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Michigan Football: 5 Matchups That Will Decide the Minnesota Game

Austin FoxCorrespondent IIAugust 24, 2016

Michigan Football: 5 Matchups That Will Decide the Minnesota Game

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    How will Michigan bounce back after its disappointing loss to Nebraska? The team now makes its first ever trip to TCF Bank Stadium to take on a Minnesota team that destroyed Purdue last week.

    Does this 5-3 Gopher team pose a legitimate threat to Michigan?

    Here's a closer look at Minnesota, including key players and matchups that will go a long way in determining who wins this one.

Michigan Rush Offense vs. Minnesota Rush Defense

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    Denard Robinson's health will be the key storyline surrounding this aspect. If he is fully healthy, there is no question that Michigan has the advantage in this category.

    Even if he's not fully healthy, Michigan still might have the advantage. Minnesota's rush defense has been horrible this season, as it gives up just under 180 yards a game. That ranks 86th nationally and 10th in the Big Ten.

    Michigan's rush offense, on the other hand, goes for just over 200 a game, good for fourth in the conference.

    With Robinson's questionable health, this would be a perfect week for Fitz Toussaint to break out. That hope is turning into a complete afterthought, though.

    Regardless, Michigan should be able to run all over this Minnesota defense, whatever the status of Robinson's health may be.

    There are two Gopher linemen Michigan may have to be wary of, though.

    D.L. Wilhite and Ra'Shede Hageman are forces up front, as both are experienced veterans who have put up impressive numbers so far. In fact, Wilhite already has 6.5 sacks, which is good for second in the conference. And Hageman isn't far behind with four.

    Wilhite has also collected nine tackles for loss, giving him some of the best numbers of any defensive player in the conference.

    The other two starters on the D-line are Michael Amaefula and Cameron Botticelli. Minnesota rotates in a number of bodies, though, so Roland Johnson, Thieren Cockran, Eric Jacques, Ben Perry and Scott Ekpe all may see time.

    At linebacker, Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis are both seniors who have been starting a while now. We'll also see James Manuel, Aaron Hill and Brendan Beal at the position.

    As mentioned above, Michigan should run wild on this defense. Expect Robinson to get his yards and for Toussaint to have a big day too. It would be wise to get Thomas Rawls and even Justice Hayes involved as well.

    Advantage: Michigan

Michigan Pass Offense vs. Minnesota Pass Defense

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    As long as Denard Robinson is playing quarterback for Michigan, people aren't going to like the chances of this passing attack going up against most defenses. That's just simply the way it is.

    Big plays are certainly bound to happen, but the inconsistency and ugliness at times makes this passing attack so unpredictable. As we saw on Saturday night, it was even worse when Bellomy came in.

    Combine that with the fact that Minnesota's pass defense ranks seventh nationally, and the odds do not look too good for Michigan.

    In fact, the Gophers' numbers against the pass are remarkable. Only two teams all season have thrown for over 200 yards against them, and three different teams have been held to less than 120 yards through the air.

    The Gopher secondary is intercepting a lot of balls as well. The defense has eight picks, with Michael Carter and Derrick Wells each leading the way with two.

    Carter, Troy Stoudermire and JUCO transfer Jeremy Baltazar will be the primary corners that Michigan's receivers will face.

    At safety, Minnesota is very young, but that hasn't been an issue.

    Brock Vereen is a junior, while Cedric Thompson and Derrick Wells are only sophomores. All three of them will see plenty of time.

    A big reason the secondary has played so well is because of the way the defenders react to the football in the air. For example, Carter has broken up 13 passes, while Wells has broken up eight. Both of those numbers are near the top of the conference.

    Michigan's receivers, on the other hand, have big-play ability but have lacked consistency. In fact, Gardner and Funchess are the only players on the team with more than one touchdown catch.

    The big-play ability is proven by the fact that Michigan's top five receivers are all averaging more than 12 yards a catch. However, after a number of dropped balls last week against Nebraska, I don't have much confidence in this receiving core.

    With that being said, Michigan isn't likely to test this Minnesota secondary a whole lot. It should be able to pound the ball and grind out yards on the ground.

    Although Minnesota's secondary may be solid, these numbers are extremely skewed because of the lack of passing attacks in the Big Ten. This matchup between Michigan's receivers and Minnesota's secondary is basically a tossup.

