This week the Rival Blogger Q&A goes BEASTMODE, which is a term I hate, but "epic" is already too played out and I'm not creative enough this week to come up with something better (thank you quarter-end, insomnia and Gopher-induced IBS). Oh well, I don't need to impress you people.
This week we've got three heavyweights in the Michigan blogger universe.
Tyler Fenwick writes for The Big House Report and can be found on Twitter at @ty_fenwick. Jeffrick answered some questions for Tyler, so keep an eye out for those soon later today
On to the madness...
From the outside looking in, Michigan is an absolute dumpster fire right now. Poor play on the field. Embarrassing promotions off the field. A coach that seems oblivious to it all. I mean it's college football theater at its absolute finest. What is going on with this team? Is Brady Hoke just a complete failure as a coach, or is there more to the story?
Drew Hallett: We must have different definitions of the word "finest" because I have not enjoyed this "college football theater" of which you speak.
After 2008, during which Michigan went 3-9 and had its worst season in about a half-century, the consensus among fans was that this would never happen again because the Wolverines would be back on their feet in no time. Yet, just six years later, Michigan is 4-8 in its last 12 games with wins against only Indiana, Northwestern, Appalachian State, and Miami (OH). That's it. And now the Wolverines are staring down another season in which a .500 record and bowl game in a bad Big Ten no longer look like a guarantee. This is where the prestigious Michigan football program currently stands in the fourth year of the Brady Hoke era. Fun times.
However, I would not say that Brady Hoke is a complete failure as a coach. He has recruited at an exceptional level. His 2012 and 2013 classes were considered by 247 Sports to be one of the nation's six best in their respective years, and his 2014 class likely would have been the same if not restricted to a limited number of available scholarships. Although recruiting rankings are not gospel by any means, it's safe to say that Hoke has brought a bunch of talent to Ann Arbor. And he, with the assistance of defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, has used this talent to transform Michigan's defense into a top unit. The season prior to Hoke and Mattison's arrival, the Wolverines finished 110th in total defense and 101st in yards allowed per play. Now? It's a top-20 defense year in and year out.
The problem, though, and it's obviously a gigantic one given the current state of affairs, is that Hoke and his staff have no idea how to assemble a functional offense. The first sign was when ex-offensive coordinator Al Borges put dual-threat extraordinaire Denard Robinson under center. It worsened when Borges scrapped the use of base and constraint plays -- or, in other words, a cohesive offensive scheme -- just to use a mixed bag of plays that did not mesh instead. This, in addition to starting seven different interior linemen and five different combinations up front last year, stunted the growth and development of Michigan's young, inexperienced offensive linemen. This, of course, led to Devin Gardner being bruised and battered endlessly last season, which I now believe may have broken him mentally beyond repair. Add in numerous turnovers and a commitment to having one of the slowest tempos in the nation, and it's just an utter mess. I believe that new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier can get the train back on the tracks eventually, but, at the moment, the offense is wrecked.
Then throw in special teams gaffes, like having only 10 men on the field when Utah returned a punt for a touchdown last week, and Michigan's inability to win road games against respectable opponents under Hoke, and fans have just become tired of the mistakes and, most importantly, the mediocrity. So it's not a surprise that Hoke will be coaching for his job in these next eight Big Ten games.
And I'm not even going to get into the off-the-field shenanigans with the athletic department because you do not want me ranting here for another 2,000 words. All I will say is that, when you look at everything as a whole, this could be close to rock bottom for Michigan football.
Tyler Fenwick: Everyone likes to jump to the conclusion that everything is on Brady Hoke, but I think there's a lot more to the story. First of all, I don't believe Hoke is failure of a coach; he isn't the best, and Michigan could do better, but he is not a failure, and there are faults within the program right now that are simply not his fault. When it comes to embarrassment off the field, I confidently point my finger to athletic director Dave Brandon, who is in a neck-and-neck race with Hoke as the most hated man in Ann Arbor. Especially after Tuesday's fiasco in which you receive two free tickets to this weekend's game with the purchase of two Coca-Cola products at the University of Michigan's student union, I sincerely hope Brandon's days as athletic director are numbered. As for the on-field performance of the team, everyone can share blame, at least on offense. The coaching staff isn't developing players the way it should, key sill-position players are becoming unreliable, and there's an incredibly uneasy fan base watching it all unfold on Saturdays.
