Michigan Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. Minnesota
Leon Halip/Getty Images
Michigan's main concern as it prepares for Saturday's matchup is the health of quarterback Denard Robinson.
The senior signal-caller re-injured a nerve in his throwing elbow late in the first half of last week's 23-9 loss at Nebraska, but is expected to start Saturday.
"We're planning on it," said head coach Brady Hoke at his Wednesday press conference. "He's better. It's not all the way cleared up yet, but it's better."
Should Robinson not be able to start, Hoke will most likely turn to Devin Gardner, who has spent this season as one of Michigan's primary pass receivers.
Last week Russell Bellomy took over for Robinson, but he was only able to complete three of 16 passes along with three critical interceptions.
Devin Gardner, who's been Robinson's backup in the past and moved to wide receiver this season, will most likely be the quarterback Saturday if Robinson can't play. Gardner has taken more than his share of snaps at practice this week.
With this in mind, USA Today has listed Michigan as 12.5-point road favorites to retain the Little Brown Jug, the trophy awarded to the game's winner since 1903.
Michigan won last year's game in Ann Arbor, 58-0, and leads the overall series 71-24-3.
Let's look at the five keys necessary for Michigan to leave Minnesota with the trophy.
Kick-Start the Offense
Fitz Toussaint (28)
Eric Francis/Getty Images
Other than Denard Robinson running the football, Michigan's offense in 2012 would be nearly non-existent.
The Wolverines are 63rd of 120 FBS teams in scoring offense (28.0).
In the Big Ten, they're sixth in total offense (378.1) and 11th in passing offense (171.5).
What's worse, Michigan has failed to score a touchdown in the last two games.
The Wolverines are getting nothing from the tailback position and not much more from the receiving corps.
Fitzgerald Toussaint, who averaged 86.8 yards per game in 2011 has struggled throughout the season. He's averaging just 45.9 yards per game this fall. Thomas Rawls has been mentioned several times as a possible replacement.
The passing game has been spotty at best. No one has stepped up as the go-to receiver. Jeremy Gallon (18), Devin Gardner (16) and Roy Roundtree (13) have just 47 receptions between them. In 2010, Roundtree caught 72 by himself.
There's plenty of blame to go around. Center Elliott Mealer keeps it simple. "I think we know what the answer is," Mealer told mgoblue.com. "It really just comes down to the offensive line pushing the defensive line around."
With Gardner spending more time with the quarterbacks, look for Amara Darboh and Joey Reynolds to get more reps at wide receiver.
Should the Offense Get Going, It Must Finish
Thomas Rawls (38)
Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE
The Wolverines have ventured into the red zone 28 times this season. They've come away with touchdowns just 14 times. Only one Big Ten team, Iowa, is worse at 12 of 27.
The coaches have talked about running more inside the 20. “Well, you emphasize it a little more, but I don’t know if we’ve put more plays on the script," Hoke said . "Because we do a pretty good job of getting the looks and what we feel the red-zone defense is going to be and all those things.”
Getting the desired situations is one thing, executing is another.
You can't help but wonder why Thomas Rawls hasn't received the carries he's deserved
Can't Look Past the Gophers
Leon Halip/Getty Images
Many of the current Wolverines were part of the 58-0 drubbing of Minnesota a season ago. Michigan scored 38 first-half points, piled up 32 first downs and totaled 363 yards rushing.
The Gophers (5-3, 1-3) are much improved this time around. They reeled off four straight at the beginning of the season then knocked off Purdue 44-28 last week.
The Gophers are led by freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, who has started Minnesota's last two games. Nelson has thrown for 395 yards and five touchdowns in his two starts.
With a win over Minnesota and a victory by Michigan State (5-4, 2-3) over Nebraska (6-2, 3-1), the Wolverines would be back in the drivers seat for the Legends Division crown.
Legends Division Standings
Legends Division Standings provided by bigten.org
Pressure the Freshman Quarterback
Michigan DE Craig Roh (88) and Notre Dame QB Everett Golson (5)
Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE
A simple way to affect the performance of a young quarterback is by harassing him. Blitzes from the edge, up the middle or basic pressure from the front four can will always work.
A 6'2", 222-pound freshman, Philip Nelson is another in the line of tough Minnesota quarterbacks. His youth, however, leaves him vulnerable to an effective pass rush. Look what happened to Russell Bellomy last week. His inexperience was quickly exposed by the Nebraska pressure.
Michigan is not exactly proficient in the "sack" department. The Wolverines have only 10 for the season which rates just 11th in the conference. Nebraska leads the league with 24.
Only Jake Ryan with 3.5 and Craig Roh with three have more than one.
Now that Jibreel Black is teamed up with Quinton Washington in the interior line, maybe some pressure can come up the middle.
Secondary Must Continue Its Improvement
Raymon Taylor (6)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
When Blake Countess was lost for the season early in the Alabama game, it was thought that Michigan would have trouble in the secondary.
But Thomas Gordon has improved at free safety, Jordan Kovacs has remained solid at strong safety and J.T. Floyd has played pretty good cornerback. But most of all, sophomore Raymon Taylor has blossomed into an aggressive cover corner.
All of this translates into Michigan being tied with Alabama as No. 1 pass defense in the nation. Both teams allow just 145.9 yards per game.
Michigan is ninth nationally in total defense (291.0) and 14th in scoring defense (17.25).
So without a great pass rush, the Wolverines are still getting the job done defensively. Imagine what the numbers might look like if the front four could become another "Fearsome Foursome."