Interviewing The Opposition: Minnesota Gophers

Posted on Posted in Michigan Football

As part of our weekly coverage of Michigan’s upcoming opponent, TBHR goes in to interrogate a writer from the other side. This week, I was lucky to pull in Jeff Kilpatrick of SBNation’s The Daily Gopher. I asked Jeff about everything from the game this Saturday to what it looks like from the outside to see Michigan imploding the way it is. You can read all of Jeff’s words on The Daily Gopher here, and you can follow him on Twitter here.

1. Minnesota’s defense has stood up well to opponents’ offenses so far this season, and Michigan’s struggles on that side of the ball are well documented. If Michigan is going to find any success on offense this weekend, where do you think it can happen?

This should be a very interesting matchup, as Michigan will be the first pro-style offense the Gophers have seen this season after facing some form of the spread/Air-Raid offense in the first four games. As a Gopher fan I know nothing about Shane Morris but am really hoping he starts as Devin Gardner just killed Minnesota in their two previous meetings. Obviously Gardner has struggled this season, but as an athletic QB who can scramble to either keep a play alive or run, it’s something Minnesota’s D has had trouble with last season and this one. Where Minnesota is also vulnerable could be the run game, as their defensive line is VERY young—after losing All-B1G DT/Freak Ra’Shede Hageman to the draft as well as another quality reserve DT to graduation, their depth has taken further hits due to injuries. Minnesota is currently starting a true freshman DT and have two more true frosh’s rotating in at DE.

The strength of the Gopher D is the back seven—MLB Damien Wilson leads the B1G in tackles with an average of 11 per game (of course it helps when opponents have run 315 plays in four games, an average of almost 79 per game) and OLB De’Vondre Campbell is the kind of athlete Michigan usually gets. In the secondary Jr CB Eric Murray has a future playing on Sundays, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Derrick Wells are solid B1G-caliber corners, and Cedric Thompson, Demarius Travis and Antonio Johnson are all capable safeties. If Devin Funchess is anywhere close to healthy and can do Devin Funchess things, that’s obviously a problem for the Gophers in coverage, as big plays are what killed Minnesota in their previous two meetings with Michigan. Bottom line, the Gophers need to control the running game and limit big plays to have a chance to win. We’ll see what Michigan can do.

2. Minnesota really isn’t a fan of putting the ball in the air, as demonstrated by only 54 pass attempts by Mitch Leidner this season. On the other hand, 236.3 rushing yards per game for the Gophers ranks 30th in the nation. Michigan’s run defense is one of the best in the country, though. Something has to give. Which will it be?

The bulk of Minnesota’s rushing yardage has come vs their three non-Power 5 conference foes as they managed just 99 yards rushing at a miserable 2.5 yards per carry vs TCU, and most of that came in garbage time in the fourth quarter after starting QB Mitch Leidner got hurt. So Gopher fans are just as interested as you to see if Minnesota can actually run against a legitimate defense. Last week vs SJSU with backup QB Chris Streveler they ran pretty much just two plays—read option left and read option right, and it resulted in 380 rush yards at 6.6 per clip, including 161 for Streveler and a mere 208 for RB David Cobb. Coach Kill said this week that Streveler ran the option better than any QB he’s had in his four years at Minnesota (fine, that’s not saying much), and at this point I’d be shocked if he’s not starting this Saturday. Leidner has a sprained MCL in his knee which he played through vs TCU (but clearly limited his running ability), and an even bigger concern is a Turf Toe injury suffered in that loss to the Horned Frogs.

Healthy or not Leidner just hasn’t been the same guy this season. Last year when he was competing for the starting job with Philip Nelson he had confidence and swagger whenever he was in the game—sure he sometimes made the wrong decision, but he was at least making them swiftly and decisively. Since Nelson transferred in the offseason and he was handed the starting job he’s looked shaky and completely lacking confidence—it’s like he’s overthinking every decision trying to make the right one and instead makes either the wrong one or gets sacked and makes none at all. We have zero idea if Streveler can pass at all either, but with Leidner banged up and showing nothing thus far, I’m hoping they go with Streveler and at least see what the kid can do vs a real defense.

