Season Record: 6-2 (3-2 B1G)
Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh (26-8, 3rd year at Michigan)
2017 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 26th
2016 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 3rd
It’s Year 3 of the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan and the Wolverines fans are already growing restless now that it seems their Big Ten title drought will be extended to 13 years after early season losses to Michigan State and Penn State. The Gophers’ last visit to Ann Arbor came in 2014, when Minnesota helped push then head coach Brady Hoke out the door with a 30-14 victory to re-claim the Little Brown Jug. Can Minnesota bring that same magic to the Big House on Saturday and take back the Jug? Let’s take a closer look.
It will be interesting to see who gets the starting nod at quarterback for the Wolverines on Saturday. Senior signal caller Wilton Speight suffered three broken vertebrae against Purdue in Week 4 and is out for the season. His back-up, senior Houston transfer John O’Korn, stepped in and failed to do much of anything in four starts (60-for-109 (55%), 692 passing yards, 1 touchdown, 4 interceptions). O’Korn received the starting nod again against Rutgers last Saturday but was replaced in the second quarter by Brandon Peters. The redshirt freshman led the Wolverines to touchdowns on his first three drives at quarterback and finished the game 10-for-14 with 124 passing yards, 1 touchdown, and no interceptions.
The Wolverines’ woes in the passing game can also be attributed to their receivers. Michigan has had to replace departed wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt, who represented the Wolverines’ top three receivers last season. Junior wide receiver Grant Perry has been their most consistent contributor, with 22 receptions, 285 receiving yards, and 1 touchdown on the season. Freshman Tarik Black looked the part of a big play receiver early in the year, but suffered a crack in his foot in the third game of the season. Fellow freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones is a versatile athlete they’ve tried to use in a variety of ways, but his biggest impact has been on special teams as a punt returner.
Sophomore tight end Sean McKeon is the Wolverines’ second leading receiver with 21 receptions, 223 receiving yards, and no touchdowns.
Michigan has had an inconsistent rushing attack for most of the season, thanks in large part to the struggles of their offensive line. Through the first seven games of the seven, the Wolverines allowed an average of 7.3 tackles for loss and 3.3 sacks per game before an improved performance against Rutgers on Saturday. But I don’t know if I’d put much stock into that game, considering the competition. Michigan does have a stable of running backs for when the offensive line is able to open up holes: Junior Karan Higdon (103 carries, 604 rushing yards, 8 touchdowns), senior Ty Isaac (88 carries, 548 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns), and sophomore Chris Evans (76 carries, 298 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns).
Verdict: The Wolverines have no shortage of talent on offense, but the unit has not been clicking at all this season. The only offensive category that Michigan ranks in the Top 50 nationally is rushing yards per game, so if the Gophers can force the Wolverines’ offensive line to fall back on bad habits and keep their trio of running backs contained, I like their chances of being competitive in this football game. Minnesota has been surprisingly strong against the pass this season despite a razor thin secondary, and the Michigan passing game doesn’t seem to have the usual playmakers to be able to pick them apart.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown’s unit is one of the best in the country (again). The Michigan defense ranks in the Top 10 in the country in almost all statistical categories: 2nd in passing yards allowed (151.4 yards per game), tied for 5th in sacks (3.38 per game), 8th in rushing yards allowed (104.1 yards per game), tied for 9th in tackles for loss (8.0 per game), and tied for 16th in scoring defense (18 points per game).
It all starts up front. Everyone knows that Brown likes to bring pressure by dialing up blitzes on a regular basis, but he does so with the benefit of a defensive line that is more than capable of wreaking havoc on its own. Sophomore defensive tackle Rashan Gary is the ringleader with 40 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 6 quarterback hurries, and 1 forced fumble. But Gary has almost been outplayed by redshirt senior Maurice Hurst (40 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble), who has been one of the best interior defensive lineman in college football this season in stopping the run and rushing the passer. Junior Chase Winovich is their top defensive end, with 47 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 4 quarterback hurries, and 2 forced fumbles on the season.
At linebacker, redshirt senior Mike McCray (49 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 4 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble) was expected to lead the unit, but sophomore linebacker Devin Bush, Jr. has been all over the field for the Wolverines, with a team-leading 67 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 6 pass break-ups, and 1 quarterback hurry. Bush and McCray headline a smart and athletic linebacker corps that swarms to the football.
The Wolverines’ secondary isn’t quite as impressive as the rest of the defense. It’s a youthful defensive backfield, with three sophomore starters, that has been solid for the most part. But it has been an opportunistic unit. Both junior safety Tyree Kinnel (39 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack) and sophomore cornerback Lavert Hill (17 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss) have two interceptions a piece, to go along with a combined 11 pass break-ups. Their worst game of the season came against Penn State, when they allowed Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley to gash them with passes of 23, 26, 27, 35, 36, and 42 yards.
Which leads me to their one apparent weakness: Explosive plays. The Wolverines’ defense ranks 110th in IsoPPP — which measures the magnitude of the big plays a defense has allowed — according to S&P+. Conversely, the Gophers’ offense ranks 127th in IsoPPP, so they are not exactly primed to take advantage of that particular vulnerability.
Verdict: I don’t see Minnesota being able to score a lot of points against this defense. The Gopher offense has been anything but explosive. This is one of the best defensive fronts in college football, and I’m not sure the offensive line is up to the task, especially if there continues to be no threat from the passing game with Demry Croft under center.
Prediction: Michigan 17, Minnesota 14. The Gophers have been in every this game season, and I’d like to think they’ll get over the hump and steal another win at some point, but I’m not confident it’ll be this week. Until I see the offense take a significant step forward, I doubt I’ll feel confident enough to predict another win the rest of the season. Minnesota’s defense will keep them in this game, but I think the Wolverines’ will smother the Gophers’ offense and allow Michigan to control the game. The Little Brown Jug will remain in Ann Arbor.