What to Watch For: Minnesota
Here we go again. For the second time this season, the Wolverines will be hosting a night game at Michigan Stadium with a trophy on the line.
The last time, as you know, didn’t go so well for Michigan. Amidst a torrential downpour, fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn threw three interceptions en route to Michigan State’s upset over the Wolverines.
Then again, a lot has changed since then. Michigan appears to have a new quarterback in Brandon Peters. The offensive line issues that plagued the Wolverines against the Spartans appear, at least in part, to have been solved, and Michigan’s backfield has reaped the benefits — coming off a performance against Rutgers that featured two 100-yard rushers in Ty Isaac and Karan Higdon.
Minnesota, in its own right, boasts a threatening run attack with a mobile quarterback to go with it. The Golden Gophers have pieces in place to threaten to reclaim the Little Brown Jug, and did I mention there’s an 80-percent chance of rain?
Here’s what to watch for when Michigan faces Minnesota and its first-year head coach P.J. Fleck:
1. Is this officially Brandon Peters’ job?
The redshirt freshman quarterback finally saw legitimate playing time against Rutgers, replacing O’Korn midway through the second quarter. He didn’t fail to impress, finishing with 10 completions on 14 attempts for 124 yards and a touchdown.
After the game, Jim Harbaugh acknowledged that Peters likely exceeded everyone’s expectations — including his own. He went on to say he was optimistic about his new man under center, even seemingly suggesting that this is now Peters’ job to lose.
“Right now, I feel really good about the way that (Peters) played,” Harbaugh said, “and feel good about him taking the next step and being the starting quarterback and having a great week of now knowing he’s the starting quarterback in practice.”
On Monday, however, Harbaugh seemed to pump the breaks a bit, saying he would not name a starter and that the Wolverines would prepare both Peters and O’Korn. But he did state that it was “likely” Peters would receive his first starting nod — placing his chances at “51 percent”.
If one thing is definitive though, it’s that Peters will play. Harbaugh made that much clear.
It’s just a question of if he gets his first college start under the lights against Minnesota.
2. Can Minnesota’s run game best Michigan’s defense?
The Wolverines love to bring the pressure, to say the least. The only problem is that the Golden Gophers may be able to counteract it.
“They’re gonna run the rock,” said defensive coordinator Don Brown. “Their mantra you can tell is big, strong — I think the best offensive line we’ve played to this point in terms of run blocking. They’ve got multiple running backs that can carry the load. We’ve gotta do a great job in controlling the run game, and then obviously doing a good job on third down from our standpoint.”
In large part, as Brown alluded to, that production rests on the trio of Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Kobe McCrary. Brooks and McCrary boast five touchdowns each, while Smith appears to be the workhorse back — turning 153 carries into an average of 78.4 yards per game.
Minnesota averages 4.1 yards per carry on the ground and boasts 13 rushing touchdowns, and it’s the first Big Ten team Michigan has encountered with a top-50 rush offense.
All in all, Brown isn’t speaking in hyperbole.
The Wolverines have a test waiting for them Saturday. Only time will tell if the defensive unit is capable of passing that test.
3. Can Ambry Thomas take a kick to the house?
Michigan’s freshman defensive back debuted as the Wolverines’ kick returner against Purdue. He admitted that the responsibility was intimidating at first, but has since embraced the role.
Entering the matchup with Minnesota, Thomas is now averaging just over 25 yards per return. Equipped with speed that Thomas himself says can stack up with the best in the nation, he has flashed an ability to make big plays on special teams.
Last Saturday is the perfect example. After bobbling a kickoff against Rutgers, Thomas took off — weaving his way downfield before being tripped up from behind near the 37-yard line with open space in front of him.
He subsequently drew a delay of game for spiking the ball — something he jokingly justified by saying that he was one man away from breaking loose to the end zone for the third straight week.
At the end of the day, Thomas hasn’t had a highlight reel return, at least not yet. Special teams coordinator Chris Partridge said last week that the Wolverines are close. Thomas echoed that sentiment this week. But the missed opportunities still linger in his mind.
“Everyday, literally, I picture it,” he said Tuesday. “It’s gonna happen real soon, hopefully a big game.”
And with the Wolverines playing their second game under the lights, Thomas may get the big-game return he’s been imagining.
4. Will Minnesota implement the direct snap?
If there has been one consistent issue plaguing this Michigan defense, it’s direct-snap plays.
Then-No. 2 Penn State went to it early and often in State College. On the second play of the game, Saquon Barkley took a direct snap 69 yards to the end zone.
A week later, Rutgers wide receiver Janarion Grant went to the formation again, making Michigan pay with a 65-yard touchdown run of his own.
With a trio of backs all with a pension for the big play, Minnesota could try to expose the Wolverines again. And if the Golden Gophers’ backfield doesn’t do it, quarterback Demry Croft might.
Minnesota hasn’t shied away from letting Croft run the ball, as the redshirt sophomore boasts 36 carries for 196 yards — highlighted by a 64-yard touchdown run against Oregon State.
Brown will surely be preparing Michigan’s defense for the formation, as he said Grant’s touchdown was the one play that “irks the hell” out him.
But until the Wolverines prove capable of stopping it, every team they face will be tempted to replicate the success on the direct snap.