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SoP Q-and-A: @MaizeNBrew, @MGoBlog talk Northwestern-Michigan

We ask a pair of Michigan bloggers about Denard Robinson, whether Michigan can do anything without him, and other stuff about this weekend's Northwestern-Michigan game.

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We're too lazy to actually go ahead and learn anything about other teams, so we bring in people who know stuff about those teams so we don't have to sound like complete blowhards.

This week: Zach Travis of Maize n Brew, Brian Cook of MGoBlog

SoP: The obvious question is what you expect from the Michigan QB situation Saturday. Will Denard play, and if not, what does Devin Gardner bring to the table? Considering Denard Robinson's three picks kept Northwestern in the game last year, who would you rather see play?

MnB: I really don't know what to expect. Noise from the program suggests that he will be ready to go, but I think a lot of the fan base/blog community has a more measured approach. I wouldn't be surprised to see Robinson miss another game -- especially considering the way Gardner played last game. If Robinson is able to go the question then becomes: do the coaches focus on the pass to keep him from taking more contact in the run game or do they continue to stress the run heavily because of his issues throwing the ball consistently. My guess is that they lean toward the latter, which in turn leads them to hold Robinson out until they can use him exactly how they want.

If Gardner plays then we get a really good test case for just how good Gardner is as a quarterback (hear me out on this). Last week Minnesota lined up a pretty terrible rush defense and a pretty stellar pass defense if you consider stats to date. Northwestern currently sits as the opposite type of defense. The Wildcats have had success against the run while struggling mightily against the pass.
The thing is, last week Michigan struggled to run against a bad Minnesota rush defense, but instead went to work on what had been a statistically strong pass defense. If Northwestern can bottle up the run more completely than Minnesota (not out of the question given the state of Michigan's run game without Robinson) then it is going to be all on Gardner to make plays through the air. I for one am not convinced that Minnesota's ability level on pass defense is in line with its lofty statistical ranking, and I think Northwestern poses a tougher defensive challenge in both aspects. However, one thing is clear: if Michigan is going to win Gardner is going to need to pass the ball well to overcompensate for Michigan's inability to run the ball. So yeah, I have no idea what is going to happen with Gardner under center.

To answer your question, I would rather have Robinson because he provides the rushing offense that Michigan seems to thrive on, and he seems like a less fluky alternative to Devin Gardner (who was helped a lot by a few big plays that may or may not be repeatable). However, is a 50-75% healthy Robinson better or worse than a 100% healthy but inexperienced Devin Gardner? Gun to my head: Denard Robinson, but only because at the end of the day you go with not only your best player, but the one that has won you the most games.

Mgo: Hoke refuses to say, and last week we were told Denard was healthy and would play. We won't know until gametime. I'd guess he does go, but that is based on nothing other than wild speculation.

If Gardner plays he brings some of the same things Denard does: he's an athlete who can chew you up with his legs. He is not Denard. Also depressing his numbers on the ground: Michigan tried to keep him from running too much against Minnesota because he was literally their only available scholarship quarterback.

Gardner's a lot bigger than Denard, which helps him survey the field and makes him more effective from under center; he's got wonkier mechanics than Denard--I know you are all like lolwut, but it's true--and is not particularly accurate. His receivers bailed him out a lot against Minnesota. Gardner has a much better sense of when to just run when a play isn't there. On a pass play it takes an act of Congress to get Denard to scramble. Devin is much more prone to go all woogly, either on a scramble or some crazy run all around the field and throw a touchdown or get sacked for a billion yards shiz.

Given the current state of the Michigan offense, we'll take that woogly stuff.

Michigan also scored 42 points in that game, so, like, Denard. Also, Michigan has no running game without him. None. They barely crept over 4.0 YPC last week before a garbage time fourth and one carry broke for a 41-yard TD. That is

1. sack adjusted
2. against Minnesota
3. over two yards a carry worse than any Big Ten opponent of Minnesota to date, a list that included Purdue
4. awwwwwwwwwful

Denard's INT issue has been limited since the ND explosion as Michigan just runs him. He's still the best option, because the other option has been playing receiver most of the year and is not Denard.

Michigan's defense has looked pretty stout in Big Ten play. Result of the competition or good play?

Both, but that is almost always true and doubly so when you talk about any Big Ten defense this year.

Michigan has benefited from playing four pretty bad Big Ten offenses (Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota), but the Wolverines also held Nebraska to a season low in yards by over 100 when the two teams squared off. Furthermore, you can knock a defense for beating up bad offenses up to a point, but you also have to recognize that Michigan beat those four bad offenses just about as thoroughly as you want from a defense against bad teams.