    Advantage: Minnesota

Minnesota Rush Offense vs. Michigan Rush Defense

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    There is no question that this Minnesota offense will try to move the ball on the ground. It averages 40 rushing attempts per game, compared to only 25 pass attempts.

    It's not like this Minnesota ground game is anything special, though. It ranks 62nd nationally and middle of the pack in the Big Ten.

    Coming into the season, Donnell Kirkwood and JUCO transfer James Gillum were expected to share the running back duties. But that hasn't been the case.

    Gillum has been a complete bust, as he hasn't even recorded a carry in his last five games. Kirkwood, on the other hand, has taken hold of the starting position and run with it.

    Only a redshirt sophomore, Kirkwood has just over 600 yards on the season and is averaging about four-and-a-half yards a carry. He packs a load too, weighing about 220 pounds.

    Minnesota has found another weapon at running back in true freshman Rodrick Williams. After not recording a carry in the team's first five games, he has now seen his carries increase in each of his last three. Williams weighs just under 230 pounds.

    Another true freshman, KJ Maye, could see time in the backfield, as the versatile speedster is often lined up both in the backfield and at receiver.

    But as we all know, Michigan's run defense is only getting better and better. It held Nebraska's high-powered rushing attack in check and shut down Le'Veon Bell the week before.

    In fact, in conference play, Michigan has the second-best run defense in the Big Ten—one that is only allowing conference opponents to rush for barely over 100 yards.

    Plus, the Michigan D-line will get a boost with the return of Frank Clark, who didn't make the trip to Lincoln.

    Honestly, expect this Michigan front seven to dominate once again, just as it has so many times this season.

    Advantage: Michigan

Minnesota Pass Offense vs. Michigan Pass Defense

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    Minnesota relies much more on its ground game than passing attack. The Gophers run the ball 40 times a game, compared to only 25 passing.

    Their passing attack ranks 88th nationally, throwing for just over 200 yards a game. Most of those stats were accumulated when MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell were playing quarterback, though.

    Now that Philip Nelson is running the show, will we see a different attack? Even though he's only a true freshman, Nelson has actually put up pretty impressive stats so far.

    He is completing 61 percent of his passes, is throwing for just under 200 yards a game and has already thrown five touchdowns compared to only two picks.

    Still, this Michigan defense will be the best one he's ever faced. How will he do against this secondary that gives up the fewest yards through the air in the entire country?

    Well, Nelson will now be able to throw to 6'4", 250-pound MarQueis Gray, who will be playing wide receiver the rest of the year.

    He will also have a weapon in A.J. Barker, who is putting up some of the best numbers of any receiver in the Big Ten. Barker already has 30 catches for 577 yards, which averages out to 19 yards a catch. He's also caught seven touchdowns—good for second in the conference.

    Those are, by far, the best numbers of any Minnesota receiver.

    Isaac Fruechte and Devin Crawford-Tufts are the next two who will see the most time. True freshman Andre McDonald has also seen the field a bit more lately.

    The tight end duo of John Rabe and Drew Goodger is one to watch out for as well. Rabe already has three touchdown catches—second on the team to Barker.

    Marcus Jones and Brandon Green, once thought to be two of the biggest contributors, haven't really done a whole lot this year.

    Minnesota shouldn't have much success throwing the ball. All four starters in Michigan's secondary are solid and haven't allowed much through the air all season.

    This Michigan defense has recorded an interception in five straight games, so we'll see if it can extend that streak against a true freshman quarterback in Nelson.

    Don't expect this Minnesota offense to throw the ball a whole lot, as this aspect here is a huge mismatch.

    Advantage: Michigan

Prediction

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    Who will take home the Little Brown Jug in this 93rd edition of the rivalry? Michigan holds a 67-22-3 record when the two teams play and has not lost in Minneapolis since 1977.

    If Denard Robinson is fully healthy, the Wolverines should have no problem in this one.

    But if Russell Bellomy is forced to play all or most of this game, does Minnesota have a good chance of winning?

    Expect this Michigan offense to do what it wants to on the ground against this Minnesota front seven and for it to only throw sparingly.

    Michigan's defense shouldn't have any problem stopping this Minnesota offense, both on the ground and in the air. Minnesota's lack of playmakers on offense should allow this Michigan defense to dominate once again.

    Michigan should definitely win in its first ever trip to TCF Bank Stadium and keep the Little Brown Jug in Ann Arbor where it belongs.

    Prediction: Michigan 34, Minnesota 14

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