Michigan vs. Minnesota: Can Wolverines Front Seven Stop Gophers' Ground Game?

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Michigan vs. Minnesota: Can Wolverines Front Seven Stop Gophers' Ground Game?
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Frank Clark (No. 57) is one of Michigan's top forces on the D-Line.

Injuries to Donnell Kirkwood and Berkley Edwards haven't slowed the University of Minnesota's rushing attack. Thanks to Rodrick Williams, Jr. and David Cobb, the Gophers have been just fine when running the ball this season. 

Although it's a total good enough to only rank eighth in the Big Ten, the Gophers average an impressive 231.8 yards per game. Churning out more than two football fields worth of ground production every four quarters deserves credit—and that praise shouldn't be exclusive to the running backs.

Minnesota quarterbacks Phillip Nelson and Mitch Leidner have combined for more than 450 yards on the ground and have totaled eight touchdowns, doing more than their fair share for coach Jerry Kill's offense to help the Gophers to a 4-1 start.

Will Minnesota rush for more than 100 yards? (Michigan's rush D gives up 79 per game).

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Ranked No. 19 in the AP Top 25, the 4-0 Wolverines face the challenge on Saturday of halting a diverse ground threat and shutting down its first Big Ten opponent of the season. Playing at The Big House after a week off should provide coach Brady Hoke with enough to foresee where Michigan is headed. 

A 23-7 homecoming loss to Iowa aside, Minnesota has proven that it's willing to grind out the agonizing yards in the name of victory. With four players who have at least 42 carries, the Gophers have more than enough personnel to keep their backfield approach rested and fresh. 

Stopping that push will be the challenge for Greg Mattison's Wolverines' defense, which has allowed opponents an average of just 79 yards rushing each Saturday for the second-best mark in the Big Ten behind Michigan State's 58 yards rushing allowed. 

 

Chips, Zips, Irish and Huskies (Oh...My?!)

Pay attention to Michigan's lack of pressure against Akron in the accompanying video. Minnesota may not have to run much at all if it has time to pass the ball.

 Michigan has yet to face a truly dominant ball-carrier. However, it brushed elbows in Week 1 with one of the country's elite in Central Michigan's Zurlon Tipton, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury during the 59-9 smackdown that the Chippewas received in Ann Arbor. 

Had the senior avoided injury, the Wolverines would have had their hands full, as Tipton had racked up nearly 1,500 yards in 2012 as a junior.

Akron's Jawon Chisholm posed a mild challenge for Mattison's front seven. Rushing for 58 yards and gaining steam in the second half, Chisholm aided Akron in its quest for the upset by playing a significant role in a 28-24 loss in Week 3. 

Other than that duo, the Wolverines have been rather fortunate, but that could change on Saturday. Not only will Michigan face a stout Big Ten offensive line, but it will also face one of the league's top stables of runners. Although it's only Week 6, Minnesota's backfield has earned the right to be considered as one of the conference's premier entourages. 

Minnesota's backs are surely aware of the following stats. Needless to say, the numbers aren't in their favor. 

Michigan Vs. The Run
Week Opponent Rushing Yards Avg. TD
1 Central Michigan 66 2.3 0
2 Notre Dame 96 5.1 0
3 Akron 107 3.6 0
4 UConn 47 1.9 0

Michigan game log (ESPN)

 

Gophers RB Power

With a team-high 352 yards, an average of 5.8 yards per carry and five touchdowns, David Cobb is the unquestioned leader in ground production for Minnesota. While Donnell Kirkwood is perhaps Minnesota's most talented ball-carrier, his status for Saturday's game is uncertain due to ankle issues.

That being said, Cobb has to emerge if the Gophers are to have a chance against a hungry Wolverines' defensive line that features Frank Clark and Jibreel Black, two of the nastiest tacklers in the Midwest. 

Another anemic effort won't cut it for Cobb, who rushed for 20 yards on eight carries in Minnesota's homecoming loss to the Hawkeyes. 

