GopherSports: Can you give us a brief scouting report on Michigan?
Michael Spath: Michigan runs a hybrid spread/pro-style offense, though more spread than anything else because of the presence of Denard Robinson. The senior quarterback has accounted for 74.9 percent of the Wolverines' total offense this season, and 15 of 26 touchdowns, and as we saw a week ago when he went out of the game with an injury, U-M is completely reliant on the dynamic athlete to generate the majority of its offense.
The Maize and Blue have struggled to produce a rushing attack all year sans Robinson, with its running backs averaging only 82.5 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry, though Robinson, who has 946 yards in eight games and is averaging 7.2 yards per rush, is expected to play this weekend so that is not a significant issue.
Defensively, Michigan has improved considerably since allowing 431 yards and 417 yards to Alabama and Air Force the first two weeks of the season. In the past six games, the Wolverines have yielded an average of only 245.8 yards and 12.0 points per game.
U-M ranks first nationally in pass defense, giving up 145.3 yards per game, thanks to an experienced secondary and aggressive cornerbacks. However, Michigan began experiencing success when its front seven, especially its defensive line, found its rhythm, and it's that front four that continues to befuddle opponents and provide the entire defense the opportunity to stymie offenses.
GS: As you mentioned, everyone is expecting Robinson to play, but if he cannot or is limited, how does that affect Michigan and does their game plan change at all?
MS: It would affect Michigan considerably. A week ago, in two-plus quarters without Robinson, U-M had 44 yards of offense as backup QB Russell Bellomy completed 3 of 16 passes for 38 yards and three interceptions. Admittedly, getting thrown into the fire against a top team, on the road, at night, was no easy task, but no one expected the kid to struggle that badly.
If Robinson cannot play, Bellomy or junior Devin Gardner, who like Minnesota's MarQueis Gray has been converted into a wide receiver, would take the snaps. Gardner can run the offense the same way Robinson does, in a spread-like formation that relies as much on his legs as his arm to move the chains, but Bellomy would be better suited for a pro-style scheme, and U-M could alter its approach if the redshirt freshman is indeed called upon.
Whether either backup would be effective remains to be seen.
GS: The Gophers have not beaten Michigan at home since 1977. Is that something Michigan talks about at all or is this more of a rivalry game to Minnesota because the wins have been more scarce on this side?
MS: Perhaps if Michigan was coming off a win, the Jug talk this week would have been more jovial, but the Wolverines have been ticked off since their loss and their focus has been entirely on getting back into the win column this weekend, and not the Little Brown Jug.
In any rivalry, when it becomes so one-sided, the impact lessens for the winning side and heats up for the losing side. We saw that this year with Michigan State; U-M hadn't beaten the Spartans since 2007 and there was full-bore rage as the Maize and Blue prepared for that game. During the six-game winning streak Michigan had over MSU prior to four straight losses, the passion had subsided greatly.
There is only one foe that consistently drums up Michigan's intensity year after year after year - Ohio State.
GS: Michigan has three defeats on the year, so what is the key to beating the Wolverines?
MS: Red-zone defense. Admittedly, that's not a strength this season for Minnesota; the Gophers rank 95th nationally, allowing opponents to score on 20 of 23 occasions, including 16 touchdowns. But it has been Michigan's Achilles heel the past two weeks. U-M has entered the red zone four times and has come away with four field goals.
The Maize and Blue are scuffling in the red zone thanks to a passing attack that lacks a go-to wide receiver and a running game that seems to lose ground closer to the goal line. Michigan has to snap out of its funk and put up touchdowns, not field goals, with opportunities this weekend, but if Minnesota can bear down and limit U-M to three points instead of seven, it will keep this one close and give its offense a chance.
GS: Who is an under-the-radar player that Gopher fans should keep an eye on Saturday?
MS: Offensively, freshman tight end Devin Funchess was targeted five times last Saturday against Nebraska, up from just twice against Michigan State a week earlier and twice against Illinois Oct. 13. A big-play threat in September, when he had eight catches for 151 yards and two scores, Funchess inexplicably saw his opportunities disappear in October, but it's clear the game plan is intent on getting him involved again, taking advantage of his elite athleticism and 6-4, 229-pound frame.
Defensively, sophomore cornerback Raymon Taylor will be one to keep an eye on. Minnesota had such great success a week ago with the double-move, burning Purdue's cornerbacks for 34-, 38- and 63-yard touchdown passes, and the Gophers will undoubtedly try again Saturday. Taylor is a very aggressive corner, playing tight coverage, and willing to gamble a little bit. That tendency could come back to bite him or it could be of benefit as the second-year Wolverine has a pair of interceptions this season, returning one 63 yards for a score.
GS: Last year's game ended 58-0 and that is a pretty hard score to forget. Care to give us a prediction on this year's game?
MS: I see Michigan winning thanks to stout defensive play that held Nebraska below its pre-game scoring average by 18 points, Michigan State by 11 points, Illinois by 21 points and Purdue by 29 points. The Gophers may have discovered the right formula offensively last weekend against the Boilermakers, but they probably won't score more than 14-17.
The question becomes how much will U-M score? If Robinson is healthy, Minnesota may have a difficult time containing the Wolverines' ground game. If he's not, and either doesn't play or misses a few series, the Maize and Blue will have to scrap and claw their way to a victory. However, I believe he'll play enough to provide a comfortable margin.
Michigan 34, Minnesota 14. (23-14 if he doesn't play)
GS: Michael, thanks for your time. We certainly appreciate it.