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M&GB staff predictions: Minnesota

Friday, September 26th, 2014


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Michigan enters Big Ten play 2-2 with losses against the only two power-five teams they’ve played. Minnesota comes to Ann Arbor 3-1 with wins over three cupcakes. Could the Gophers win for just the fourth time since 1968? Or will Michigan hold onto the Little Brown Jug for yet another year? Let’s take a look at our predictions.

Staff Predictions
Michigan Minnesota
Justin 24 13
Sam 23 10
Derick 28 24
Josh 24 21
Joe 28 26
M&GB Average 25 19

Justin: Both teams are going to look to run the ball. That’s pretty much all Minnesota does and they’ll look to get David Cobb and redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Streveler going. Michigan’s run defense has been its strength in the early going, having held the last three opponents under 100 yards. Look for Greg Mattison to load the box and force Streveler to pass.

Michigan’s offense will also look to feed Derrick Green often, especially if Shane Morris gets the start. Don’t expect the offense to open up for him, but he can have success against Minnesota’s pass defense than has allowed three of four opponents to throw for more than 250 yards.

I expect a boring, low-scoring game that Michigan wins comfortably, but not a blowout.

Michigan 24 – Minnesota 13

Sam: It only took until Rich Rodriguez’s third season at the helm of Michigan football to have fans speculate over who Michigan’s next head coach would be – despite a better record year-over-year. We are now early in Brady Hoke’s fourth year leading the Wolverines, but the widespread speculation over his impending firing has certainly begun – because of a worse record year-over-year and an increasingly inept offense.

After a dismal 26-10 loss against a Utah team that is probably not great and in which Michigan’s defense scored more points than its offense, the Wolverines find themselves standing at just 2-2 going into the first weekend of Big Ten play against lowly Minnesota. Is the Big Ten title still up for grabs? You bet. How are Michigan’s chances of reaching that goal? Maybe as good as Lloyd Christmas’s chances of ending up with Mary Swanson.

All signs point to a new starting quarterback tomorrow as Devin Gardner appears to be regressing, but Shane Morris has not shown much to-date. Minnesota is probably the worst team in the Big Ten, and they only managed to complete one pass last week, so Michigan should win, but I don’t think it will be pretty.

The first time Michigan reaches the red zone tomorrow (not to jinx it) would be the first time the Maize and Blue has gotten there against a real team all season. Unless the offense churns out 50 points, I’m ready to write the season off. Ultimately, though, I’ll take Michigan.

Michigan 23 – Minnesota 10

Derick: Michigan played one of its worst games since Brady Hoke took over as head coach Saturday, falling 26-10 to Utah at home. The team looked unprepared for a third straight week and is limping into the conference season opener against Minnesota.

The Little Brown Jug has been a staple in Schembechler Hall over the last decade, and Minnesota likely sees Saturday as its best chance in many years to bring the trophy back to Minneapolis. I think Michigan will have to really battle to fend off Minnesota, but will come away with a close win.

Michigan 28 – Minnesota 24

Josh: Coming into this season I had pretty low expectations (8-4) but after losses to Notre Dame and Utah yielded no offensive touchdowns and ZERO red zone trips I’ve all but checked out of football season (I wonder if John Beilein knows anything about developing football players). If the offense can’t even sniff the end zone against decent teams then the wheels have all but fallen off for Brady Hoke and crew. For now let’s enjoy Jabrill Peppers while we have him because he may very well bolt if (when) Hoke gets the boot.

Looking ahead at the schedule only two games pop out to me that can be chalked up as wins; Minnesota and Northwestern. Luckily for Michigan the Gophers are in town this weekend.

Minnesota can’t pass the ball to save their lives and while David Cobb is a very good running back, the run defense is the strength of Michigan’s defense. Sadly, defense is not the problem for Michigan. We’ll probably see Shane Morris starting at quarterback. While I like Devin Gardner, it is clearly time for a change, because he hasn’t progressed like he should have and his poor decisions have cost Michigan one too many games. I don’t see this one getting out of hand like most Minnesota games do (read: it won’t be a blowout) but I do think Michigan should be able to handle them. Then again I said that about Akron and UConn last year and they barely escaped, so who knows anymore.

Regardless of whether the quarterback is Morris or Gardner, I expect Nussmeier to keep the offense bare bones simple with some quick short throws and then pound the ball non-stop, with an occasional deep bomb off play-action to Devin Funchess. I’d be willing to bet Morris/Gardner still tosses a pick or two, and Minnesota will be in it far longer than the fans would care for. In the end I think Michigan will eek out a close one.

Michigan 24 – Minnesota 21

Joe: I could not be more confused heading into the Big Ten opener against the Golden Gophers. I have no idea who will be under center for this one. Although, I have a feeling we may witness the start of the Shane Morris show on Saturday with a compliment of Gardner out wide. Just a hunch. If this is the case, it will be Green followed by more Green followed by Funchess and a little more Green.

I want to see the offense spread things around a little more. It’s becoming very predictable once again and that is never good. If Michigan is able to get everyone involved and keep Minnesota guessing, they will be able to move the ball with some level of success. This will allow the defense to stay fresh and contain a very weak passing attack. The Michigan run defense has been solid but will have its hands full with David Cobb.  Keep an eye on their running quarterback as well.

This game has been fun to watch for the last few years and should be another close one. I will give it the ol’ college try and predict with absolutely no level of confidence a Michigan victory. Now where are my BBQ tongs?

Michigan 28 – Minneeeesota 26

Michigan-Minnesota game preview

Friday, September 26th, 2014


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Michigan limps into conference play with a 2-2 record, but as Brady Hoke has said over and over again in the last couple of weeks, the goal of a Big Ten championship is still within reach. A turnaround in conference play can erase the futility of the first four weeks of the season and get back the fans that jumped off the bandwagon. It all starts tomorrow when Minnesota comes to town looking to beat Michigan for just the fourth time since 1968.

UM-Minnesota-small-final
Quick Facts
Michigan Stadium – 3:30 p.m. EST – ABC
Minn. Head Coach: Jerry Kill (4th season)
Coaching Record: 147-95 overall (20-22 at Minn)
Offensive Coordinator: Matt Limegrover (4th season)
Defensive Coordinator: Tracy Claeys (4th season)
Returning Starters: 14 (7 offense, 7 defense)
Last Season: 8-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
Last Meeting: Michigan 42 – Minnesota 13 (2013)
All-Time Series: Michigan leads 73-24-3
Record at Mich Stadium Michigan leads 33-10-1
Last 10 Meetings: Michigan leads 9-1
Current Streak:  Michigan 6

Minnesota entered Jerry Kill’s fourth season on an upward swing, having gone from 3-9 to 6-7 to 8-5 the past three seasons. If they can improve their record again this fall — a tall order, to be sure — Kill will have done something that hasn’t been done since the 1940s — improve Minnesota’s record for three straight seasons. Minnesota’s legendary coach, Bernie Bierman, was the last to do it from 1945-48. Glen Mason had a chance to achieve the feat twice during his tenure, but each time fell back to earth. He did, however, reach 10 wins in 2003, and Kill will hope to parlay the momentum he has built into a similar outcome.

Kill got a nice vote of confidence in the offseason in the form of a new contract that bumps his salary up from $1 million per year to $2.3 million through 2018.

Minnesota enters Ann Arbor winners of three of their first four this season, the only loss a 30-7 defeat at the hands of TCU. The Gophers beat Eastern Illinois 42-20, Middle Tennessee 35-24, and San Jose State 24-7. Unlike Michigan, who has out-gained all four of its opponents offensively, Minnesota has actually been out-gained in three of its four games.

Michigan has had Minnesota’s number the last half century, winning the last six, 22 of the last 23, 30 of the last 32, and 41 of the last 46 since 1964. The Little Brown Jug basically lives in Ann Arbor these days, and even during Michigan’s 3-9 season in 2008, the Wolverines found a way to beat the Gophers. So how do the teams match up this season? Let’s take a look.

Michigan defense vs Minnesota offense: When Minnesota has the ball

Through the first four games, the Minnesota offense averages a field goal more per game than Michigan (27 points). The Gophers rank 104th in total offense (336 yards per game), 29th in rushing (236.2 yards per game), and 121st in passing (99.8 yards per game). The also rank 95th in third down conversions (37 percent) and 90th in red zone scores (10-of-13).

David Cobb is averaging 134.8 yards per game so far this season

David Cobb is averaging 134.8 yards per game so far this season

Senior David Cobb is one of the best running backs in the conference. Our former feature writer Drew Hallett ranked him seventh-best in his preseason Big Ten position rankings. He came out of nowhere to rush for 1,202 yards on 5.1 yards per carry in 2013, becoming the first Gopher to eclipse 1,000 yards since 2006. He was held to just 22 yards on seven carries against Michigan, but had six 100-yard games, including against Michigan State. So far this season, Cobb has been the Gopher offense, averaging 134.8 yards per game on the ground. But he has gained most of that yardage in just two of the four games — 220 yards against Middle Tennessee and 207 against San Jose State last week. TCU held him to just 41 yards on 15 carries in Week 3 and you can be sure Michigan will load the box to do the same.