Justin Potts: From a Michigan fan perspective, it's embarrassing to hear how others view the program at the moment. These last seven years -- with the exception of 2011 -- have been unprecedented for us Michigan fans we don't really know how to handle it except to keep demanding new coaches until one of them wins right away and keeps on winning.
The fact of the matter is -- most Michigan fans don't want to accept it (they just want to win now) and most from the outside don't realize -- that the make-up of the team when Hoke came in was bad for Hoke. It's not that there weren't good players; there were some. It's that Rich Rodriguez had spent three years overhauling the roster to his preferred style and then Hoke was brought in to transform it back. That can't happen overnight. Hoke was able to win in Year 1 because he had a solid nucleus of seniors that were actually Lloyd Carr recruits. But while Rodriguez's classes had some talented players -- he did bring us Denard Robinson, one of the most beloved players in recent memory -- the classes weren't highly rated and saw a lot of attrition.
His last full class in 2010, which should have formed the backbone of last year's and this year's team -- the juniors and seniors -- saw 20 of 27 commits leave early. Four graduated last year, leaving only three -- Devin Gardner, Jake Ryan, and punter Will Hagerup -- remaining. The 2011 class, for which Hoke had two weeks to fill out when he was hired, only 10 of 19 commits remain. Combined, that's just 17 of 46 would-be upperclassmen still on the roster. As a result, 78 of the 105 players on the roster are freshmen and sophomores. And people wonder why the team struggles with consistency, turnovers, and winning on the road.
It's not a popular opinion right now, but I truly believe that Hoke is building a championship-caliber team. The results don't show it right now, but it's coming. He's recruiting well enough and retaining his recruits -- only one recruit in his first three full classes has left -- that as the team grows up it will start winning. That could happen as this season goes on, but more likely next season. Yes, it sucks to keep saying "next year" but we have to be honest with ourselves just how big of a rebuilding job this was and give it enough time to happen. Whether Hoke is actually afforded another year is in question at this point, but it looks like he will be making at least one change this weekend that could help his chances. Which brings me to...
What is going on with Devin Gardner? When Michigan has played real defenses he's been... well, bad. 0 TD's, 5 INT's and he's not even getting it done on the ground. What gives?
JP: The mystery of Devin Gardner is one that we all would like to solve. We know that at times he can be a very, very good quarterback. But at times he can also be a very, very bad quarterback. Unfortunately, this season has been more of the latter. He has the talent to make every throw there is and he showed that against Notre Dame and Ohio State last year. But he also has a tendency to revert to poor technique and bad decision making, which leads to turnovers.
The popular theory going around right now is that Gardner is "broken", whether it be physically or mentally. He's a fantastic guy; he graduated in three years, does a lot of good off the field, is very well spoken, etc, but on the field, something is off. Maybe it's the fact that he's on his third offensive coordinator in five years, maybe he's really playing with an undisclosed injury, maybe he's just shell-shocked from the beating he has taken in the past year, maybe he's simply trying too hard and putting too much pressure on himself, who knows.
But come Saturday, it looks like we're going to see sophomore Shane Morris get a chance to show what he can do. He started the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl last December when Gardner was out with a broken foot that he suffered against Ohio State and has played spot duty otherwise. Yes, he has been even more turnover-prone than Gardner in his limited action, but Hoke's only chance of surviving past this season is likely to hope Morris can provide a spark to the offense and get the team trending upward heading into next season. If that happens, Hoke can make a solid case for another year.
TF: Anyone who has the answer to the question I'm sure would be welcomed to join the coaching staff as a consultant for underachieving players. We've seen Devin Gardner dominate teams-Indiana and Ohio State last season, for example. But we've also seen the same No. 98 look silly against other opponents-Notre Dame and Utah this season, for example. It all comes down to production when facing these larger opponents who can field a competent defense, and Gardner simply hasn't delivered.
