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Friend vs Foe: Minnesota

October 3rd, 2013 by Josh DeMille


We are pleased to welcome JDMill from the Minnesota SB Nation site The Daily Gopher for this week’s Friend vs Foe segment. He has graciously answered a few questions about Gopher fans’ feelings of the Little Brown Jug, what happened against Iowa, where Minnesota might have an advantage on Saturday, and provided his prediction for the game. You can follow him on Twitter @JDMill. On the Michigan side, Josh gives his thoughts on what he would like to see from the Wolverines on Saturday.

1. What does the Little Brown Jug mean to Minnesota fans? Michigan fans see it as a great part of our history but kind of take it for granted. Is it a big deal to Gopher fans? Why or why not?

The Jug is definitely a big deal to Gopher fans. As you mentioned, the history of the trophy makes it an awesome tradition and beating Michigan is pretty much the pinnacle of what our program can achieve in a single game right now. But in a bit of a different way, Gopher fans take it for granted too. We have two incredibly intense trophy traditions with our border rivals Wisconsin and Iowa, and those rivalries definitely take precedent over the Jug at this point.

For some reason we also have a trophy with Penn State (the Governor’s Victory Bell, or some such abomination), which means absolutely nothing to anybody. This year is unique, however, because we do play for all four trophies.

In any case, if you asked Gopher fans if they could lose to Michigan, but beat Wisconsin & Iowa in any given year, I think 99/100 Gopher fans would take that in an absolute heartbeat.

2. Iowa: what happened? The first four games went pretty well – all wins, lots of offense, etc. How was Iowa able to dominate?

How much time do we have to go over this? First of all, Iowa is good at two things that our first four opponents weren’t good at: running the ball and stopping the run. Having said that, we were fairly confident going into this game that we’d be able to successfully run the ball on their defense. Boy were we wrong.

Minnesota last captured the Little Brown Jug in 2005

Here’s the deal, I think Iowa is a more talented and more experienced team than Minnesota at this point, and those things definitely matter, but I don’t think the delta in talent is as wide as it looked like on Saturday. The thing about Iowa is that they didn’t do anything fancy, they didn’t do anything that you wouldn’t expect from a Kirk Ferentz team, but everything they did they did absolutely flawlessly. They don’t miss assignments, they don’t miss blocks or gaps, they don’t miss tackles, they do all of the fundamentals right. A younger, inexperienced team that likely has more talent isn’t going to beat a team like that unless they have a better gameplan and also execute flawlessly, and the Gophers most certainly didn’t do that.

3. Your running game is doing pretty well (at least before Iowa), but what’s wrong with the passing game?

Prior to the Iowa game the problem with the passing game was really, more than anything, that we just hadn’t used it. We were averaging just 15 passing attempts/game heading into Iowa. So part of the problem is rust.

The potentially bigger issue, which really seemed to rear it’s head on Saturday against Iowa, is inaccuracy. Phil Nelson was throwing over and behind receivers all day long. Of the 12 passes he completed, my guess is that at least half were completed because of a good catch by the receiver despite a poor throw. This was the case on his one TD throw to Derrick Engel. The pass was high, and slightly behind Engel, but he made a great adjustment to pull down the ball and get in the endzone. If Nelson’s accuracy doesn’t improve, and in short order, this team won’t have a passing game at all in 2013.

4. Statistically, Minnesota’s special teams look pretty good, ranking in the top 20 nationally in both kick and punt returns, as well as kick return defense. Michigan’s kick and punt return games (offensively and defensively) haven’t been very good. Are Minnesota’s special teams really that good, and do you see that as an advantage this weekend?

My goodness, the Gophers have to have an advantage SOMEWHERE, don’t we?

Minnesota got away from its normal running game against Iowa, but the Gophers still feature a top-25 running game (Ann Heisenfelt, AP)

The Gopher special teams (as far as the return game and defending kicks) is pretty good. Marcus Jones has emerged as a real threat on any return and he was one of the few bright spots in the Iowa game. For the season he’s averaging over 13 yards/punt return (Top 25 in the country) and over 30 yards/kick return (Top 10 in the country). I do think that special teams is an advantage for Minnesota this weekend, but I don’t think it’s enough to win the game.

5. Despite the loss to Iowa, do you think Minnesota can beat Michigan on Saturday? Obviously, Michigan struggled to beat Akron and UConn…how much confidence does that give you for Minnesota’s chances even though Michigan is favored by about 20? What will it take for Minnesota to win? What’s your prediction?

Confidence isn’t exactly a word that I’d use to describe how I, or any Gopher fans, feel about the team right now. Gameplan is going to be important in this game. Without going into too much detail, the Gopher gameplan against Iowa was really a departure from what they had done through the first four weeks of the season. The Gophers did try to establish the run against Iowa, but the way they went about it was completely different than they had during the non-con. They really abandoned the true power run game that they had established and attempted more of a cutesy run game which is pretty inexplicable. If the Gophers get back to trying to establish the power run game (Maryland-I, inverted wishbone, just 3-back sets in general), I’ll have a lot more confidence in their ability to hang with Michigan.