Cobb is the workhorse with 92 carries, but three other running backs have double-digit carries. Berkley Edwards, the younger brother of former Michigan star receiver Braylon, has 16 carries for 92 yards and two touchdowns. Rodrick Williams and Donnell Kirkwood each have 10 carries for just 35 and 24 yards, respectively.

With last year’s starting quarterback, Phillip Nelson, gone the man who supplanted him by the end of 2013 was supposed to grab the reigns. Redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner threw just 78 passes for 619 yards and three touchdowns last season. About a third of that came in the bowl game in which he completed 11-of-22 for 205 yards and two scores. He also saw extensive action against Michigan, completing 14-of-21 for 145 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. He was much more of a running quarterback last season, rushing 102 times for 407 yards and seven scores.

But after starting the first three games this season and completing just 48.1 percent of his passes for 362 yards, two touchdowns, and four interceptions, he missed last week’s game with turf toe. In his place was redshirt freshman Chris Streveler, who threw just seven passes and completed just one for seven yards. On the other hand, Streveler rushed 18 times for 161 yards and a touchdown. He’s likely to be the starter tomorrow.

The receiving corps is young, led by tight end Maxx WilliamsDrew’s second-best tight end in the conference this fall, who caught 25 passes for 417 yards and five touchdowns a year ago. Williams leads the team with six catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns so far, also missed last week’s game with an injury, but should play tomorrow. Last year’s leading wide receiver, Derrick Engel, is gone, leaving Donovahn Jones, K.J. Maye, and Drew Wolitarsky to step up. Jones has six catches for 92 yards and a score, while Maye has two for 65, and Wolitarsky has four for 31.

Experience isn’t an issue with the offensive line. Of the nine linemen that started a game last season, seven returned, and those seven started a combined 55 games in 2013 and 124 in their careers. Left guard Zac Epping is the most experienced of the bunch, having started 38 career games. While none of Minnesota’s linemen rank among the Big Ten’s best, and the line as a whole won’t be the best, it has paved the way for a powerful running game.

Michigan offense vs Minnesota defense: When Michigan has the ball

Defensively, Minnesota has allowed exactly the same number of points as Michigan has, 20.2 per game. The total defense ranks 66th nationally (383.8 yards per game), the rush defense ranks 51st (131.5 yards per game), and the pass defense ranks 82nd (252.2 yards per game). In addition, the Gophers are allowing opponents to convert 40 percent of their third downs, which ranks 72nd nationally. By comparison, Michigan allows 33 percent.

Linebacker Damien Wilson leads the team with 44 tackles

Linebacker Damien Wilson leads the team with 44 tackles

The main loss from last season is a big one in nose tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, who was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the second round of the NFL Draft. He led Minnesota with 13 tackles-for-loss in 2013 and also recorded two sacks. Defensive tackle Roland Johnson, who added 5.5 tackles-for-loss, also departed, leaving a big hole in the middle of the defense.

Senior Cameron Botticelli is now the main man in the middle and leads the team with 3.5 tackles for loss. He also has one sack. Nose tackle Steven Richardson has started the last two games and has eight tackles, 2.5 for loss, and one sack. The ends are redshirt junior Theiren Cockran, who ranked third in the Big Ten last season with 7.5 sacks, and senior Michael Amaefula, who recorded 19 tackles for loss a year ago. The two have combined for 12 tackles, three for loss, and a sack so far this season. Sophomore Hendrick Ekpe started the first two games and has 10 tackles, three for loss, and 1.5 sacks.

Two of the top three linebackers from last season are gone, but middle linebacker, senior Damien Wilson, returns. He was Minnesota’s second-leading tackler last season with 78, and had the third-most tackles-for-loss with 5.5. He currently leads the team with 44 tackles and also has three tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, an interception, and a fumble recovery. Junior De’Vondre Campbell, who started three games last season, is the second leading tackler with 21 to go along with one tackle for loss. The Gophers have gone with more nickel the past two weeks, but when they use a third linebacker it is usually redshirt sophomore Jack Lynn, who is third on the team with 20 tackles and two for loss.

The strength of Minnesota’s defense was supposed to be the secondary, despite the loss of cornerback Brock Vereen, who was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the fourth round. The other starting corner from last season, Eric Murray, led the team with 10 pass breakups, which ranked sixth in the Big Ten. Just a junior this fall, Murray has 16 tackles, one interception, and two pass breakups so far. The other corners are junior Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who tore his ACL last season, and senior Derrick Wells, who was hampered most of 2013 with a shoulder injury. Boddy-Calhoun leads the team with two interceptions and five pass breakups so far.

The safety spots are filled by Cedric Thompson — last season’s leading tackler — junior Antonio Johnson, and junior Damarius Travis. Johnson and Travis each have a pick so far this season.

Special Teams: The other third

Redshirt freshman kicker Ryan Santoso was rated the seventh-best kicker in the 2013 class by ESPN and is replacing Chris Hawthorne, who made 14-of-18 last season. Santoso has made just 1-of-3 so far this season with a long of 38. Redshirt junior punter Peter Mortell is a nice weapon to have after ranking third in the Big Ten with a 43.3-yard average a year ago. He’s currently averaging 46.2 yards, which ranks second in the conference, behind only Nebraska’s Sam Foltz.

Defensive back Marcus Jones ranked sixth in the Big Ten in kick returns last season, averaging 24.9 yards per return. He’s currently right on pace, averaging 24.4 yards. He’s also handling most of the punt return duties with six returns for an average of eight yards.

Prediction:

Minnesota is going to try to run the ball, run the ball some more, and run the ball some more. The good news is that plays right into Michigan’s defensive strength. Expect Greg Mattison to load the box to stop the run and force Streveler to try to make big plays with his arm. He has completed just 4-of-11 passes for 37 yards in his career, so that’s a good thing for Michigan’s young corners, Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers.

Offensively, Michigan is also going to try to run the ball a lot with Derrick Green, but given the success teams have had passing on the Gophers so far, Michigan can have some success through the air. Could this be Shane Morris’ coming out party? I wouldn’t go that far, but I am looking forward to seeing what he can do as the (presumed) starter.

Expect a fairly low-scoring game with neither team able to pull away. Michigan will win, and while I don’t think it will be decisively, it won’t be too close for comfort either.

Michigan 24 – Minnesota 13

Minnesota Q&A with JDMill of The Daily Gopher

Thursday, September 25th, 2014


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Each Thursday throughout the season we collaborate with that week’s opponent blog to get some questions answered by the guys who know more about their team than we do. This week, we partnered with JDMill of the Minnesota SB Nation blog, The Daily Gopher. He was kind enough to answer questions about the stagnant Gopher passing game, whether Minnesota can run on Michigan’s defense, how Minnesota fans view the Michigan current state of affairs, and more. You can follow The Daily Gopher on Twitter at @TheDailyGopher and you can follow JDMill at @jdmill.

1. What’s up with the Minnesota passing game? Less than 100 yards a game? Only seven yards last week? What’s the deal?

What came first, the chicken or the egg? That’s kind of the deal with the Gophers. Do they not pass very often because the running game is so good, or do they not pass very often because the passing game is so bad?

If you ask the coaches, they will tell you that the running game has been working, so there hasn’t been a need to pass. I think the fans are a little bit more nervous. Take a look at the TCU game. The Gophers were forced to pass because they got behind early and the run game wasn’t as effective as needed. As such, Mitch Leidner threw 26 times, completing just 12 for 151 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. Not. Pretty.

So while the coaches will tell you that if the running game is working there is no reason to pass, they have also admitted this week that they are going to need to be able to throw the ball more effectively to keep teams honest now that we’re hitting the conference schedule.

2. The running game on the other hand has been pretty good, especially David Cobb. Michigan’s rush defense has only allowed one of its four opponents (Appalachian State in Week 1) to rush for over 100 yards. Do you think Minnesota will be able to run on Michigan?

I do think we’ll be able to run a bit on Michigan, but we’ve been averaging over 230 yards rushing per game in the non-con, and I don’t think we’ll be able to do that against the Wolverines. The trump card, however, is quarterback Chris Streveler. With him behind center the Gophers have a true, fast addition that seems to be able to run the read-option pretty effectively. I could see a scenario where Minnesota puts up 150 yards rushing with at least half of that coming from the quarterback.

3. Minnesota also has a pretty good run defense, but three of the four opponents have thrown for over 250 yards. Michigan’s offense has had well-publicized problems against the only power-five teams it has played (Notre Dame and Utah). Do you think Minnesota’s defense can force Michigan’s offense into those same types of mistakes?

This is a defense that gives up a fair number of yards, but not a lot of points. The Gophers give up 122 yards per game more than Michigan, but we’ve allowed the exact same number of points. In fact, Minnesota has given up more yards than it has produced in three out of our four games this season so far.

The Gopher defense is opportunistic and that’s an important characteristic for a team that is going to struggle to throw the ball. The defense has given this team points and short fields, and I believe they will continue that trend and win the turnover battle with Michigan.