That has naturally led to a quarterback competition at Michigan after four games, which is just awful to think about. You have a fifth-year senior battling for his life now against a true sophomore in Shane Morris. Typically, competition is a good thing, but not when it's happening in the middle of the season. So as far as we know right now, at least as I'm writing this, no one outside the Michigan locker room knows who's going to be starting at quarterback this weekend, and that's scary.
DH: I admit that I have been one of Devin Gardner's staunchest supporters. In the preseason, there were some Michigan fans clamoring for Shane Morris to start at quarterback from the outset, and it was bewildering. How could you seriously advocate benching a player that not only was going to be a fifth-year senior but also just turned in one of the best statistical seasons ever by a Michigan quarterback behind arguably the worst offensive line in program history? It made no sense. Some then pointed to Gardner's win-loss record as a starter -- 10-7 in 2012 and 2013 -- as reason why he was not a Michigan-caliber quarterback. But they failed to realize that there are 21 other starters that contribute to the outcome and Michigan was losing games in spite of Gardner's performance, not because of it. I firmly believed that Gardner gave Michigan the best odds to win each week.
Now, I'm not so sure.
After Gardner's performance versus Utah, which definitely was his worst this season and maybe the worst of his career, there's a strong possibility that he may be mentally broken beyond repair. We're calling it the David Carr Syndrome. What's that? It's when a good quarterback regresses significantly after taking hit after hit after hit. And Gardner took a ton of hits last season to the point where his ribs turned into mush. And now it seems like Gardner expects to be hit each time he drops back to pass, which has exacerbated his issues with decision-making and footwork. He rarely goes through his progressions, generally making only his first read before his eyes come down to locate the pass rush, and demonstrates sloppy footwork, sometimes throwing a jump pass when there's no pressure for reasons that are beyond me. It's clear he's unsure of himself and not comfortable in Doug Nussmeier's new offensive scheme, which, for the record, has not called many designed quarterback runs or taken advantage of Gardner's mobility. Gardner is a shell of his former self, and, unfortunately for Michigan, it appears that may not change this season.
But it may not matter because, although Brady Hoke will not announce Michigan's starting quarterback until game time, signs point to Morris earning his second career start this weekend. And Morris may be even more turnover-prone than Gardner. So wheeeeeeeeee!
If there's a bright spot it appears that it has been the Michigan defense, giving up just 261 yards/game and less than 21 points. However, like Minnesota, most of that prevention of production has been racked up playing cupcakes. How good is this Michigan defense and where is the real strength?
JP: The talk all offseason was about the aggressiveness the defense would play with compared to the last couple years. The past two years, the corners played soft coverage and the defense was basically a bend but don't break defense as guys gained experience. In the offseason, Hoke shuffled the defensive position coaches, moving coordinator Greg Mattison to coach linebackers, moving linebackers coach Mark Smith to defensive line, and splitting the secondary duties between Curt Mallory, who previously coached them all, and Roy Manning. They also moved the best linebacker, Jake Ryan, to middle linebacker in order to get their best player in the middle of the field and keep opposing offenses from being able to take him out of plays.
All of that has combined to make this year's defense a good one, and while it's still not at the level of Michigan State's, it's getting there. The main issue right now is injuries. Three of the Week 1 starters -- linebacker Desmond Morgan, corner Raymon Taylor, and safety Jarrod Wilson -- are currently out with injuries. Taylor and Wilson may be back this week. Linebacker is a very deep position group, but Taylor and Wilson's injuries have forced Mattison to go young in the secondary. Sophomore Jourdan Lewis and true freshman Jabrill Peppers saw the most action at corner last week and held up very well.
Regardless, this Michigan defense hasn't allowed an opponent to break 300 yards of offense yet this season. It has been put in tough situations all year thanks to offensive turnovers and has held up well. The one knock on it is the lack of turnovers forced. Michigan has recorded just two interceptions and hasn't forced a fumble through four games. That will have to improve as the season goes on.
