We all know that the Michigan Wolverines have a rabid football fan base. Due to this, there are a multitude of outlets for Michigan related analysis. For the first time this year, we had multiple websites contact us regarding a Q&A, so in this week's edition, we'll have multiple answers for each question The Daily Gopher poses. A big thank you to Drew Hallett, editor at SBNation blog Maize 'n Brew, and to Tyler Fenwick, an editor at GBMWolverine.com (part of the SI blog network), for answering our questions in anticipation of the Battle for the Little Brown Jug.
***Please note, a vast majority of this interaction took place before Jerry Kill announced his immediate retirement***
For my Q&A with Maize 'n Brew, click here.
For my Q&A with GBMWolverine.com, click here.
TDG: College football can be a cruel mistress. The Michigan Wolverines were riding a massive amount of momentum heading into the in-state battle against the Michigan State Spartans. Well, in order to spare you from the gruesome details... let's just say the Maize and Blue came out on the wrong side of the coin flip that is often a college football rivalry game between two talented squads. Do you think the bye week will help the Wolverine's performance in Minneapolis this Saturday or would they be out to scorch earth no matter what after dropping a game in such painful fashion?
MnB: The bye may not have helped the psyche of Michigan fans that wanted to discuss something other than the final play of Michigan-Michigan State this past week, but I think it'll aid Michigan's performance against Minnesota. After each loss, a head coach generally mentions how the team will put the loss behind it and move forward to next week's opponent. This has become routine for college football coaches and players. However, losing in such a stunning and emotionally draining fashion is not routine, and one week is not enough to truly move past it. Heck, I still haven't quite accepted it, and it's been almost two weeks. I believe that, if Michigan and Minnesota had squared off last weekend rather than this one, the Wolverines would have been sloppy and more prone to an upset in prime time and in front of a hostile TCF Bank Stadium crowd. But two weeks should be sufficient time for Michigan to put the loss aside and center all of its attention on the Gophers.
GBMW: I think a bye week helped Michigan in two ways. First, it obviously gave the team an extra week to prepare for Minnesota. Having more time to prepare will never not play to your advantage. Second, I think it lets this game just be about Minnesota. If you turn around in seven days to play your next game after a loss like that, there's a good chance—even if nobody admits it—you're playing in some capacity to avenge that defeat. With an extra week, there's more time to shift the focus in the proper direction.
To answer your question more specifically, I think Michigan was coming out to scorch earth anyway. But this bye week in the middle gives the Wolverines a better opportunity to sharpen up on Minnesota and get away from that Michigan State loss.
TDG: Obviously, Michigan has always had a barrel full of talent up and down the roster. Brady Hoke was always criticized more for his coaching than his recruiting ability. Jim Harbaugh is, by every conceivable measure, a better coach. Set aside all the media hype and narratives and give me a few reasons why you think Harbaugh is as good at his job as he appears to be from his ability to turn programs into quality winners.
MnB: First, few college football coaches, if any, know how to design and coordinate a power, man-blocking offense better than Jim Harbaugh. He's an Xs and Os wizard when it comes to his offensive scheme. When one watches his offense in real time, it looks "boring" because he uses multiple tight ends and fullbacks and runs power over and over again. But that's not true. When I watch the film after each Michigan game, I marvel at how Harbaugh tinkers with his formations and run fits. There is always something new, and every new wrinkle is built off a previous one that Michigan has put on film. He'll change the formation, the number of tight ends on the field, or where those tight ends are aligned to create new gaps for which defenses are not prepared. It's a night-and-day difference between he and Brady Hoke, who's a defensive line coach at heart and oversaw the implosion of Michigan's offense over four years. That won't happen with Harbaugh. The media may not group him with offensive gurus like Art Briles or Rich Rodriguez, but don't kid yourself: Harbaugh is an offensive innovator with his schemes.