4. What’s your view on the current state of the Michigan program? Things are falling apart at the seams here, but what does it look like from the outside? And do Gopher fans enjoy seeing Michigan struggle like this?

Well, from the outside it looks like things are falling apart at the seams

I think the biggest eye-opener for everyone else in the conference was when Notre Dame took the Wolverines behind the wood shed. For me, anyway, that was just shocking. We expect Michigan to at least be competitive and they just didn’t even show up. And then to follow that up with the effort against Utah…well, you guys lived it so I won’t go on.

I’m hard pressed to say that Gopher fans enjoy it. I mean, I think schadenfreude is always alive and well in the B1G and Michigan has beaten the tar out of us for 45 years, so it certainly doesn’t hurt us to see this happening and I think Gopher fans smell blood in the water and a chance to get a trophy back. But the reality is that a competitive Michigan is good for the B1G, and I think deep down we know that.

The interesting piece of the puzzle here is that Brady Hoke is who many Gopher fans wanted as coach when Minnesota got Jerry Kill. The rumor is that Hoke turned down the job knowing that the Michigan job was probably in his grasp.

5. What’s your prediction, and why?

I REALLY want to predict a Gopher win here. I REALLY want to believe that Michigan is down on itself enough that Minnesota will be able to take advantage, dominate defensively, and do enough on offense to put up some points. In order for that to happen I think we’d be looking at a 17-10 type of game and one of the Gopher touchdowns would be from defense or special teams.

However, I’ve been around long enough to know that weird things happen to Minnesota when we play Michigan. Things fall apart for the Gophers. Michigan wakes up. Quarterbacks have career days against our defense. And knowing the history of this rivalry, my fragile psyche just won’t let me predict a Gopher win. To paraphrase the Gin Blossoms, if I don’t expect to much of the Gophers I might not be let down.

Michigan 24 – Minnesota 17.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 4

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014


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Week 4 was a much-needed good week for the Big Ten with all but two teams picking up wins. Those two teams were Michigan and Ohio State. The bad news for Michigan fans is that Ohio State had a bye week, which means Michigan was the only conference team that lost last Saturday.

East Division
1. Penn State (4-0, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat UMass 48-7 This Week: Sat vs Northwestern (1-2), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Penn State stayed hot this weekend, dominating UMass 48-7. With the rest of the conference struggling, the newly bowl-eligible Nittany Lions have emerged as the toughest competition for Michigan State in the East.

2. Michigan State (2-1, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Eastern Michigan 73-14 This Week: Sat vs Wyoming (3-1), 12pm, ESPN2

The Spartans bounced back from the tough loss at Oregon by pounding Eastern Michigan following the bye week. The Spartans defense is as strong as it’s ever been heading into a conference slate littered with teams that struggle to score.

3. Indiana (2-1, 0-0) – Up 4
Last Week: Beat #18 Missouri 31-27 This Week: Sat vs Maryland (3-1), 1:30pm, Big Ten Network

Indiana pulled off the biggest win of the non conference schedule for the Big Ten by beating SEC contender Missouri on a last minute score. The Hoosiers came out of nowhere for the win, proving that an elite offense will give them a chance to stay in every game going forward.

4. Maryland (3-1, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Syracuse 34-20 This Week: Sat at Indiana (2-1), 1:30pm, Big Ten Network

Beating power conference opponents on thr the road is always a good way to build a stronger resume, and Maryland did just that this weekend, pounding Syracuse by two touchdowns.

5. Ohio State (2-1, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Cincinnati (2-0), 6pm, Big Ten Network

Ohio State took a week off after bouncing back from a loss to Virginia Tech. The Buckeyes should finish near the top of the East standings, but they won’t contend with Michigan State.

6. Michigan (2-2, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to Utah 10-26 This Week: Sat vs Minnesota (3-1), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

Saturday turned into a disaster for Michigan when the team failed to show up against a talented Utah team. The program is under siege from the fanbase and Brady Hoke is clinging to his job by a thread heading into the Big Ten season.

7. Rutgers (3-1, 0-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Beat Navy 31-24 This Week: Sat vs Tulane (1-3), 12pm, ESPNNews

Rutgers turned in an impressive performance against Navy on Saturday, beating the Midshipmen on the road. Rutgers has to consider the 3-1 start a success, but a brutal conference schedule leaves little hope for the team in the big picture.

West Division
1. Nebraska (4-0, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Miami 41-31 This Week: Sat Illinois (3-1), 9pm, Big Ten Network

It wasn’t always pretty for Nebraska in the preconference schedule, but in a year when so many if their Big Ten rivals were upset, Bo Pelini will gladly take a spotless 4-0 start to 2014.

2. Minnesota (3-1, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat San Jose State 24-7 This Week: Sat at Michigan (2-2), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

Minnesota put in a strong defensive effort to stay perfect Saturday against San Jose State. The Gophers will take their show on the road this weekend in the battle for the Little Brown Jug in Ann Arbor.

3. Wisconsin (2-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Beat Bowling Green 68-17 This Week: Sat vs South Florida (2-2), 12pm, ESPN2

Melvin Gordon and the Badger offense put on a rushing show Saturday against a Bowling Green team that upset Indiana last weekend. The team rushed for over 600 yards in the contest and demonstrated why it is favored to win the West.

4. Iowa (3-1, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Pittsburgh 24-20 This Week: Sat at Purdue (2-2), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Iowa put in its best effort of the season Saturday, beating Pittsburgh on the road. The Hawkeyes played inconsistent football throughout the preconference schedule and were fortunate to come out with three wins.

5. Illinois (3-1, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Texas State 42-35 This Week: Sat at #21 Nebraska (4-0), 9pm, Big Ten Network

For the third time this season Illinois played with fire but escaped, moving to 3-1 on the year. This time the Fighting Illini pulled through in a shootout, winning 42-35 over Texas State.

6. Purdue (2-2, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Beat Southern Illinois 35-13 This Week: Sat vs Iowa (3-1), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Purdue pulled back to .500 Saturday by crushing a weak Southern Illinois team at home. The Big Ten will reap few victories for the Boilermakers this season.

7. Northwestern (1-2, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Western Illinois 24-7 This Week: Sat at Penn State (4-0), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Pat Fitzgerald followed up the bye week by getting the monkey off his team’s back, beating Western Illinois 24-7. It looks like it will be another difficult year for the Wildcats in 2014.

First Look: Minnesota

Monday, September 22nd, 2014


FirstLook-Minnesota

The heat in Ann Arbor has nearly reached the fiery furnaces of hell and it seems most Michigan fans think that’s where the football program is at this point. But there are still eight games to play, beginning with a team Michigan has dominated the last 45 years. Minnesota comes to town looking to capture the Little Brown Jug for just the third time since 1968. The Gophers have beaten Western Michigan, Middle Tennessee, and San Jose State, and lost to TCU. Let’s take a look at how Michigan and Minnesota compare through four games.

Minnesota Statistics & Michigan Comparison
MinnesotaMichigan Rank Defense Rank
Points Per Game 27.0 | 24.0 82 | T91 20.2 | 20.2 T33T33
Rushing Yards 945 | 844 526 | 321
Rush Avg. Per Game 236.2 | 211.0 29 | 37 131.5 | 80.2 51 | 9
Avg. Per Rush 5.1 | 5.6
3.7 | 2.5
Passing Yards 399 | 773 1,009 | 723
Pass Avg. Per Game 99.8 | 193.2 121 | 98 252.2 | 180.8 82 | 27
Total Offense 1,3441,617 1,535 | 1,044
Total Off Avg. Per Game 336.0 | 404.2 104 | 78 383.8 | 261.0 66 | 8
Kick Return Average 24.4 | 19.0 30 | T88 18.3 | 19.2 30 | T48
Punt Return Average 9.7 | 9.8 54 | T51 10.4 | 14.6 87 | 105
Avg. Time of Possession 31:18 | 32:42 35 | 22
28:42 | 27:18
3rd Down Conversion Pct 37.0% | 45.0% 95 | 47
40.0% | 33.0% 72 | 39
Sacks Allowed-Yards/By-Yards 4-26 | 8-53
T22 | T80
8-54 | 7-67
T62 | T78
Touchdowns Scored 15 | 12
10 | 9
Field Goals-Attempts 1-3 | 4-7 4-8 | 6-7
Red Zone Scores (10-13) 77% | (10-10) 100% 90 | T1
(9-11) 82%(10-11) 91% T57 | T91
Red Zone Touchdowns (10-13) 77% | (8-10) 80% (6-11) 55% | (6-11) 55%

Michigan’s offense isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, but believe it or not, Minnesota’s is even worse. Sure, the Gophers are averaging three points more, but they haven’t played a team near Notre Dame or Utah’s level yet. Okay, TCU may be about Utah’s level, but Western Michigan, Middle Tennessee, and San Jose State are nowhere close.