Oh, and if Braylon Edward’s little brother Berkley is going to have a breakout game, I’d put my money on this one as he’ll be fired up to show Michigan what they missed by not recruiting him. They haven’t used him a ton yet—or well—but there’s hope they’ll introduce the jet sweeps and bubble screens with him to compliment the option game that have thus far been completely lacking in this offense. And that’s the thing- there’s potential here for a competent—and dare I say even potent—offense with what we saw last week if they can sprinkle in a few pass plays and some sweeps, screens or quick throws to the outside to force Michigan’s D to defend sideline to sideline. Yet the question remains whether OC Matt Limegrover can come up with a good game plan for good teams; for reasons unknown he mostly abandoned the power run game vs TCU in favor of 3 and 4 receiver sets which resulted in disaster, and they had real trouble moving the ball at all vs Wisconsin, Michigan State and Syracuse in the bowl game to close last season. He had a fantastic game plan in their upset of Nebraska last season but that creativity has been few and far between. So as a Gopher fan here’s hoping he’s just been saving a great game plan for this week.

3. Michigan has really handed it to Minnesota for the last 25-plus seasons. Is there a sense of urgency for the Gophers to pick up this victory, especially considering how vulnerable the Wolverines seem to be right now, and get the Little Brown Jug back to Minneapolis?

Wait, 25-plus seasons? Don’t you mean 46? As every Gopher fan knows by heart (unfortunately) Minnesota has beaten Michigan just three times since 1968- 1977, ’86, and 2005. That’s it. Even when you guys were gawd awful in 2008 (3-9) and not much better in 2009 (5-7) the Wolverines STILL kept the jug. Urgency? Not in this matchup, because most Gopher fans don’t look at this game the same way they do the rivalries vs Wisconsin and Iowa. Urgency is beating Wisconsin this season because we haven’t seen The Axe in 10 FREAKING YEARS. Don’t get me wrong, Minnesota fans LOVE beating Michigan whether they’re good, bad or ugly, but it’s not really an expectation since it happens so rarely.

On paper this looks like a game the Gophers can win, yet history says when things can go wrong, they do vs the Wolverines. Like in 2003, which is the worst loss by far in my time as a Gopher fan, Minnesota led 28-7 at home at the end of the third quarter. They hold on to win that game and the rest of the season plays out the same they would have finished in a four-way tie for 1st in the B1G at 6-2 (with Michigan, “Ohio”, and Purdue…geez remember when Purdue was good? That’s weird). Based on the old rules, the Gophers would have gone to Pasadena because they had the longest Rose Bowl drought. Instead, John f***ing Navarre and Chris Perry stormed back to win 38-35 and the Gophers ended the season in yet another mid-tier bowl game.

4. You’re on the outside looking in. So describe this for us: What does it look like to see Michigan going through all this drama with its athletic director, coaches and even quarterbacks?

It sure doesn’t make me sad, I can tell you that much. At the same time, I’m not pointing and laughing at you guys either. If anything, the situation is interesting to me because it’s showing how difficult it is today to return to glory, even for one of college football’s glamour programs. We’re seeing it at Tennessee, Florida, Texas, and even USC, Nebraska and Notre Dame to an extent—being a big name program seems to still help in recruiting, but it’s no guarantee you can just plug in a new coach to replace the old one and go right back to dominating. If/when Hoke is fired, do Michigan fans want The Next Michigan Man, or do they want the best coach available? Clearly there has to be a cultural fit (see RichRod) but does the next guy need to have Michigan ties? Obviously if you can pry Jim Harbaugh from the Niners that’s a five-run homer for you, but if he says no again- then what? I’m intrigued to see where this goes next.

5. Your prediction for the game…

I see three possible scenarios here: One is that Michigan’s offense really is as an absolute dumpster fire, so that even if Minnesota’s offense is equally, um, “offensive” they could conceivably out-ugly the Wolverines in something like a 9-6 win. A horrible, horrible thing for all of us to have to sit through for four hours on a glorious fall Saturday, but I’m just saying it’s in the realm of possibility, even if only slightly. Scenario Two is Minnesota’s offense will suddenly figure it out while the defense will slow the Wolverines run game and Devin Gardner either a) won’t play or b) won’t have a massive breakout game that completely turns around his season. The Gophers win pretty, Brady Hoke is run out of town and Ann Arbor looks for its Next Michigan Man. Of course, based on the history of this matchup and the fact the Gophers will be starting a QB who hasn’t proven he can pass (doesn’t matter if it’s Streveler or Leidner), have a bunch of injuries on both sides of the ball, and have legitimate questions about what the offensive game plan will be… Scenario Three seems the most likely: Michigan 27 Minnesota 10.

Tyler Fenwick is the managing editor of Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick, and “Like” him on Facebook.

Tyler Fenwick
Managing Editor at The Big House Report
I am an aspiring journalist studying at IUPUI. I am the third (and youngest) manager of The Big House Report, and it's my responsibility to make sure it runs more smoothly today than it did yesterday.