The University of Michigan football team (4-0) plays host to the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-1) this Saturday. This game opens up Big Ten play for the Wolverines, while Minnesota lost to Iowa last week in their conference opener. Let’s take a closer look at how the individual units of each team compare to each other.
For Michigan, Devin Gardner will be the signal caller on Saturday. While Wolverine Nation had pretty high expectations for the first year starter coming into the season (some, like me, still do), many have seen their hopes taper a bit (or a lot) due to an excessive amount of bad decision making which have ultimately led to several costly turnovers. Still, there is no denying that Gardner oozes physical talent and big play ability. We’ll see if the bye week has done anything to get him to calm down and collect himself. We all know that when he’s on, he can do big things. Just ask Notre Dame.
Philip Nelson is the one who leads the offense for Minnesota, although freshman Mitch Leidner has seen time at QB as well. Nelson has had a so-so season statistically so far this year. Although Nelson has a 50% completion percentage and a 1:2 touchdown to interception ratio, he is averaging nearly 5 yards a carry on a little over 40 attempts and has added 3 rushing touchdowns to his resume so far this season.
Nelson hasn’t shown the ability to take over a game like Gardner has. While the Michigan quarterback is struggling, we know he is capable of playing infinitely better than what he has shown in his last two games.
Michigan has one running back, and his name is Fitzgerald Toussaint. What’s that you say? There are other running backs on the roster? Well after looking at the box scores of the last three games, by my calculation there have been a whopping TWO carries by running backs not named Fitz Toussaint.* So for all intents and purposes, this comparison is Fitz versus the Minnesota backfield.
So what has Toussaint done? Well, not as bad as some (ok, more than some) people say. He’s averaging 4 yards per carry, and is on pace to finish the season with nearly 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns. Not to mention that the four games he has played are the first four since his brutal leg injury that ended last season early for him. I think sometimes people overlook that fact. Now that there has been a shake up on the interior line (more on that later) we’ll see if he can get some more help up front.
Minnesota has gotten two of their backs significant carries this season. Juniors David Cobb and Rodrick Williams Jr. Cobb has amassed over 350 yards on an average of 5.8 yards a carry while scoring 5 times. Williams Jr. has just under 300 yards and 3 touchdowns while also averaging 5.8 yards a carry. Pretty impressive numbers for both athletes. Both backs have good size as well. The duo averages 5-foot-11, 230 pounds.
*I expect to see some of the younger backs to see quite a bit more time on Saturday.
Advantage: Slight edge goes to Minnesota. While I’ve been higher on Toussaint than most, I just think that having solid to good production from two guys is quite an asset, one that I wish Michigan had. One caveat to this, however, is that the two backs only rushed for 42 yards combined against Iowa last week.
While Michigan doesn’t have a Sammy Watkins or Marquise Lee, they do have a Jeremy Gallon. The senior wideout is on pace to haul in 66 passes for nearly 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, the best numbers for a Michigan receiver since Mario Manningham’s 2007 campaign. While Gallon doesn’t have the size or speed you’d love to see in a receiver, he has a knack for making plays. Drew Dileo and the tight end duo of Devin Funchess and freshman surprise Jake Butt have been a nice compliment to Gallon.
Minnesota hasn’t seen much production at all from their receiving corps this year, but that may have just as much to do with poor quarterback play than anything else. Senior wide receiver Derrick Engel is the only Golden Gopher with more than 100 yards receiving, and he has caught one of the group’s two total touchdowns. Maxx Williams caught the other touchdown to round out the receiving corps’ scoring this season.
Michigan just has more dependable guys than Minnesota at this point. I also look for Jehu Chesson to emerge in this game as a dependable #2 outside receiver to go along with the already reliable Jeremy Gallon.
For Michigan, it’s hard to know what to expect on Saturday. While Michigan fans are painfully aware of the lack of production from this unit, Hoke said this week that we will have a shake up on the interior. Just how much of a difference this will make is a big question mark right now. The one thing that is certain though is that this group has failed to turn in even an average performance in the last few contests.
Minnesota has a big but young group up front. In their first four games, Minnesota ran the ball down their opponents’ throats thanks in large part to the play of the offensive line. While they are still averaging 231 rushing yards per game, they only rushed for 30 yards against Iowa last week. So what does that mean? Well, it might just mean that this group isn’t as great as the statistics would indicate. Most teams are able to rush for big yards against weak opponents (well, except Michigan apparently) so we will get a good sense on Saturday how good this unit for Minnesota is. Minnesota also ranks in the bottom half of the country in sacks allowed, registering 9 this season.
This may seem like a cop out, but with the question marks that Michigan has this week with the offensive line getting shuffled around, and the poor performance of Minnesota’s line against their first opponent with a pulse this year, it’s just too hard to say who has the advantage in this game.
Not a whole lot separates these two defensive lines from each other. While both have trouble rushing the passer, each has done ok against the run. Michigan ranks in the top 6 in rush defense while Minnesota falls in the top 1/3 in the country. Minnesota does give up 4 yards a rush compared to Michigan’s 3 yards, which is what gives Michigan the advantage in this comparison.
Both of these units have been solid so far this season, but again, when Minnesota played an opponent of Iowa’s caliber for the first time this season this unit didn’t look as great. Iowa racked up nearly 250 yards on the ground and I saw several plays where their linebackers got swallowed up relatively easily. Until Minnesota proves that they perform at a high level against good competition, I’m giving the edge to Michigan again. The Wolverines’ linebacking corps has looked solid in every game this season.
Both teams are giving up about the same number of passing yards a game this season (Michigan-232, Minnesota-260). Senior captain Courtney Avery should be much healthier than he was two weeks
ago when he barely played against UCONN. We will see how much of a difference that makes.
I say this only because Minnesota is giving up more yards to teams that are either not that talented (their first four games) or not known for their passing attacks (Iowa.) With Avery being healthy this unit for Michigan should only get better.
Final Verdict: Michigan wins 35-17.
There are just too many advantages for Michigan this week. Not just on a unit by unit basis, but having the bye week to prepare and being at home will just be too much for Minnesota to overcome.