Even so, Minnesota’s offense ranks 104th nationally, averaging 68 fewer total yards per game than Michigan’s. The one positive for the Gophers is the running game, which ranks 29th nationally, averaging 236.2 yards per game — 25 more than Michigan. Running back David Cobb is one of the best in the Big Ten and is currently sixth nationally with 539 yards, averaging 135 yards a game and 5.9 yards per carry. By comparison, Derrick Green has 391 yards, but 28 fewer carries.

Schedule
Date Opponent Result
Aug. 28 Eastern Illinois W 42-20
Sept. 6 Middle Tennessee State W 35-24
Sept. 13 at TCU L 7-30
Sept. 20 San Jose State W 24-7
Sept. 27 at Michigan
Oct. 11 Northwestern
Oct. 18 Purdue
Oct. 25 at Illinois
Nov. 8 Iowa
Nov. 15 Ohio State
Nov. 22 at Nebraska
Nov. 29 at Wisconsin

Even with the gaudy rushing numbers, the Gophers running game is vulnerable. In Week 1 against Western Michigan, Minnesota rushed for 182 yards on 40 carries — a decent 4.6 yards per carry, but not great, though that can be excused in the first game of the season. Against Middle Tennessee in Week 2, the Gophers gained 284 yards on 50 carries, and last week against San Jose State, they exploded for 380 yards on 58 carries. But against the only good defense they faced, TCU in Week 3, Minnesota was held to just 99 yards on 39 carries — just 2.5 yards per carry. Cobb only managed 41 yards on 15 carries in that game.

While the running game has had some success this season, the passing game is a different story. Minnesota is averaging less than 100 passing yards per game, which ranks 121st nationally, better than only four teams — Navy, New Mexico, Eastern Michigan, and Army. In two of the four games, Minnesota hasn’t even managed 100 passing yards, and last week the Gophers pass for just seven (!) yards.

Defensively, Minnesota has fared slightly better, holding opponents to an average of 20.2 points per game, the exact same as Michigan. The rush defense ranks 51st, allowing 131.5 yards per game, while the pass defense ranks 82nd, allowing 252.2 yards per game. None of the four opponents has rushed for more than 200 yards on the Gophers — Middle Tennessee had the most with 190 — but three of the four have thrown for over 250 yards.

Special teams-wise, Minnesota has made just 1-of-3 field goal attempts and average 44.2 yards per punt. They average five yards per kick return more than Michigan and about the same as Michigan per punt return.

There’s a lot of pessimism surrounding the Michigan football program right now, but there’s no reason to believe the Little Brown Jug won’t be staying in Ann Arbor for another year. If Michigan stops the run, Michigan wins. It’s as simple as that.

Key Players
Passing Comp-Att Yards TD INT Average/Game
Mitch Leidner 26-54 362 2 4 120.7
Chris Streveler 4-11 37 1 1 9.2
Rushing Attempts Yards TD Long Average/Carry
David Cobb 92 539 4 48 5.9
Chris Streveler (QB) 31 219 1 30 7.0
Berkley Edwards 16 92 2 42 5.8
Mitch Leidner (QB) 21 77 2 10 2.4
Receiving Receptions Yards TD Long Average/Game
Maxx Williams (TE) 6 10 2 32 36.7
Donovahn Jones 6 92 1 35 23.0
Drew Wolitarsky 4 31 0 16 10.3
David Cobb (RB) 3 38 0 16 9.5
K.J. Maye 2 65 0 34 16.2
Defense Solo Assisted Total Tackles TFL-Yds Sacks-Yds
Damien Wilson (LB) 22 22 44 3.0-13 1.5-9 (1 INT, 1FR)
De’Vondre Campbell (LB) 15 6 21 1.0-6 0-0 (1 FR)
Cam Botticelli (DL) 8 4 12 3.5-13 1.0-8
Briean Boddy-Calhoun (DB) 8 8 16 1.0-2 0-0 (2 INT, 3PD)
Hendrick Ekpe (DL) 7 3 10 3.0-11 1.5-9
Kicking FG Made FG Att Long XP Made XP Att
Ryan Santoso 1 3 38 15 15
Punting Punts Yds Avg. In-20 50+
Peter Mortell 22 1,017 46.2 5 9
Full Stats

Stay tuned for more on Minnesota in the coming days.

M&GB staff predictions: Utah

Friday, September 19th, 2014


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Michigan let Miami (Ohio) hang around for a little over two quarters last week before stepping on the gas. Now Utah comes to town with an offense that make Michigan pay if the Wolverines turn the ball over. It seems most Michigan fans are equating Utah to a far inferior opponent, but the Utes are much better than we’re giving them credit for. Could they come into the Big House and win just like they did in 2008? Or will Michigan take care of business and head into conference play 3-1? Let’s take a look at our predictions.

Staff Predictions
Michigan Utah
Justin 24 27
Sam 31 24
Derick 31 28
Josh 24 31
Joe 31 27
M&GB Average 28.2 27.4

Justin: Utah’s spread passing offense has scored 56 and 59 points in its fist two games and ranks 14th nationally with 557.5 total yards per game. It hasn’t faced a defense anywhere near as good as Michigan’s yet, but will the Wolverines be able to slow it down?

Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott will be a big test for Michigan’s secondary that may still be without Raymon Taylor. While Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers are talented, they’re young compared to the experienced Ute receivers. Quarterback Travis Wilson had a knack for committing turnovers when being pressured last season — he threw 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions — but he hasn’t really been challenged yet this season. If Michigan’s front seven can apply pressure and force some bad decisions the defense can slow down Utah’s offense. However, if it gives him time to throw, he can pick apart the defense just like Everett Golson did two weeks ago.

Michigan faces the same challenge on offense. Utah leads the nation with 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss per game. We all know Devin Gardner’s inconsistencies when facing pressure, so a lot will fall on the shoulders of the young offensive line and its ability to handle Nate Orchard and the Utah pass rush. If it can give Gardner time to throw, Utah’s secondary is vulnerable. Gardner hooked up with Amara Darboh quite a bit last week, but if Devin Funchess is still out tomorrow, can he do it again?

I think this will be a back-and-forth battle that will ultimately be decided on turnovers and special teams. Unfortunately, Michigan has been turnover-prone this season and has had lackluster special teams play, while Utah has a big advantage in that category with a near automatic kicker, a big-footed punter, and a home run threat return man. I hope I’m wrong.

Utah 27 – Michigan 24

Sam: It’s a testy time in Michigan Football history right now. The Wolverines have not won a Big Ten Championship in a decade, the Notre Dame series ended on the most rotten of notes, and Brady Hoke is looking like an embattled coach in his fourth season as the figurehead of the Maize and Blue.

Luckily for Hoke, the pitiful Big Ten is still up for grabs this season, and Michigan has one more week to shore things up on the field…but it doesn’t look like a week to relax. The Utah Utes, winners of two blowouts so far despite a shaky outlook before the season started, are less-than-a-touchdown underdogs and don’t seem to be fazed at all for this Saturday’s game. Junior quarterback Travis Wilson leads an aerial attack averaging more than 10 yards per pass attempt on the season that is set up by a ground game averaging a not-so-impressive-considering-the-competition five yards per carry.

Michigan’s run defense has proved extremely effective in the early going while the secondary play has left much to be desired. If Raymon Taylor and/or Jarrod Wilson sit again, I’ll be…worried. Willie Henry, Ryan Glasgow, Brennen Beyer, and Frank Clark are anchoring a tough front seven, but the cornerbacks will need to stick with their guys long enough to let the pressure get to the QB. Wilson is not a major threat to run, though back-up Kendal Thompson will see a few change-of-pace snaps, so it is imperative that Taylor, Jabrill Peppers, Blake Countess, Jourdan Lewis, and company are on their games.

I certainly have no idea what will come of this game. Nationally, pundits love Utah after seeing Michigan struggle out of the gates. The big question mark will be Michigan’s offense of course. The Wolverines should hold Utah under 25, so if Devin Gardner can stay calm in the pocket, step up under pressure, and fire bullets to (hopefully) Devin Funchess and company, I like the home team.

A close game will be no shocker, but I believe a blowout would go Michigan’s way. Ultimately, give me the Wolverines.

Michigan 31 – Utah 24

Derick:  Michigan hasn’t shown a flash of the performance it demonstrated against Appalachian State in the past two weeks, and if Brady Hoke’s team comes out slow against Utah it may fall to 2-2 in the non-conference season.

Derrick Green put another strong performance together against Miami (Ohio), and the offense will need him to shoulder the load again against this Pac-12 defense. If he can take pressure off of Devin Gardner, then Michigan has a great chance to control the game.

Michigan should bounce back from the adversity of the last two weeks and squeak out a win heading into Big Ten play.

Michigan 31 – Utah 28

Josh: This ain’t Urban Meyer’s Utah Utes but they are an explosive, high scoring team, to a point. Fresno State has give up 50-plus in all three of their games this year and Idaho St is a mid-level FCS team, so of course Utah has put up some crazy numbers. I circled this game as a toss-up and called it as one of my potential losses coming into the season. I haven’t changed my mind and depending on how the injuries play out Michigan may end up on the wrong end Saturday.