Past that Michigan's defense really pasts the eye test. The defensive line has really stepped up after being a big question mark coming into the season. This has freed up the linebackers to seek and destroy, and that group is playing as good as any linebacking unit in the Big Ten. The secondary has seen some struggles, but lol Big Ten quarterbacks and everything, so if you want to be weak in any area this year, downfield pass coverage is just about as good as any area to show weakness in -- its not like there are a lot of Big Ten QBs throwing perfect fade routes on a dime these days.

I think Northwestern will be held just under 20 points and around 300-ish yards. Given the unpredictability of Michigan's offense this could be enough for a win.

Mgo: Well, like, both. You cannot look at the Big Ten this year without laughing your ass off at all of it but especially the offenses. Taylor Martinez is obviously the best quarterback in the league. boggle boggle boggle boggle.



That said, Michigan's defense is throttling all comers except Alabama and a pure option team. Jake Ryan is Clay Mathews, basically, except weird. He will do three things that seem like terrible ideas until they are very good ideas and blow one play that gets Northwestern a chunk of yards. The defensive line has played vastly over its head, the other linebackers have been solid to good, and the safeties just do not give up long plays. Remember how everyone was always talking about Jordan Kovacs? He's kind of faded into the background this year because Michigan doesn't need him to make a half-dozen critical tackles a game. It's that kind of defense, the kind where the three starting LBs are the three main tacklers.

The main weakness is at corner, where fast guys can outrun those guys. Michigan has gotten away with it so far, and probably will until Ohio State.

Fill in the blank: Hoke is the thing with ________


Northwestern is "ranked". Michigan "isn't." Should they be? Do you like the fact that you played two still-undefeated teams in non-con play?

MNB: No, Michigan shouldn't be ranked. Its best win is against Michigan State. I think a win this weekend should push Michigan into the back end of the polls, but that Nebraska loss really stings.

However, I think playing Alabama and Notre Dame in the non-conference was probably good for this team in a way. I think both games were rallying points for the defense which has been lights out ever since. Offensively, Michigan probably could have done without those two performances on its resume, but it isn't like these problems were unknown coming into the game.

Mgo: No. No Big Ten teams should be ranked, and in fact anyone who votes for a Big Ten team should be put under house arrest. Indiana may go to the Big Ten championship game. QED.

I like playing ND. Check that: love playing ND. I hate those guys. I love going to Notre Dame Stadium, and am immensely depressed the series is coming to an end so ND can play Stanford for some reason. And Purdue! Come on man. They're good this year, but that series is a bedrock of my Michigan fandom.

Playing Alabama in Dallas sounded like a good idea when it was scheduled. By the time the game rolled around it was clear that it was not.

Say Denard Robinson can't play. Does Michigan have anything resembling a ground game Northwestern should be worried about?

MnB: Uh, no. Pretty much no. Michigan has gotten nothing from Fitzgerald Toussaint this year, so much so that he looks like a completely different player out there. Some of this is on the line, but he doesn't look decisive and he tends to not let holes develop, preferring to bounce it outside. That being said, a lot of it is the struggles the interior of the line is having when it comes to opening up lanes and picking up assignments.

That Robinson is continually able to make yards is a testament to just how good of a runner he is. Nobody else has done anything against anything approaching a good rush defense. Michigan will probably grind out over 100 yards with the help of Gardner and a couple called runs for receiver Jeremy Gallon, but the Wolverines won't hit 200 unless Robinson is on the field.

Mgo: No.

Oh you want more? Well, Fitz Toussaint's had a terrible year and it's hard to tell why. The interior line is somewhere between pretty bad and really bad. The playcalling has been... ill-suited to what strengths they have. Michigan's trying to run many different blocks and doesn't really do well at any. They run at stacked boxes a lot because opponents have no fear of the WRs. Toussaint himself seems somehow off, but you'd be off too if half the time you got a carry guys were tackling you in the backfield.

Predictions and stuff? Who ya got?

MnB: I think Michigan is going to win it, but it is going to be way closer than Vegas thinks. Northwestern is a pretty solid team all around, but I think Michigan has the best defense that Northwestern has seen all year, and with the added benefit of it being a home game I think the Wolverines get enough offense to pull out the close win. 20-18 or something close like that.

Mgo: I'm confident Michigan will be able to shut down Northwestern's offense since the corner thing doesn't seem like a major issue against a passing offense struggling to get above 6 YPA. Michigan has been very solid against the run, and while Mark is a quality back I don't think the Northwestern OL is going to be moving piles all over the place. They've given up more than 13 points once against non-Alabama competition, and that was 23 to Nebraska when the Cornhuskers had field goal drives of two and five yards and Michigan's offense rolled over and died in the second half. If Northwestern hits 20 I'll be surprised.

Michigan should be able to cobble together more than that, Denard or no, but not cover. Call it 22-13. Yea, and the Wildcats suffered for unleashing the Rovell upon the twitters.