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October 4, 2013Taking a look at the most important position battles in Saturday's Battle For The Little Brown Jug.
The U-M Interior Offensive Line Vs. Ra'Shede Hageman
Defensive tackle is one of those positions in football that can have a monumental impact on a game without making too much noise on the final box score, wreaking havoc in the middle to alter everything an offense is trying to do.
Hageman, one of the premier defensive tackles in the conference can play it both ways. He only has one sack thus far this season. Last year against the Wolverines, he had six tackles, including a tackle for loss and a sack.
It is imperative for the Wolverines to eliminate Hageman's ability to create pileups in the middle, which has been a huge issue in these last two games. If Michigan is struggling to contain tackles, it can destroy the running game and leave redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner scrambling with defenders rushing straight at him from the middle of the formation.
The Wolverines haven't officially announced a lineup change in the middle of the field, but Michigan coach Brady Hoke said if kickoff was right now, the line would look like this: fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan, redshirt sophomore left guard Chris Bryant, redshirt sophomore center Graham Glasgow, redshirt freshman right guard Kyle Kalis and fifth-year senior right tackle Michael Schofield.
If that's the lineup, the three guys inside are going to have to work in concert to keep Hageman at bay. That will fall on Glasgow, who will make his first start at center and will need to be vocal and confident in his calls, so the two guards are on the same page about who is blocking whom and when double-teams need to occur.
Communication is key - and so is technique.
If the three interior linemen can quiet Hageman, it will be a huge step forward for this offense, as it moves deeper and deeper into Big Ten play. There are not many tackles as good as Hageman in the conference, so this test will be a great litmus test for the guys.
The Michigan Pass Rush Vs. Ben Lauer
The Wolverines spent a lot of time in the offseason talking about the need to get consistent pressure from their four down linemen. In the first three games this year, that talk - and the work that went into it behind the scenes - had yet to pay off.
But the Connecticut game was a different story. Michigan finished that game with four sacks, including 3.5 from the linemen (1.5 for junior defensive end Frank Clark, and 0.5 apiece from senior defensive tackle Jibreel Black, redshirt freshman defensive tackle Willie Henry and redshirt freshman defensive end Chris Wormley).
More than that, Huskies quarterback Chandler Whitmer was under near-constant pressure all game long.
The Wolverines have to keep that going Saturday, and they'll have a terrific opportunity to do so.
The Gophers have given up nine sacks through five games (78th nationally), and they have not been player world-beaters in the pressure department. They surrendered four sacks to an Iowa team that has tallied just two other sacks all season. They gave up a sack to both San Jose State (six total sacks on the year) and New Mexico State (seven total sacks on the year). And they gave up three to FCS opponent Western Illinois.
Redshirt freshman left tackle Ben Lauer has started each of the last two games - and he should be overmatched against Clark and sophomore Mario Ojemudia coming off the edge.
The Wolverines need to exploit that mismatch to get some pressure.
Gardner Vs. The Minnesota Secondary
The Gophers have not been so great against the pass this season.
All of their opponents exceeded their season average in passing yardage against the Minnesota defense, including San Jose State, which lit up the Gophers for 439 passing yards and three touchdowns.
All but one opponent has passed for more than 200 yards against the Gophers this season, with the exception of Western Illinois, which racked up 162 passing yards and is 102nd nationally at the FCS level (155.8 passing yards per game).
The Gophers rank 93rd nationally in pass defense (259.6 yards per game), and if the trend holds, Michigan should finish well ahead of its 215.0 yards-per-game average on Saturday.
Minnesota has picked off five passes this year, which could be cause for concern, given Gardner's recent turnover troubles. But four of those picks (two apiece) came against San Jose State (96th nationally with six interceptions thrown) and UNLV (84th nationally with five interceptions thrown).
If Gardner can keep the ball out of Minnesota's hands, he will have plenty of open receivers to throw to.
If, on the opposite token, the Michigan receivers are struggling to get open and Gardner is having a hard time finding them downfield, that could be a big red flag.