Before I go any further let me say I am a big fan of Blake Countess, he is a damn good ZONE cornerback but he is just awful as a press corner, especially against speedy receivers. He’s just not athletic enough to do it. His gift lies in baiting quarterbacks to think a receiver is open and then jumping the route for a nice pick or pass break-up. If he is made to play anything but zone against Utah I don’t like his chances. However, if some form of the combo of Lewis/Taylor/Peppers play the boundary, as we saw last week with Lewis and Peppers, I feel good about Michigan’s chances to lock down Utah’s receivers. The run defense has been rather stout thus far and I think that holds serve here against the Utes. The defense doesn’t concern me as it has been pretty solid through three game. For me, this game all boils down to the cornerback play. If Peppers/Lewis/Taylor are the guys pressing we’re in good shape, but as soon as Countess is called upon to play press odds are he’s gonna get beat and Utah will test him.

Offense is where I think we can run into some trouble. Every single team in America knows the formula to beat Michigan: pressure Devin Gardner and he will eventually turn it over. Utah is aggressive on defense and will pressure Gardner. Utah will be able to take advantage of turnovers and that could spell doom. If the offense can run the ball well, enough to keep the chains moving, then this shouldn’t be an issue, but if Gardner is put in third-and-long situations the offense will sputter. If Gardner can not turn it over, something that he struggles with immensely, the offense should be okay. But that is a big IF as we still have not seen the run game do anything against a decent opponent.

Devin Funchess may or may not be out, and I wouldn’t expect Brady Hoke to tip his hand regarding injuries, especially with his stud receiver. To be honest, I like our chances better if Funchess is out. Wait, what?! Yes, I like our chances better if Funchess is out. No, I’m not crazy…well, maybe. But hear me out. Gardner has a tendency to lock on to his No. 1, and then he has another tendency to force it to his No. 1. Funchess is a monster, we all know that, but when Gardner is under pressure (which he will be a lot come Saturday) he makes ill-advised (to put it lightly) throws and forces it to Funchess, which in turn leads to turnovers, which in turn often lead to bad losses. Without Funchess, Gardner (in my mind) will be less likely to force it to another receiver with whom he doesn’t have unfailing faith, as he does with Funchess. So somehow in my roundabout logic I think we’re better off without Funchess because Gardner won’t force so many bad passes and will be less likely to turn it over. On second thought, maybe I am crazy.

As with most games the better team does not always win, usually the team that makes the fewest mistakes wins. With Gardner at quarterback (I’ve all but lost faith in him, way too inconsistent to be trusted week to week) that is always a likelihood and I hate to be the guy who picks us to lose again but I’m going to do it anyway. Gardner will be pressured non-stop, he will turn it over one too many times, Utah will capitalize and win a close one.

Utah 31 – Michigan 24

Joe: I am starting to get the same feeling I had last year as Michigan battled a string of inferior programs. It’s not a good feeling! I want to see that killer instinct from a hungry group of Wolverines. I want to see something from this team that screams “things will be different this year.” I think I’m starting to see a little bit of this in the defense and hope they continue the upward progression this week. Let’s finally get the offense to join in and hit the Big Ten schedule running next week.

Utah likes to run an up-tempo offense and score in bunches, so keeping their offense off the field will be key. If Michigan is able to establish the run game early and control the clock, they will be just fine. I can see Green going for 150 and two touchdowns and Gardner mixing in another two through the air. The defense will force a few timely turnovers and hold on late for a close win. Michigan pulls this one out and look forward to Minnesota.

Michigan 31 – Utah 27
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Links: 

For more coverage of this week’s game, see: Michigan-Utah game preview; a First Look at the Utes; our Week 3 Big Ten Power Rankings; this week’s BBQ/tailgate idea, grilled ravioli; a Q&A with Steve Bartle of the Utah blog Light the U; and this week’s Five-Spot Challenge.

Also check out game previews from MGoBlogMaize n BrewMaize n Blue Nation, and Touch the BannerMGoFish provides a list of Michigan targets visiting tomorrow. Also, roundtable predictions from Maize n Brew.

Michigan-Utah game preview

Friday, September 19th, 2014


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Just like Miami (Ohio) last week, the last time Michigan faced Utah, the Wolverines were just beginning a new era. Lloyd Carr had retired following the previous game, a 41-35 Capital One Bowl win over Florida, and Rich Rodriguez took over with hopes of bringing Michigan’s old school offense into the 21st century.

The very first game of his short-lived tenure in Ann Arbor was against a Utah team coming off of a 9-4 season. What wasn’t known at the time of Michigan’s 25-23 loss to the Utes was just how good that team would be. While Michigan slogged its way to a 3-9 season, Utah finished the year 13-0, ranked second nationally, and beat Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl.

UM-Utah-small-final
Quick Facts
Michigan Stadium – 3:30 p.m. EST – ABC
Utah Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham (10th season)
Coaching Record: 76-39 overall (all at Utah)
Offensive Coordinator: Dave Christensen (1st season)
Defensive Coordinator: Kalani Sitake (6th season)
Returning Starters: 11 (6 offense, 5 defense)
Last Season: 5-7 (2-7 Pac-12)
Last Meeting: Utah 25 – Michigan 23 (2008)
All-Time Series: Tied 1-1
Record vs Pac-12: Michigan leads 48-24-1
Last win over Utah: 10-7 (2002)
Brady Hoke vs Utah:  0-2 (both at San Diego State)

There wasn’t anywhere to go but down from there and that’s just what the Utes have done in the five years since, from 10-3 in 2009 and 2010 to 8-5 in 2011 and 5-7 in 2012 and 2013. But last year’s 5-7 record is worse than the team really was, and this year’s team is certainly not the pushover most Michigan fans thought they would be prior to the season.

Last season, Utah handed Stanford the first of its three losses, but lost to Oregon State by three, 51-48, had a chance to tie at the end of a loss to UCLA, and gave up a 12-point fourth quarter lead in a loss to Arizona State. No, close losses don’t count for anything, but they do show how close the team was to a much better season, especially considering that starting quarterback Travis Wilson missed the final three games and played sparingly in the three before that. Five of those six were losses.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham demoted co-offensive coordinators Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson and brought in former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen to run the offense. Christensen didn’t have the same success at Wyoming as a head coach — though he was named Mountain West Coach of the Year in 2011 — as he did in his previous stop as Missouri’s offensive coordinator from 1997-2008. At Missouri, he guided one of the top offenses in the country. Erickson, meanwhile, was demoted to running backs coach and Johnson to quarterbacks coach.

Christensen’s offense has been a hit in Salt Lake City so far this season as Utah has beaten Idaho State 56-14 and Fresno State 59-27. The starters played only about a half in both games, but both were at home. The Utes haven’t had to travel yet, let alone all the way across the country. They lost four of five road games in 2013 and the only one they won was just down the road at BYU.

Let’s take a look at the match ups.

Michigan defense vs Utah offense: When Utah has the ball

The 57.5 points per game is third-best nationally, behind only Baylor (59.3) and Cincinnati (58). The running game ranks 24th (248 yards per game), the passing game ranks 29th (309.5), and the total offense ranks 14th (557.5).

Dres Anderson is as good a receiver as Michigan has faced so far (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Dres Anderson is as good a receiver as Michigan has faced so far (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

The aforementioned Travis Wilson is back from a head injury that nearly cost him his career last season. After suffering a concussion against Arizona State on Nov. 9, Wilson had a CT scan that showed an enlarged intracranial artery. He was shut down from football for three months. He was re-evaluated in February and doctors ruled he could return to football, but he was still held out of contact in the spring. Now that he’s back in action, he’s making the most of his second chance. In the opener, Wilson completed 13-of-18 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown in just two quarters of work. He followed that up by going 11-of-20 for 181 yards and five touchdowns in two-and-a-half quarters in Week 2. Perhaps most importantly, he hasn’t thrown an interception yet after throwing 16 a year ago.

Wilson has a pair of dangerous targets to throw to in senior Dres Anderson and junior Kenneth Scott. Anderson has 25 career starts under his belt and was honorable mention All-Pac-12 last season. He leads the Utes with 195 receiving yards through two games on seven catches (27.9 yards per catch). Two have gone for touchdowns, both against Fresno State. Although Scott doesn’t have the yards Anderson does (134) he leads the team with 10 receptions and three touchdowns. He missed the 2013 season after injuring his ankle in the first quarter of the first game, but has been Wilson’s favorite target thus far in 2014.

The only other pass catcher with more than five catches is senior tight end Westlee Tonga, who has six for 85 yards and a score. Senior receiver Andre Lewis has just one catch but it went for a 45-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Fresno State blowout, while sophomore Delshawn McClellan has three catches for 15 yards.

