pick-six against Akron it was 'uh oh, here we go again'. The bye week came at the perfect time to allow him to clear his head, re-focus on mechanics, and stress not trying to play Superman.
Based on the comments I have seen from Minnesota players this week, they see blood in the water and are going to try to rattle him. But if the Gardner from weeks one and two returns, watch out.
JD: Speaking of Gardner, he has nearly as many rushing yards (301) as your leading rusher, Fitz Toussaint (320) and also has as many rushing TD's (5) as Toussaint. Is Gardner supposed to carry that much of the run game in this offense?
JP: No, he's not. He's currently on pace to finish fifth in Michigan history in quarterback carries. No one wants him to be Denard Robinson, but with the state of the running game as mentioned above, he was the best option to pick up yards on the ground the past couple games. But that's not what the coaches want, primarily because they can't afford to get him injured. He'll get a few designed runs per game and take off a few times when the play breaks down, but 15-20 carries per game is way too many.
That said, the rushing touchdowns will continue to happen because he's so dangerous with his legs inside the red zone. One of Borges' favorite plays down near the goal line is to line up in the I, fake the handoff and let Gardner beat everyone to the pylon. Opposing defenses will surely catch onto that, but the threat is there nonetheless.
JD: We've talked a bit about Gardner and Toussaint so far. From a receiving standpoint, Jeremy Gallon is Michigan's leading receiver and was especially effective against Notre Dame where he went for 184 yards and 3 TD's. What are some other names on Michigan's offense that Gopher fans should expect to hear in this game?
JP: Gallon is Gardner's favorite weapon, sometimes to a fault. The two have a great chemistry, and until other receivers step up Gardner will continue to rely on him. Tight end Devin Funchess is very good and will continue to be more involved in the offense. Jehu Chesson is a sophomore that didn't play at all last season. He's still trying to come into his own and has done well blocking downfield, but hasn't been a consistent go-to guy yet. He made a nice catch-and-run touchdown against Akron and Michigan fans hope to see more of that. Drew Dileo is a dependable slot guy...not big or fast, but knows how to find open spots and always catches the ball.
Right now, this is one of the big problems with the offense. Outside of Gallon, Michigan doesn't have any other game-breaking threats at receiver. Another sophomore, Amara Darboh, was really hyped in the offseason as the type of big receiver that can make plays downfield, but broke his foot in fall camp and is out for the season. That really set the position group back, and until Chesson can prove to be a downfield threat, opponents will be able to key on Gallon.
JD: Prediction time. Who ya got? How do they make it happen? What's the score?
JP: Everyone knows Michigan is better than the team that barely survived Akron and UConn. Whether or not they play like it remains to be seen. But coming off a bye week and with the Iowa tape to study, I have a feeling we're going to see the real Michigan show up. It won't be as dominating as the Central Michigan game, but won't be as close as the last two. The offense will be more in-sync, Gardner will be more confident, and the running game will be better. Like Mark Weisman did last week, Michigan will get a big game on the ground from Toussaint and Green. Defensively, Michigan will stop the run first and force the Gophers to try to beat them through the air. The'll give up a big play or two, but nothing backbreaking, and most importantly Gardner will play more under control.
Michigan 35 - Minnesota 13