DH: This Michigan defense is very good and on the verge of becoming pretty great. I disagree with your assertion that most of Michigan's defensive production has been at the expense of cupcakes. The Wolverines have not allowed any offense they have faced, including Notre Dame and Utah, to register more than 286 total yards or 4.47 yards per play. Against an explosive Utah offense last week, they held the Utes to only one offensive touchdown, four plays of 20-plus yards, forced a three-and-out on half of the Utes' drives, and registered a defensive touchdown of their own. The only real defensive breakdown Michigan has had thus far this season was its Cover 1 Nickel press coverage against the Fighting Irish, which potential Heisman contender Everett Golson tore apart. Otherwise, Michigan has demonstrated that it should have one of the best defenses in the Big Ten, if not the nation, this season.
The strength of Michigan's defense undoubtedly is the front seven, which is the reason why Michigan has the eighth-best rushing defense in the nation and is allowing opponents to run for only 2.51 yards per carry. The Wolverines finally have talented depth along the defensive line, which allows them to frequently rotate players and keep them fresh. You probably know the names Frank Clark and Willie Henry, but keep an eye on starting defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow. He is a walk-on by name but has graded out very well in all four games this season. He's not one that makes highlight-worthy plays, but he executes his assignments and opens things up for the linebackers. Speaking of which, Jake Ryan seems finally to be adjusting to his new position of middle linebacker, which is bad news for the rest of the Big Ten.
I also must mention that cornerback Jourdan Lewis is really coming into his own, but, if there's an area of the defense that can be exploited, it's the secondary, especially with Jarrod Wilson -- Michigan's only proven safety -- having sat out the past two games with an injury.
TF: I'm confident in saying Michigan's defense will continue to find success, even as it heads into the meat of the schedule. I think we all had a good amount of confidence in the defensive line, but there were still a few question mark in the back seven. So far, I think those questions are being answered nicely. You'll notice on Saturday that Michigan's secondary is going to be more aggressive than in recent past, and it's working well, especially when you have corners who can wrap up and tackle and not allow receivers to make that first move and get into open field.
Guys like Jabrill Peppers, Jourdan Lewis, Raymon Taylor-they're playing really sound football right now. We've only seen one team work the ball through the air successfully this season, and that was a game against Notre Dame in which Michigan was depleted because of injuries. Michigan's defense is the real deal, and I haven't even mentioned linebacker Jake Ryan. This is just a solid unit, and I expect that success to continue the rest of the season.
I don't know if you've heard, but the Gophers can run the ball. Minnesota is averaging 236 yards/game on the ground. But if you look at it on a game by game basis, when the Gophers played a Power 5 defense in TCU, and were playing from behind, they couldn't muster 100 yards on the ground. What are your expectations for Michigan's defense in slowing down the Gopher run game?
JP: It's fairly obvious, but Mattison is going to load the box to stop the run and force the quarterback to beat them through the air. Michigan's defense has held three of four opponents under 100 yards rushing, and while it will be a challenge to do so on Saturday, that will be the goal. I could see a couple of big plays in the passing game for Minnesota simply because Michigan will sell out against the run, but I don't see the Gophers coming anywhere close to their season average on the ground.
DH: Oh, I have heard. There are few teams that have a commitment to the run like Minnesota. I'm still somewhat in shock that the Gophers completed only one pass against San Jose State last week and still won. That is just ridiculous.
Anywho, as aforementioned, Michigan's strength defensively is against the run, so I think the Wolverines will be able to do a more-than-decent job of stopping Minnesota's ground game. I know running the football is what the Gophers do best, but I feel like there will be little room for David Cobb and company in the backfield. The question, though, is how Michigan handles Minnesota's power. The Wolverines have limited each of their past three opponents to fewer than 2.2 yards per carry, but those offensive styles are vastly different than Minnesota's. Notre Dame and Miami (OH) have spread-to-pass offenses, while Utah has a spread-to-run offense. Although the Gophers have no problem spreading it out with three wide receivers and running read-option, I wonder if Michigan's front seven can remain stout when Minnesota bunches up the formation. Also, the matchup between Zac Epping and Willie Henry/Ryan Glasgow will be fun to watch.