The running game is a three-headed attack along with Wilson’s ability to use his feet. Juniors Devontae Booker and Bubba Poole are the horses. Booker, a junior college transfer, leads the team with 145 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries (7.3 yards per carry). Poole, who lead the Utes with 607 yards last season, has 19 carries for 96 yards (5.1 ypc) and a score. At 5’9″, 172-pounds, redshirt freshman Troy McCormick adds a different dimension than the bigger Booker and Poole. McCormick has 21 carries for 58 yards and a touchdown. Wilson is a capable runner as well, although his sack yardage hurts his average.

The line has a good amount of experience on the left side in junior left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi (24 career starts) and senior left guard Junior Salt (14). The rest of the line, however, is less experienced. Junior Siaosi Aiono started eight games at right guard in 2013, but started the Fresno State game at center. Sophomore Hiva Lutui started the opener, the first of his career, in Aiono’s absence. Redshirt sophomore Isaac Asiata started four games last season — three at right tackle — is the starting right guard, while redshirt sophomore J.J. Dielman got the first two starts of his career in the first two games at right tackle.

Michigan offense vs Utah defense: When Michigan has the ball

While the Utah offense has put up numbers in droves, the defense has done its part as well. It’s hard to really paint a true picture of the Utes defense at this point given the level of opponent they have faced so far and that the first team defense didn’t play much more than a half in each game.

What we do know is that the defensive line is one that could give Michigan’s young and embattled offensive line fits. It starts with senior defensive end Nate Orchard, an honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection last season, who has 25 career starts. He leads the team with 14 tackles, three for loss, and 2.5 sacks so far. The other end is redshirt sophomore Hunter Dimick, who started four games last season and also has 2.5 sacks this year. Redshirt junior Clint Shepard is one starting tackle and has three tackles for loss and a sack so far, while redshirt junior Viliseni Fauonoku (four tackles) and senior Sese Ianu (three tackles) have each started a game this season at the other tackle spot. Combined, the unit leads the nation with 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss per game.

Nate Orchard was a high school teammate of Bryan Mone and Sione Houma and is the leader of Utah's defense (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Nate Orchard was a high school teammate of Bryan Mone and Sione Houma and is the leader of Utah’s defense (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Orchard played some linebacker against Fresno State and will likely line up there at times on Saturday, but juniors Jared Norris and Jason Whittingham are the true linebackers. Norris started seven games in 2013 and finished fifth on the team in tackles. He’s currently tied for the team lead with 14 and has two for loss. Whittingham was an honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection last season and has nine tackles so far this season. True sophomore Uaea Masina is in the rotation and has 10 tackles so far, but beyond those three it’s not a very deep unit.

The secondary has allowed 220.5 yards per game through the air thus far, including 283 to Fresno State’s offense that managed just 160 against USC in Week 1. Senior free safety Eric Rowe is the leader of the group with 37 starts under his belt. He has 14 tackles, a pass breakup, and a blocked kick so far. Senior strong safety Brian Blechen missed 2013 with an injury, but like Rowe, has 37 career starts. The cornerbacks are a grab bag with sophomore Reginald Porter, senior Davion Orphey, senior Wykie Freeman, redshirt sophomore Justin Thomas, and sophomore Dominique Hatfield each starting one of the two games. Orphey, a junior college transfer, has the most starting experience among the group, having started eight games in 2013. Senior Tevin Carter, also a junior college transfer, can start at safety and allow Rowe to play corner. He has 11 tackles, one for loss, so far, while Hatfield leads the team with two pass breakups. Utah hasn’t recorded an interception yet this season and has recovered just one fumble.

The other third: Special teams

Redshirt sophomore kicker Andy Phillips is a good one and also an interesting story. He was a member of the U.S. Ski Team from 2007-11 before joining the Utes. He had never played football before walking on, and in his first season — last season — he made 17-of-20 field goal attempts, earning third-team Freshman All-America honors. He has only attempted one field goal so far this season, a 47-yarder, which he made.

Junior punter Tom Hackett led the Pac-12 last season with a punt average of 43.4 yards and is averaging a whopping 51.1 yards per punt so far this season. Of his 10 punts, six have gone more than 50 yards, five have been downed inside the 20, and only one has gone into the end zone for a touchback.

Senior receiver Kaelin Clay has already returned a punt and a kick for a touchdown this season. He’s averaging 15 yards per punt return and has only returned one kick, which he took 100 yards for the touchdown. Booker is the main kick returner, averaging 22.5 yards.

Prediction

Prior to the season, I, like everyone else, chalked this game up to a win. But three weeks into the season I’m not so sure. Utah has looked great, but hasn’t been tested. Michigan laid an egg in its only real test of the season and let lowly Miami (Ohio) hang around far too long last week. Plus, Utah had two weeks to prepare for Michigan.

For Michigan offensively, it will all come down to how well the line can handle the pass rush. Notre Dame stopped the run and pressured Gardner into mistakes, and Utah’s line has the ability to do the same. Will Doug Nussmeier have a better game plan in place to counter that?

Defensively, Michigan’s secondary will be tested with Anderson and Scott. Everett Golson was able to pick apart the Wolverine secondary and he lacked receivers with the type of skill those two have. It sounds like Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers will be the starting corners with Blake Countess at nickel. While that puts Michigan’s best press corners on the field, they also give up a lot of experience to the Utah receivers. If the line isn’t able to put pressure on Wilson, and instead allows him time to pick apart the secondary, it could be the Notre Dame game all over defensively.

Finally, if special teams comes in to play, Utah has the decided advantage with a reliable kicker, a punter that can change field position, and a return man that has already taken two to the house.

I don’t like that formula for a young Michigan team still searching for consistency. Perhaps the home environment will help Hoke’s squad pull it out, but I’m not convinced. I hope I’m wrong.

Utah 27 – Michigan 24

Utah Q&A with Steve Bartle of Light the U

Thursday, September 18th, 2014


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Each Thursday throughout the season we collaborate with that week’s opponent blog to get some questions answered by the guys who know more about their team than we do. This week, we partnered with Steve Bartle of the Utah blog, Light the U. He was kind enough to answer questions about the how Utah fans view Michigan, how new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen has changed the offense, how Utah can stop Devin Funchess, and more. You can follow Light the U on Twitter at @LightTheU and you can follow Steve at @bartle21_56.

1. When Utah came to Ann Arbor in 2008, Michigan hadn’t really begun its downfall. It was the first season of Rich Rodriguez and there was a lot of excitement around the program. Now, after six down years, do Utah fans view Michigan in a different light? How is Michigan’s prestige now viewed to those out west compared to six years ago?

No, I don’t think Utah fans view Michigan much differently since our last trip there, in fact, there is a great amount of excitement among the fans. You would think with the lack of success that Michigan has had recently, coupled with Utah joining the Pac 12 and playing in stadiums like The Rose Bowl and The Colosseum that it may not be as big a deal, but to fans its still THE Big House… One of the most majestic and iconic places in all of college sports. It’s still a BIG, big deal.

Not only that, but the fact that our athletic director chose to schedule a 1-1 with Michigan by taking a two-year break from our heated and hated rivals, BYU (and I’m sure you guys can relate to how big of a deal it is to take a break from an Independent Religious Institution rivalry), I think speaks volumes about how highly regarded Michigan still is, at least out here. Rest assured, while the Wolverines have struggled more than the sports world is accustomed, to Utah fans UM will always be a big name program with a target on its back.

2. Utah’s offense was average to slightly below average last season (66th nationally in scoring, 76th in total offense, 72nd running, 62nd passing) and scored more than 40 points just twice. It has scored 56 and 59 in its first two games this season and averaged 557 yards. Is there really a big difference, or is it a result of the quality of opponents played so far? In what ways has Dave Christensen changed the offense?

With six offensive coordinators in six years, there has been a good amount of change to Utah’s offense. One thing that Dave Christensen brings, more so than the others, is know-how. Christensen knows what he wants out of the offense and he knows how to get it, which is something we’ve lacked. The No. 1 thing Christensen preaches is ”ball protection,” he does not want to turn it over. The next big change is tempo. Christensen wants to score, and he wants to score fast. The first three possessions versus Fresno State totaled 17 points in only 5:49 of possession. Again, he knows what he wants and how to get it.

Honestly, the offensive production was probably a little bit of both. Make no mistake, the first two games were not very difficult. Idaho State is… well, Idaho State… and if you can’t put up that kind of produciton against them you probably don’t belong in a Power 5 conference. Most of us at Light The U thought that Fresno State would present a much bigger challenge than they actually did, but after three straight games of giving up at least 52 points to the opposition, its obvious they just aren’t very good either. So, of course, the quality of opponent begs the question of how legitimate this improvement actually is. An interesting thing to keep in mind though, the starters only played the first half of each game. The second unit kept up the offensive pressure in the second half and scored 14 of the 56 against Idaho State, and 21 of the 59 against Fresno State, which leads to my next point…

New offensive coordinator Dave Chrsitensen has the Utah offense rolling through two games (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

New offensive coordinator Dave Chrsitensen has the Utah offense rolling through two games (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Utah has added more quality depth at the quarterback and skill positions. Something we’ve learned since joining the Pac12, is it’s one thing to have front line talent, and another to have talent in your second and third units. Depth is not only good in case of injuries, but also for production. Utah has been hurt by injuries the past few seasons, but it seems like we’ve added the necessary depth to be competitive among the “big boys.”