Second, no coach can turn around a program without a great staff supporting him. And Harbaugh has assembled an excellent one. Offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Tim Drevno has followed Harbaugh almost all of his coaching career, working with him at the University of San Diego, Stanford, and with the Niners. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin teamed up with Harbaugh in Palo Alto before he guided top-10 defenses at Florida in 2013 and 2014. Now, Durkin has reunited with Harbaugh in Ann Arbor and directs the nation's best defense. Greg Mattison coordinated top-10 defenses at Michigan under Hoke and has remained on staff as the defensive line coach. Other assistants, such as Jedd Fisch, Tyrone Wheatley, Greg Jackson, and Mike Zordich, have NFL experience. They are all reasons for this immediate turnaround.
Third, though this dips into the media narrative that you wanted me to avoid, I can't discount Harbaugh's personality. He's kind of an oddball, kind of a jerk, but good luck finding a football coach that is more intense and focused than him. I mean, he wears khakis everyday, so he doesn't waste brainwaves thinking about how he should dress that can be spent thinking about football! And that personality has trickled down to his players. Further, Harbaugh has scraped away any sense of entitlement that the players may have had under Hoke. Harbaugh has made everything a competition -- heck, he brought helmet stickers out from the dusty storage unit to reward players for their effort each week -- and the players have learned that nothing is given and everything is earned. The result is a more focused and intense football team.
GBMW: This is easy. All the hype aside, what I immediately see that tells me Jim Harbaugh is in fact a tremendous coach—and much better than Brady Hoke—is the development we see each week. This thing called progress was nowhere to be found under Hoke, but it's been a completely different story this season.
I see three categories of progression (or regression, if you're unfortunate enough): in-game, week-by-week, and then whatever you can do in the offseason.
Harbaugh almost had a full offseason to get his guys ready, and we saw right away how much Michigan had improved in those months. Then, what I mentioned above, this team's week-by-week progression is something special. That's where my attention is really caught. Finally, the in-game progress (adjustments, if you will) is right there too.
There are obviously other places you could point to, but that right there is the biggest reason I think Harbaugh really is a master of the game. His team progresses on every scale.
TDG: Michigan's defense is obviously its strength (they rank 1st in S&P+ defensive rating in the nation). What are some specific reasons why this has been the case? How do you see them performing against a hapless, for lack of a better word, Minnesota offense (100th in S&P+ offensive rating) that has struggled to put points on the board against quality competition this year?
MnB: Two specific reasons explain why Michigan's defense has been the nation's best.
First, the two-deep of Michigan's defense line is stocked with players capable of starting at other Big Ten schools. Ryan Glasgow has developed from a former walk-on into one of the Big Ten's best defensive tackles. Willie Henry has been a monster in the middle, tallying 7.5 tackles for loss and six sacks in his past four games. Chris Wormley is 300 pounds but moves like a tight end, which has helped him notch eight tackles for loss. Maurice Hurst, Jr. has one of the most explosive first steps off the snap that I have seen. Royce Jenkins-Stone has filled in for Mario Ojemudia, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury, at BUCK with little drop-off in production. I could continue, but I think you get the idea. The point is that Michigan rotates seven talented players along the line throughout the game. This keeps the linemen fresh and allows them to come after offenses in waves against the run -- first in adjusted line yards -- and pass -- 17th in adjusted sack rate.
Second, Michigan may have the best corner in college football. Much can be said about the improvement of Michigan's other defensive backs -- it's amazing what happens when two assistants that have coached NFL defensive backs for years replace one that had never coached the position until last season -- but Jourdan Lewis has stolen the spotlight. Lewis had an under-the-radar, breakthrough season in 2014, but he's turned into an All-American. Not only is he racking up the stats -- his 16 passes defended are second in the nation -- he's shut down half the field. Quarterbacks have completed only 17-of-50 passes when they have tested him, and future first-round selection Connor Cook was the only one to experience any sort of consistent success. Even then, out of the 16 times when Cook targeted Lewis, Cook connected with his receiver only six times, and Lewis broke up six of the 10 incompletions as well. Because of Lewis, Michigan is first in yards allowed per attempt and opponent passer rating. That's how good he's been. This isn't to say that Lewis, who stands at only 5-foot-10, can't be beaten. He can, and he has been. But, as Lewis has demonstrated through the first seven games, it takes a perfect throw to do so.