TF: I don't want to put a number to it, but I will say I think Michigan is going to force Minnesota to go through the air. The Wolverines' front is so stout; running backs aren't finding success on the ground, and it's in thanks to anchors across the line. Frank Clark, Brennan Beyer and Willie Henry have all played exceptionally well. Then you move back to the linebackers. Jake Ryan and Joe Bolden have stood out among the rest, but it's an incredibly deep unit that's very capable of disrupting the run. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is methodical in his use of linebackers, and it works perfectly.
So combine a stout defensive line with linebackers who are capable of making plays in the backfield and it's going to be difficult for teams to move the ball on the ground. Michigan's run defense is probably the brightest spot on this team right now, so I find it hard to believe Minnesota is going to be able to find much success on the ground this Saturday.
Tell us a little bit about how Michigan fans view the battle for The Little Brown Jug. Is this an important trophy to Michigan fans, or just one that they've grown to expect will be in the trophy case year after year?
JP: I do think we kind of take it for granted. I mean, anyone younger than 50 hasn't even been alive to see Minnesota keep the jug for back-to-back years and anyone under 27 has only seen the Gophers take it home once in their lifetime. That said, we do view it as an important game and an important rivalry trophy because of its history and uniqueness. The only other rivalry trophy Michigan plays for is the Paul Bunyan Trophy, and I think that will mean much more to get back whenever that happens because we're not used to it residing in East Lansing where it has been for five of the past six years. The jug is much more taken for granted, but I love it and hope to one day have a replica of my own.
DH: Minnesota will never be Michigan's biggest rival, and there are some Michigan fans that take The Little Brown Jug for granted and expect it in the trophy case each year because the Wolverines have won 39 of the past 42 meetings. But this is still The Little Brown Jug we are talking about here! It's only the best, most historic trophy in all of college football -- screw the Territorial Cup. This is still a very important trophy to Michigan, and I promise you that there will be a great deal of Wolverine fans that will be quite upset if The Little Brown Jug does not remain at home in Ann Arbor after this Saturday.
TF: The battle for The Little Brown Jug is definitely not at the top of the list for Michigan fans. I'd venture to say it's one of those things that fans often forget about until a week or two before the game, and part of it does have to do with Michigan's dominance for the last 25-plus years. But there's another side of the story that doesn't have anything to do with this game. Fans are infinitely more interested in rivalries with Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State because of the emphasis that has been put on Hoke's record against those schools, so Minnesota naturally gets pushed back to the shadows.
Prediction time. Who wins? How do they make it happen? What is the final score?
JP: You mentioned in your answer to one of my questions that Michigan quarterbacks tend to have career days against Minnesota. I mean, Nick Sheridan looked like an all-conference quarterback against Minnesota during the 3-9 season in 2008. Could this set up to be Shane Morris' coming out party? After all, three of the four teams Minnesota has played have thrown for over 250 yards against them. Michigan, meanwhile, hasn't thrown for 250 yards yet this season and has topped 200 yards just once. But I don't see that happening. I see a heavy focus on the running game to try to keep Morris from making too many mistakes.
Michigan will get a close but not too close for comfort win. The defense will hold Minnesota's running game in check and Michigan's offense will be conservative but efficient.
Michigan 24 - Minnesota 13
DH: Michigan's offense may be in the toilet and everything off the field may be a total circus, but the Wolverines still win on Saturday
because their defense matches up so well with Minnesota's offense. The Gophers need their ground game to get going if they want to be victorious, but they will be running into the teeth of the Michigan defense. I just do not see Minnesota finding that success running the football, which will put the Gophers in a precarious position given the lack of any type of aerial threat. Minnesota will struggle to put points on the scoreboard, and Michigan's offense will do just enough to get the win in what should be an ugly, low-scoring contest -- also known as a typical Big Ten affair.
Michigan 20, Minnesota 10
TF: I hate to say it, but I don't think Michigan finds its groove this week. Minnesota will win only need a few successful drives in order to put away Michigan, which is exactly what happened last week against Utah. So I'll take Minnesota, 17-10.