Probably the most important “addition” to the depth chart is 6’3”, 208-pound receiver Kenneth Scott. I say “addition” because he was a starter last year but is returning from a season ending injury that he suffered on the very first play of the season. A bigger, crisp-route-running, possession receiver, Scott has totaled 10 receptions for 134 yard and three touchdowns. Not only will he provide good production, but he’ll also keep defenses honest in defending Dres Anderson too. An explosive playmaker and statistically one of the best returning receivers in the Pac-12, Anderson is picking up where he left off last year with seven receptions for 194 yards (a 27.9 avg.) and two touchdowns.

Another good addition to the team is running back Davontae Booker. Part of a two-headed attack with Bubba Poole, Booker has been awfully impressive running the ball so far to the tune of 20 carries for 145 yards and two touchdowns. A typical running back, he has the ability to pound the rock up the middle or bounce it outside. Poole is more of a pass catching running back who thrives in space. Not necessarily explosive, Poole has an uncanny ability to create something and will consistently get 7-8 yards per touch.

All of this would mean little without mentioning the return of starter Travis Wilson. At one point, the thought was he would be forced to medically retire after discovering an intracranial artery injury, he was medically cleared in the summer and has returned looking much better. He is making better decisions, and has been pretty accurate with his throws. Much like Wolverine quarterback Devin Gardner, Wilson has struggled with consistency. Often locking on to one receiver and forcing throws into coverage last year, so far Wilson has thrown six touchdowns and 0 interceptions. If he continues to play like this, his improvement will be the biggest difference from last year.

3. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner struggles when facing pressure, but has a huge target in Devin Funchess (he didn’t play last week, but hopefully will this week). Does Utah’s defense have anyone that can cover Funchess, and do they also have the ability to force Gardner to make mistakes? I saw that Fresno State passed for almost 300 yards against Utah two weeks ago. Is the secondary vulnerable?

Do we have the ability to get pressure on Devin Gardner? The simple answer is yes. Kalani Sitake, the defensive coordinator, has earned a strong reputation in big games and will be dialing up something special for the UM offense. Nate Orchard is the name you’ll want to pay attention to. He’s going to be all over the field, lining up at defensive end and linebacker. Not only Orchard, but Hunter Dimick, Jason Fanaika, and Pita Taumoepenu are going to be doing all they can getting after Gardner. Dimick and Fanaika are your typical defensive ends, whereas Pita is a 6’2”, 230-pound edge rusher that is just explosive and relentless in pursuit. Not only that, but Utah will rotate anywhere from four to six defensive tackles throughout the game to stay fresh and on the attack.

Ok, lets be honest, at 6’5″, 230-pound and 4.3-4.4 forty time, Funchess is a freak of nature. With his size and athleticism, I’m not sure there is a player out there that would be able to cover him alone. We’re going to give it a shot though, and the player that you’ll most likely see cover him is Eric Rowe. At 6’1”, 201-pounds and a reported 4.4 forty-yard dash, he possesses pretty good measurables. Even with those measurables, this is Rowe’s first season at cornerback after playing the previous three at free safety, Rowe has looked just decent in coverage. All I’m saying is, if I were Devin Gardner, I’d be throwing it to Funchess as often as possible.

The other cornerback you’ll see is Dominique Hatfield or “Domo”, who is also in his first season as a corner after spending last year at receiver. Domo is quite the natural, having only been playing on the defensive side for about a month, he has already taken over the starting spot opposite of Rowe. Even though he’s only been on the defensive side for a month, I can’t stress enough just how impressive he has been. Even though a majority of the 300 yards passing we gave up was against our second unit, Devin Gardner is a far superior quarterback to what we saw from Fresno State. So yes, I would say that our secondary is vulnerable, which makes it that much more important for us to get pressure on Gardner.

4. What matchup worries you the most? And what matchup do you feel Utah has the biggest advantage?

As I said previously, Funchess is a freak, and absolute match-up nightmare. He is my biggest worry, period. If he and Gardner find a rhythm, it could be a very long afternoon. Outside of that, Coach Hoke has talked about establishing the run and when you have Derrick Green, who is averaging 6.6 yards per carry, and De’Veon Smith averaging 7.9, yeah that is a big…no, a huge worry. Especially when our defensive line was called “soft” by Idaho State coaches, after we got torched by them for 179 rushing yards. We bounced back against Fresno State limiting them to 55 yards. We are inexperienced and somewhat light at defensive tackle, and that leaves me concerned. Basically, which rush defense do we see?

Our biggest advantage is in the passing game with Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott. Michigan’s cornerbacks have not been very impressive so far, probably due to injuries to some key players, but it is what it is. Anderson and Scott have looked great, and are out to prove that they are the best duo in Pac-12. Besides those two, a key for Utah is getting a third pass catcher going. Westlee Tonga is a solid receiving tight end, but something I’m very interested to see is how much we get Kaelin Clay involved in the passing game this week. Clay, if you remember, was a SportsCenter No. 1 play for returning a kickoff and punt for touchdowns, he’s a very explosive athlete.

5. What’s your prediction? Who will win and why?

While this isn’t a conference game, this is an important game for both teams. For Utah, a road victory is something that has come few and far between. For Michigan, needing to re-establish themselves after that Notre Dame loss. While I don’t have the same access to Michigan, the vibe I get from Utah players is quite positive. There is a belief that hasn’t been there recently.

Drum roll please…

My prediction – Utah 31 Michigan 27

Trust me, I can easily see this game going the other way. Utah has not won a big game on the road in forever, and Michigan has a very solid home record versus non-conference opponents. Like I said, there is a belief at Utah and I’m totally sippin the kool aid. Now, outside of winning the turnover battle, priority No. 1 for Utah has to be stopping the run. I feel keeping Gardner in third-and-long situations plays to our strength, which is getting pressure on the quarterback. If Michigan establishes the run, all bets are off. Travis Wilson has to continue to take care of the ball, get it to his skill guys, and let them create.

This should be a very competitive and fun game to watch. Both teams have so much on the line. Ute fans are definitely looking forward to Saturday. Here’s to an injury free and very competitive game. Go Utes!

Big Ten power rankings: Week 3

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014


Power Rankings_header

Week 3 brought another horrendous performance for the Big Ten as a whole. The conference mustered only three wins in nine nonconference matchups and fell even further down the totem pole in terms of national relevance.

East Division
1. Penn State (3-0, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Rutgers 13-10 This Week: Sat vs UMass (0-3), 4pm, Big Ten Network

Penn State kicked off conference play with a road victory, which can be difficult at any venue in the Big Ten. The offense struggled, managing just 13 points (all in the second half), but the defense stifled Rutgers and led the newest East contenders a 3-0 record.

2. Michigan State (1-1, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Eastern Michigan (1-2), 12pm, Big Ten Network

The Spartans had an off week to prepare for their third non-conference game against Eastern Michigan. Michigan State will steamroll the Eagles and enter conference play as the favorite in the East.

3. Ohio State (2-1, 0-0) – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Kent State 66-0 This Week: Bye (9/27 vs Cincinnati)

Ohio State made a statement against an awful Kent State team, rolling to a 66-0 win. Unfortunately, a Virginia Tech loss to East Carolina at home makes Urban Meyer’s first regular-season loss in Columbus less forgivable.

4. Michigan (2-1, 0-0) – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Miami (Ohio) 34-10 This Week: Sat vs Utah (2-0), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

Michigan jumps up to No. 4 on the list not as a result of playing well, but because of how much the rest of the division struggled. Miami (Ohio) stuck around for much of the game in Ann Arbor and Michigan struggled to move the ball against a team that hasn’t won in a calendar year.

5. Maryland (2-1, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to West Virginia 37-40 This Week: Sat at Syracuse (2-0), 12:30pm, ESPN3

Maryland took its first loss of the season Saturday when it surrendered 28 points to West Virginia in the first half and failed to dig out of the hole. Next week will provide another test as the Terrapins travel to Syracuse.

6. Rutgers (2-1, 0-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Penn State 10-13 This Week: Sat at Navy (2-1), 3:30pm, CBS Sports Network

Rutgers kicked off the conference season with a tough home loss to Penn State. The Scarlett Knights carried a lead into the 4th quarter of the game, but couldn’t close the deal.

7. Indiana (1-1, 0-0) – Down 3
Last Week: Lost to Bowling Green 42-45 This Week: Sat at #18 Missouri (3-0), 4pm, SEC Network

The last thing the Big Ten needed was another loss to the MAC just seven days after one of the worst weeks in conference history. But Indiana traveled to Bowling Green and couldn’t stop the Falcons’ offense, falling 45-42.

West Division
1. Nebraska (3-0, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Fresno State 55-19 This Week: Sat vs Miami (2-1), 8pm, ESPN2

Nebraska erased the memory of a near loss to McNeese State on Saturday, pounding Fresno State 55-19 on the road. Though their nonconference season hasn’t been pretty, Nebraska has a great chance to finish 4-0 when the Miami Hurricanes come to town this weekend.