Like Cobb, Rodrick Williams, Jr. averages 5.8 yards per touch. He has rushed for 299 yards this season and three touchdowns—solid efforts that give coach Kill's bunch a leg up over Michigan, which relies on a one-back mode of operation with Fitz Toussaint. 

Halting a pair of running backs good for about six yards each time they touch the ball is the goal for Michigan. Clark and Co. have to pitch a shutout to regain confidence. Beating up on the Gophers would pay dividends for a Wolverines' defensive line that has shown little to no life through the first month of the season. 

Cobb Gets The Job Done
Week Yards Attempts Avg. TD
1 (51-23 W, UNLV) 69 6 11.5 0
2 (44-21 W, NMSU) 56 9 6.2 1
3 (29-12 W, W. Illinois) 82 13 6.2 2
4 (42-34 W, SJSU) 125 25 5 2
5 (23-7 L, Iowa) 20 8 2.5 0

Cobb's game log ESPN

And now for Cobb's cohort...

Williams, Jr. Supplies a Push, Too
Week Yards Attempts Avg. TD
1 13 4 3.3 0
2 148 16 9.3 1
3 56 10 5.6 2
4 60 15 4.0 0
5 22 7 3.1 0

Williams' game log ESPN

 

QBs are Problems, Too

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Gophers quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner could give Michigan problems on Saturday.

The Woverines have yet to face a fleet-footed signal-caller. Other than Akron's Kyle Pohl, who had 11 total yards on three rushing attempts, no quarterback has gained positive rushing real estate versus Mattison's defense this fall. 

Of course, that's mainly due to the fact that they've all been pro-stylers. Notre Dame's Tommy Rees sure wasn't going to tuck and run very often. While UConn's Chandler Whitmer tried a couple of times, Pohl lays claim to No. 1 in that department. 

Depending on who starts, Nelson or Leidner could be the first quarterbacks to successfully run on Mattison's defense in 2013. Nelson, a 6'2", 215-pound sophomore, has 203 yards rushing and averages 4.8 per touch. He's also ran in three touchdowns. 

Benefiting from two early Minnesota mismatches, Nelson's run numbers are a bit misleading. He combined for more than 200 yards in his first two games, but rushed for only 16 and minus-18 in his next pair of games, respecitvely. Nonetheless, his athleticism is worth noting. He's a developing playmaker. 

Leidner, a 6'4", 233-pound redshirt sophomore, combines on-the-fly abilities with a respectable arm. He's one rollout away from throwing Michigan's defense for a spin. Thus far, he's rushed for 251 yards for an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. His five touchdowns have him tied for the team lead. 

His most notable parade on the turf, Leidner rushed for 151 yards against San Jose State. 

Oh, and he scored four touchdowns. That's probably the most important part. 

 

Michigan D-Line Needs to Dominate

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
It's Week 6, and Michigan's D-Line has yet to arrive.

Let's face it, the first four games haven't been overly kind to the Michigan defensive line. Its success, for the most part, has been a direct result of playing teams that aren't that good.

The Wolverines' front seven did its job against the Irish in Week 2, but the Irish haven't lit the world on fire. Akron? Central Michigan? UConn? Those teams are losing to be programs with a fraction of Michigan's prestige. 

That's why Hoke's 4-0 record is tainted. The teams that Michigan has barely beaten are barely beating absolutely awful competition themselves.

Despair on offense has been a theme of late. Quarterback Devin Gardner owes his teammates a mistake-free performance. If he can repeat his 234-yard, two-touchdown burst from 2012's 35-13 win over the Gophers, Michigan should be in good shape on Saturday. 

It's a domino effect. Stops on defense lead to drives on offense and they feed off each others' momentum. A dominating defensive display for Michigan would undoubtedly lead Hoke to his 17th straight victory at The Big House. 

Pulling the plug on the Gophers' rushing attack is Point A of Week 6's connect-the-dots puzzle. 

 

Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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