As for what Michigan's defense will do to Minnesota's offense, well, I don't think it'll be suitable for children's eyes. As you mentioned, Minnesota's offense is 100th in S&P+. This will be the fifth time that Michigan has faced an offense that is ranked 90th or worse in S&P+. The other four belong to Oregon State, UNLV, Maryland, and Northwestern, and those teams averaged only 3.5 points per game and 2.75 yards per play against Michigan. And the Wolverines have sucked the life out of much better offenses, too -- see BYU's zero points and 105 total yards. What makes Michigan's defense so great is that it's superb in both facets. The Wolverines' run and pass defense are second and ninth in S&P+, respectively. There isn't a weakness that easily can be exploited. Michigan does allow some open slants and underneath crossing routes, which isn't shocking in its man press scheme, but that's about it. And I just don't see how Minnesota with an offense that struggles to run the ball and lacks an accurate quarterback will find success against Michigan's defense. A shutout could be in the works.
GBMW: A lot of credit has to be given to the coaching staff. D.J. Durkin has done a wonderful job as defensive coordinator, and Greg Mattison and Mike Zordich have seen the defensive line and secondary, respectively, turn a corner this season.
Jourdan Lewis is tied nationally for the lead in pass breakups (14) and has 16 passes defended in total. The way he went toe-to-toe with Aaron Burbridge of Michigan State told me he really is an elite corner. He's a big reason why Michigan has seen so much success on defense this season. Then of course there's the all-powerful defensive front. You really can't point to a weakness up there. My favorite to watch though is definitely Willie Henry. He's the strongest guy on the team and leads the Wolverines with 9.0 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks.
Against Minnesota, I'm expecting Michigan to be just as aggressive as we've seen all season. I personally don't think Mitch Leidner is capable of winning this game if Rodney Smith becomes a non-factor.
My best guess: You could pretty much pop in film of any given drive this season and expect to see exactly that from Michigan's defense on Saturday.
TDG: How can the Wolverines elevate their offensive performance against the Gophers, who still rank a respectable 31st in S&P+ defense? What are some specific strategies you see Michigan deploying against a Gopher defense that should be healthier than the past 4 weeks or so?
MnB: Michigan's offensive game plan will be simple: pound the ball. Why? Michigan's offense is more effective on the ground (30th in S&P+) than through the air (50th in S&P+). This doesn't mean Michigan will call power over and over again because Jim Harbaugh will have new designs and concepts we haven't seen, but he's not going to unleash an air raid. One reason is that Minnesota's pass defense is its strength, ranking in the top 15 in S&P+ and yards allowed per attempt. On the other hand, Minnesota is more porous against the run, settling in at 61st in S&P+ and 45th in yards allowed per carry. It would make little sense for Michigan to attack the best element of Minnesota's defense with its weakest weapon. And another reason why Michigan will run the ball is that Harbaugh knows Minnesota poses little threat of turning this into a shootout. Michigan just wants to score a few touchdowns, control the pace, and limit turnovers. Running the football achieves just that.
GBMW: While Minnesota's defense is very respectable all-around, I think its strengths and weaknesses actually play pretty well into Michigan's hands.
The Gophers give up 151.4 rushing yards per game (52nd in FBS) but only 177.3 passing yards per game (18th in FBS). It's no secret that Michigan prefers to run the ball, even if Jake Rudock is improving at quarterback. The Wolverines will probably feel like they don't have to force anything and will therefore stick to what's been working all season.