The Gophers also need to get back to the disciplined team they were through the first four weeks when they were the least penalized team in the conference with a total of 10 penalties. Last week against Iowa they had five, and they came at some horrible times.

If the Gophers can figure out a way to control the clock using that power run game, and if they can get back to being more disciplined, then I think something like a special teams TD or big return is something that COULD end up being something that puts them over the top.

Having said that, like I mentioned, I don’t have a lot of confidence right now just because of how we performed last week.

I predict a Michigan win: 28-17.

I don’t know about you but that bye week did me a lot of good. It gave me some time to cool down and get back in a rational mindset about Team 134. Now that we’re back in the swing of things we get to look at Minnesota, a team that looked pretty good until Iowa dismantled them last week. Regardless, there are still some things we need to see out of Michigan.

I think we all expected a lot more of this team than they’ve shown the last two weeks so I’ll keep it simple. Let’s not forget that this team is loaded with first and second year players and at most high-level schools these kids get to sit for a while to bulk up and learn the playbook. Michigan has not had that luxury so while we do expect more out of Michigan let’s cut these kids some slack. It’s not easy to come in as a first or second year player and make an impact, yet we’re expecting ALL of them to be studs right off the bat.

This should go without saying but I’ll say it anyway. ELIMINATE the turnovers. And before we go any further and start pining for Shane Morris, the kid has thrown six total passes. He wouldn’t do any better than Gardner. How they go about eliminating those turnovers is a tricky task though. I never played high-level sports like Division 1 football but I do know how important the mental aspect is. As Yogi Berra said, “90 percent of the game is half mental.” Gardner clearly has the physical tools but he needs to get his head right before he can fix this problem. How long that will take is anyone’s guess, but for now I’d just like to see a calm and composed Gardner in the pocket and not the one who was only looking to run late in the UConn game. They say quarterbacks need to have short memories. Devin Gardner needs to have amnesia about the last two games.

All eyes will be on Devin Gardner to see him perform better than the last two games (MGoBlue.com)

Secondly, pressure from the front four. Michigan did manage to get to Chandler Whitmer a few times but it still wasn’t enough. Minnesota doesn’t pass the ball much but they do run it a lot so the front four needs to make their presence felt in the run game. Up until last week Minnesota was running the ball very well. Almost reminiscent of Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber II -, almost. I expect them to attempt to establish the run and Michigan’s front four needs to be disruptive enough to nip it in the bud. I don’t even need to see tackles for loss from these guys, at least not yet, but I would like to see a front that looks like a Michigan front. Which looks something like this –┬ástrong at the point of attack, in control of the line of scrimmage, making plays in the backfield, even when it’s not tackles for loss or sacks. In two words, strength and tenacity.

Ideally we’ll see this again,┬ábut let’s at least wait until Jabrill Peppers is a sophomore. OK, back to reality and Team 134.

Next, I’d like to see a run game. And enough of the clamoring for Derrick Green already. Fitz Toussaint had a bit of a re-coming out party against UConn, which was great but it was against UConn. However, you can only place so much of the blame on Fitz. Without the line creating holes and sustaining them it’s tough for any running back to get things going, so it is doubtful Green would fare any better. The issue is the interior of the line. Hoke said he may switch it up like I thought he would at UConn, but regardless of who’s in there they need to get some serious push. Two words I use when I describe my ideal offensive lineman: mean and nasty (see Steve Hutchinson, Jon Runyan). These kids need to stop thinking and just play.

I want to see these kids play with a mean streak and just bulldoze people. Obviously this is easier said than done but if they can just stop looking like deer in headlights out there I’d consider that progress.

Next, an emergence of a receiver other than Jeremy Gallon. Part of the problem with Gardner and his propensity for turnovers is that when push comes to shove he only looks for Gallon and that limits his options and forces him into poor decisions. If someone else can get his confidence it will open up the offense tremendously. It looked like Jehu Chesson might be the guy but it seemed as though Gardner shied away after he had the ball ripped away from him on a deep pass play. Ideally I’d like to see Devin Funchess more involved. He’s a proven commodity, so why not get him the ball more.

A simplified passing game may really be what I am looking for. Dumb down the playbook with quick, short throws to build Gardner’s confidence and help open up the run game. That’s what Al Borges’ West Coast offense boils down to, right? Borges turned a mediocre Cade McNown into an All-American quarterback and future first-round NFL draft pick. Let that sink in for a moment. Cade. McNown. He clearly knows what he’s doing with QBs but I’d like to see him really simplify things for the offense going forward. Right now these kids need a confidence boost more than anything and dumbing the playbook down could be the remedy.

In theory this should be a great game to regain confidence before they head to Happy Valley next week but Michigan was supposed to dominate both Akron and UConn and barely escaped with wins. If one bad game against a vastly inferior opponent is a fluke and two is a trend what would three in a row be?

I was ready to pick Minnesota to beat Michigan until they got dominated last week by a resurgent Iowa team last weekend. Now I’m not so sure. Will the Michigan team that beat Notre Dame show up? Or will it be the team that took the field against Akron and UConn? I do know this: if the Michigan team that played Akron and UConn shows up the Gophers will not only reclaim the Little Brown Jug but they’ll also end Michigan’s 17-game home winning streak.