2. Wisconsin (1-1, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Bowling Green (2-1), 12pm, ESPN2

Wisconsin had a week off after bouncing back from a collapse against LSU. This Saturday, the Badgers will take on the same Bowling Green team that just topped Indiana, but expect this game to turn out much differently.

3. Minnesota (2-1, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to TCU 7-30 This Week: Sat vs San Jose State (1-1), 4pm, Big Ten Network

What? The Gophers are No. 3 in the division? Well, since four West teams lost on Saturday and Northwestern is still searching for a win, Minnesota’s loss on the road to TCU seems the most forgivable. Next up: San Jose State comes to town.

4. Purdue (1-2, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Lost to #11 Notre Dame 14-30 This Week: Sat vs Southern Illinois (3-0), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Purdue surprised the entire country by pushing Notre Dame into the second half on Saturday. The Boilermakers stayed within one possession of the Irish throughout most of the game, but eventually the same group that lost by 21 to Central Michigan showed its true colors.

5. Illinois (2-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Washington 19-44 This Week: Sat vs Texas State (1-1), 4pm, ESPNNews

Illinois finally got a chance to match up with some strong competition, and it didn’t go well for Tim Beckman’s group. Washington scored 44 points on the weak Illini defense and cruised to a 25-point victory.

6. Iowa (2-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Iowa State 17-20 This Week: Sat at Pittsburgh (3-0), 12pm, ESPNU

Iowa managed perhaps the most unimpressive 2-0 record of the year with one-possession wins over Northern Iowa and Ball State. But on Saturday a winless Iowa State team marched into Kinnick and beat the Hawkeyes 20-17.

7. Northwestern (0-2, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Western Illinois (2-1), 12pm, ESPNNews

Northwestern took a much-needed week off after starting the season 0-2. The Wildcats will look to get their first victory at home against Western Illinois on Saturday.

First Look: Utah

Monday, September 15th, 2014


FirstLook-Utah

Michigan bounced back from its embarrassing loss at Notre Dame with a 34-10 win over Miami (Ohio) on Saturday. It wasn’t dominant, though on paper it was. Three second-quarter turnovers kept the RedHawks in the game before Michigan pulled away in the second half. In the end, Michigan did just what it was supposed to do: win.

This week, a much more formidable opponent comes to town in the form of the Utah Utes. The last time Utah visited Ann Arbor they kicked off the short-lived Rich Rodriguez era with a 25-23 win. Could they do the same this Saturday? Let’s take a look at how Michigan and Utah compare.

Utah Statistics & Michigan Comparison
UtahMichigan Rank Defense Rank
Points Per Game 57.5 | 28.7 3 | 77 20.5| 18.3 4429
Rushing Yards 496 | 726 234 | 240
Rush Avg. Per Game 248.0 | 242.0 24 | 29 117.0 | 80.0 39 | 10
Avg. Per Rush 5.0 | 6.3
2.8 | 2.6
Passing Yards 619 | 583 441 | 518
Pass Avg. Per Game 309.5 | 194.3 29 | 100 220.5 | 172.7 56 | 22
Total Offense 1,1151,309 675 | 758
Total Off Avg. Per Game 557.5 | 436.3 14 | 59 337.5 | 252.7 35 | 7
Kick Return Average 41.5 | 18.4 1 | 92 20.3 | 19.6 T69 | 60
Punt Return Average 12.0 | 14.0 34 | 27 1.0 | 5.7 T19 | T58
Avg. Time of Possession 28:01 | 32:26 94 | 25
31:59 | 27:34
3rd Down Conversion Pct 52.0% | 44.0% 17 | 59
38.0% | 32.0% 67 | 34
Sacks Allowed-Yards/By-Yards 4-26 | 4-31
T70 | T54
11-57 | 4-37
1 | T88
Touchdowns Scored 16 | 11
6 | 7
Field Goals-Attempts 1-13-6 0-1 | 2-2
Red Zone Scores (9-11) 82% | (10-10) 100% T71 | T1
(5-6) 83%(8-8) 100% T58 | T101
Red Zone Touchdowns (8-11) 73% | (8-10) 80% (5-6) 83% | (6-8) 75%

The obvious stats that jump out are Utah’s offensive numbers. The Utes have scored at least 56 points in each of their first two games, average 557.5 total yards per game, and do it with a balanced offense. In the Week 1 win over Idaho State, Utah passed for 351 yards and rushed for 238. In Week 2 against Fresno State, Utah passed for 268 and rushed for 258.

Now, before we go any further, let’s consider the level of competition Utah has faced so far. Idaho State, an FCS school, went 3-9 last season with wins over Dixie State, Western State, and Northern Colorado and finished second-to-last in the Big Sky Conference. Fresno State, on the other hand, went 11-2, but lost quarterback Derek Carr, their top receiver, and starting left tackle from an offense that carried them. Their defense ranked 86th nationally in points allowed and was expected to take a big step back this fall. Without a high-scoring offense, Fresno State has already lost to USC 52-13 and Nebraska 55-19, in addition to the Utah loss.

Schedule
Date Opponent Result
Aug. 28 Idaho State W 56-14
Sept. 6 Fresno State W 59-27
Sept. 20 at Michigan
Sept. 27 Washington State
Oct. 4 at #12 UCLA
Oct. 16 at Oregon State
Oct. 25 #17 USC
Nov. 1 at #15 Arizona State
Nov. 8 #2 Oregon
Nov. 15 at #16 Stanford
Nov. 22 Arizona
Nov. 29 at Colorado

So the success of Utah’s offense is likely inflated at this point, having faced a low-tier FCS team and an atrocious defense. But credit the Utes for not playing down to the level of competition.

Quarterback Travis Wilson, who had an up and down season in 2013, has played much better in early 2014, completing 63.2 percent of his passes for 223 yards per game, six touchdowns, and no interceptions. Against Fresno State, Wilson completed only 11 of 20 passes, but five of them went for touchdowns. His backup, Kendall Thompson, completed four of seven, and one of them was a touchdown. Four of those six touchdown passes were from at least 24 yards out. That’s pretty efficient. Eleven different players have caught a pass and only one, Kenneth Scott, has caught double digits.

The running game is averaging six yards more per game than Michigan’s, although Michigan has played one more game. Utah is averaging five yards per carry compared to Michigan’s 6.3. The Utes have a very diverse backfield with five players with between 15 and 21 carries through two games — including Wilson and Thompson — and only one back over 100 yards.

Defensively, Utah is slightly above average so far, ranking 44th in points allowed, 39th in rush defense, 56th in pass defense, and 35th in total defense. Fresno State passed for 283 yards, but was held to just 55 rushing yards on 40 attempts. However, Idaho State managed a much more respectable 179 yards on 44 carries (4.1 yards per carry).

One stat that is somewhat worrisome is that Utah leads the nation with 5.5 sacks per game (11 total). Michigan’s line has held up pretty well so far — compared to last year at least — but Utah will be a good test.

On special teams, Utah has attempted just one field goal, but ranks 11th nationally in net punting. Punter Tom Hackett is averaging 51.1 yards per punt with six of his 10 punts traveling over 50 yards. The return game currently leads the nation with 41.1 yards per kick return thanks to a 100-yard touchdown by receiver Kaelin Clay against Idaho State.

Utah hasn’t really been tested yet this season, nor have the Utes traveled away from Salt Lake City yet. Michigan will pose that first test, much like Notre Dame did for the Wolverines. Regardless, Michigan will be in for a battle and can’t afford to take Utah lightly. Michigan got away with several turnovers last Saturday, but Utah has the talent and ability to make Michigan pay if the same thing happens this Saturday.

Key Players
Passing Comp-Att Yards TD INT Long
Travis Wilson 24-38 446 6 0 61
Kendall Thompson 10-17 156 1 0 45
Rushing Attempts Yards TD Long Average/Carry
Devontae Booker 20 145 2 38 7.2
Bubba Poole 19 96 1 16 5.1
Kendall Thompson (QB) 15 78 1 15 5.2
Travis Wilson (QB) 15 49 1 17 3.3
Receiving Receptions Yards TD Long Average/Game
Kenneth Scott 10 134 3 36 67.0
Dres Anderson 7 195 2 48 97.5
Westlee Tonga (TE) 6 85 1 25 42.5
Defense Solo Assisted Total Tackles TFL-Yds Sacks-Yds
Nate Orchard (DE) 4 10 14 3-14 2.5-12 (1FR)
Eric Rowe (DB) 9 5 14 1.5-3 0-0 (1 Blk)
Hunter Dimick (DE) 5 5 10 2.5-15 2.5-15
Clint Shepard (DT) 4 4 8 3.0-3 1.0-1
Kicking FG Made FG Att Long XP Made XP Att
Andy Phillips 1 1 47 16 16
Punting Punts Yds Avg. In-20 50+
Tom Hackett 10 511 51.1 5 6
Full Stats

Stay tuned for more on Utah in the coming days.