GopherSports.com: What's the buzz around the Michigan program right now? How good can the Wolverines be this year?
Kyle Meinke: The buzz has been substantial, which is about what you'd expect when a program that's had three disappointing seasons starts 4-0, despite a new coach and new schemes. Of course, all that positivity is tempered by this: Michigan started 4-0 two years ago and 5-0 last year before finishing a combined 2-12 against Big Ten teams.
That really is the best way to sum up the buzz around (and to an extent, in) the Michigan football program. They looked great the past two weeks (including a sharp win against a good San Diego State team last week), have shown significant improvement on defense - and yet, there's that feeling of "We've seen this before, we want to see it hold up" among players and fans. Three years of losing provides quite the reality check.
GopherSports.com: How has Brady Hoke changed things at Michigan? What's made him successful early in his first year there?
Kyle Meinke: There's been a lot of culture change. He's not too much of an X's and O's guy - in fact, he designates all offensive scheming to coordinator Al Borges, and most defensive scheming to coordinator Greg Mattison - but he's very hands-on when it comes to setting the tone and direction of this team. If you know Hoke, you know his favorite two words in this language are physicality and toughness, and there's a mindset that's been established by him.
Players also have talked consistently about how they understand so much better what's expected of them, and what they're doing. I've seen Hoke blow a whistle to stop a practice twice: Once to move a player's left foot about 3 inches, and the other time was to have a player rotate his thumb about 60 degrees. Players have responded to that teaching.
It sounds cliche, but remember: This group finished in the bottom 20 last year in nearly every major defensive category. To have this kind of confidence, this kind of resolve, is sort of astonishing. Put it this way: Last year, would Michigan have been able to come back from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit against Notre Dame, as they did this year? No way.
GopherSports.com: Who or what has Michigan's attention when it comes to Minnesota?
Kyle Meinke: MarQueis Gray. Minnesota fans know what he brings to the table - solid running, shaky passing - and Michigan is respecting that big-play potential. The Wolverines do feel as though they have a slight edge in preparing for him, because they go up against quarterback Denard Robinson every day in practice, but they know it wouldn't take long for Gray to bust a long run and swing the momentum in a game.
Michigan has been better defensively the past two weeks, especially against the run, so the team's confidence is high. But I'd say Gray has their attention and respect the most of any of the Gophers' personnel.
GopherSports.com: Everyone knows about Denard Robinson. Who are a couple Wolverines who have flown under the radar due to Shoelace's notoriety?
Kyle Meinke: Michigan's rushing attack actually is a triumverate, and neither of the other two guys get as much regional or national attention because they share carries with Robinson and each other. But, sophomore Fitz Toussaint likely will start there and junior Vincent Smith is a nice backup, but both will get a lot of carries. They also are a nice complement to each other, and Robinson, because Toussaint is more of a physical, downhill runner and Smith - all 5-foot-6, 172 pounds of him - is shifty. He can be tough to pick up sometimes.
Elsewhere, Junior Hemingway is a big-play receiver with a large body that serves him well on jump balls. Junior J.T. Floyd, in my opinion, has emerged as Michigan's top cornerback and it seems teams are starting to avoid him a little bit. Junior Jordan Kovacs isn't a star at safety, but it'd be tough to find a more complete football player in the country than him. He's an extremely sure tackler.
Someone who's really flown under the radar is left tackle Taylor Lewan. He's only a sophomore, but he's tenacious and nasty and flat-out talented. He'll be a first-rounder someday.
GopherSports.com: Has there been any talk of the Little Brown Jug in Ann Arbor this week?
Kyle Meinke: Yes, lots of it. Hoke emphasizes Michigan history to his players, so on Sunday he rolled out the Jug to show his players and give them a history lesson. It's been in the locker room all week. The players have talked repeatedly about the importance of this rivalry and that trophy.
Yet, I can say definitively this week does not feel like Michigan State week or Notre Dame week, and certainly not Ohio State week. I think Michigan knows it's on a different level right now than Minnesota. They're amped for the game because it's the Big Ten opener, but I would not say this, to them, is considered anything more than another Big Ten game that happens to have a neat history and trophy that go with it.
GopherSports.com: How does Minnesota win this game?
Kyle Meinke: It finds a way to slow Robinson enough in the running game to force him to pass. That is Michigan's greatest weakness right now, with the junior completing less than 50 percent of his passes (he had only eight completions last week) and struggling to make reads and progressions. He'll beat you terribly with his legs if you let him.
I think Minnesota can score some points, but it'll need to find a way to force Robinson to the air if it's going to have any shot at keeping pace.
GopherSports.com: How does Michigan win this game?
Kyle Meinke: If the Wolverines' defense plays as it did last week, Minnesota has no chance. That offense is going to score points - not as many as last year, but it still is prolific - but the great variable this year is an improving defense. If Michigan slows Gray, then it could win in a rout. If it struggles to do so, then things might become more interesting - although Robinson still is the most electrifying player in the Big Ten, and maybe the country.