If you go back to Michigan's first handful of games, you find a whole lot of power football with sprinkles of end-arounds and quick-hitter screens. I think that'll be the formula against Minnesota. I'm not saying it's bulletproof, but Michigan would much rather face a defense that excels in pass protection as opposed to run defense.
TDG: In your opinion, has Jake Ruddock demonstrated noticeable improvement throughout the year, as Coach Harbaugh has whispered sweet nothings in his ear during practices? Or is he still largely the same quantity we saw when he took the field for the Hawkeyes and the Gophers thumped to the tune of 51-14 a year ago in Minneapolis?
MnB: No, Jake Rudock hasn't demonstrated noticeable improvement throughout the year. It's been a very up-and-down season for the game manager that was supposed to be consistent. Michigan just wanted a quarterback that could move the chains, avoid coughing up the ball, and make defenses pay for cheating up with the occasional bomb. Though Rudock tossed three interceptions and overthrew two uncovered receivers in the opener against Utah, I thought he performed fairly well. He trusted his instincts and was confident in his decisions. But, as the turnovers piled up in the early weeks, that confidence waned. He wasn't as decisive, and he seemed consciously to fear making mistakes, which led to fewer turnovers but also led him to make other mistakes.
For example, when his receivers have one-on-one matchups against inferior defensive backs, he doesn't throw the ball up and trust his receiver to make a play. Or he may not go through his entire progression to find an open target. He has had flashes where he has performed well, like in the first halves against BYU and Northwestern, and that has indicated that Rudock is Michigan's ceiling this season. When he performs at his best, Michigan is capable of beating any team. But, when he's inconsistent and misses open receivers over the top, which has happened often, Michigan stalls and becomes vulnerable.
GBMW: I'll say this: It's not like you won't recognize Jake Rudock on Saturday, but with that said, I think he's taken some strides this season.
The long ball is not there, and I've given up hope on that. Michigan's offense has to rely on other things to create big-hitters. Rudock has gotten better as a shot and intermediate passer. At the beginning of the season he was hitting guys where they were, not where they were going. That made for very few opportunities to create after the catch. What we've seen the last few games is a quarterback who's starting to hit his receivers in stride, and it's making a legitimate difference.
I also think we've seen his decision making come along this season. He isn't making those head-scratching throws anymore (at least not nearly as often as he was), which is allowing Michigan to mostly dominate time of possession.
TDG: Pretend I am someone who has never taken a look at the Michigan Wolverine roster. Who are some players on either side of the ball that you believe will have a significant impact on the game's final score?
MnB: Offensively, given that I think Michigan will pound the ball, running back De'Veon Smith is a name that you should know. Smith has been Michigan's feature back, recording 96 carries for 436 yards (4.54 YPC) and four touchdowns. Smith is not the fastest or most elusive back, but Jim Harbaugh loves his bruising style. Smith doesn't try to run east and west. He runs north, and he'll try to punish any defenders that obstruct his path. He's very adept at lowering his shoulders to shed tacklers and keeping his legs moving to gain extra yardage before he's dragged down to the turf. There are few moments when Smith displays vision and patience and uses a nice cut to send a linebacker to the wrong gap and open a new lane, but it doesn't happen on a regular basis. If the offensive line doesn't open the lane for him, he'll just barrel into their backs and push forward for as many yards as he can muster. Michigan will feed other backs, too, but Smith will be the main horse.
Another offensive player who may have an impact is receiver Jehu Chesson. Wideout Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt each have more catches and receiving yards than Chesson (17 rec., 190 yards), but Chesson has been more involved in the passing game in recent weeks. He's been targeted 19 times in the past three games after being targeted just 11 times in the first four. Chesson is the fastest player on the team, and it appears that Harbaugh wants to weaponize his speed. If Michigan runs as much as I think it will, there will be a play-action fake that tries to get Chesson open behind the defense -- whether Jake Rudock can connect on such a throw is an entirely different question. Also, Michigan likes to call jet sweeps for Chesson to get him on the edge, and he's broken two into 30-plus-yard touchdowns.
Defensively, I discussed most of the defensive line and Jourdan Lewis above, and there's no need to rehash that. Two other defenders on whom Minnesota fans should keep an eye are linebacker Desmond Morgan and safety Jabrill Peppers. Morgan is a solid middle linebacker. He's not the most athletic and doesn't possess the best lateral agility, which means he can be beaten to the edge at times. However, he has great instincts when it comes to closing down on a running lane, and, when he does, he brings the lead. Minnesota will want to establish the run, and, on the occasions when the offensive line is able to crease Michigan's defensive line, Morgan likely will be there to shut it down. Peppers is Michigan's hybrid-space player. He'll line up at boundary corner or strong safety when teams line up in two-receiver formations and move down to nickel when offenses bring out a third receiver. Simply, Michigan uses him all over the field because the former five-star prospect has world-class athleticism. Peppers' coverage technique, particularly when he's manned up against a slot receiver that can release inside or out, still needs work, but he's a weapon on the edge as a blitzer and a destroyer of screens. He will make an impact in some way.
GBMW: Tough question. I'll narrow it down to three players. First you have Jourdan Lewis at cornerback. Then you have Willie Henry at defensive end. Finally you have Jehu Chesson at wide receiver.
I've already hit on Lewis and Henry, so I won't ramble on for too long here. All you would need to know is these are the guys who've played the biggest roles in taking this Michigan defense to the next level. Lewis is going to put the clamps on your best receiver, and Henry is going to bear hug your quarterback.
I was tempted to point out De'Veon Smith instead of Chesson, but in terms of point impact, I've got to go with Michigan's fastest player. Chesson has scored twice on end-arounds this season, and, if I'm right about Michigan going back to those quick-hitters this Saturday, he'll also have a chance to make an impact in the passing game. Chesson is Michigan's all-around best threat on offense.
TDG: What are you predictions for the game? Do the Wolverines cover a massive 13.5-point spread away from the Big House? Or is a night game on All Hallow's Eve enough bizarre voodoo to keep the beloved Jug in the Twin Cities for a couple more years?
MnB: It's hard to get a read on how Michigan's offense will perform because of the unknown status of Minnesota's health. If the Gophers' front seven is moderately healthy, it may hold up well against Michigan's run offense, which could make this an interesting contest since I don't expect Jim Harbaugh will want to be too aggressive through the air. However, as I mentioned above, I just don't see how Minnesota will score points. Michigan's defensive line will win the war in the trenches against a shaky Minnesota offensive line. Available running yards will be virtually nonexistent, and Mitch Leidner will have little time to throw as Michigan will use stunts to free pass rushers.
The only way that the Gophers will put points on the scoreboard is if Michigan turns the ball over or loses the field-position battle, but, even after Blake O'Neill's bobbled snap against Michigan State, the Wolverines are third in special teams efficiency and 17th in field position. Minnesota? 67th and 114th in those respective categories. So chances are that Minnesota will need to march down long fields to score points, and the Gophers don't have the offense to do that against Michigan. It won't be a rout, but it won't be that competitive either. Michigan 24, Minnesota 0.
GBMW: I think a really good offensive day would see Michigan into the 30's, but I'm not going to bank on it.
I do think the Wolverines cover that 13.5-point spread at night in the Twin Cities, even with all the voodoo in the air!
And I want to go on record saying that I have no doubt in this Minnesota team after Jerry Kill stepped down on Wednesday. You have to know as a player that it's a possibility, especially when you have a coach who unfortunately has a serious medical condition. And I do wish Mr. Kill the very best in whatever it is he's pursuing next.
I'll take Michigan, 27-10.
Thanks for the time and in-depth posts from both Drew and Tyler. The Gophers will have a lot on their minds Saturday as they take the field and they'll be up against it in the minds of Vegas. We'll just have to see how things play out!