Michigan 52, Minnesota 10

Michigan 52, Minnesota 10

October 8, 2023
Cornelius Johnson (image via Star Tribune)

Zone coverage FTW. There was a time when we lamented that Michigan defensive backs were terrible at looking back and finding the ball. There were interceptions to be had, but Michigan didn’t, you know, have them. Don Brown had the defensive backs in chase mode all the time, and even though he was really good at his defensive coordinator job – Ohio State be damned – he hated zone defense. In this game a dose of zone coverage was enough to confuse inexperienced Minnesota quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, and he threw more touchdown passes to Michigan’s guys (Will Johnson, Keon Sabb) than his own. In fact, he completed just 5/15 passes for 52 yards, 35 of which came on the final offensive play of the first half, a virtual Hail Mary that happened to come down in the hands of a diving Daniel Jackson for the Gophers’ only touchdown of the night. That passing total was the fewest amount allowed by Michigan since they allowed 24 against UConn in 2022.

Hit the jump for more.

Mike Sainristil is a starter at corner? I thought it was interesting that Michigan decided to roll with Mike Sainristil playing outside cornerback – along with Will Johnson – against Minnesota’s 11- and 12-personnel type of offense. Instead of playing slot corner like normal, Michigan removed Josh Wallace from the starting lineup and went with a 5-2 defense to start. Minnesota doesn’t really have the ability to go four-wide much and they’ve been pretty predictable on offense for years, so the coaches knew going into the game what types of packages they would see most. I can see why Michigan would want Sainristil to be out on the field, but he was the one who got burned for the TD pass to Daniel Jackson at the end of the first half, so I wonder if the staff will revisit that decision when they face a similar offensive team in the future.

Is Kalel Mullings the RB2? Another interesting personnel development was the deployment of Kalel Mullings. When Mullings entered the season, Jim Harbaugh called him “RB3” and fans were like, “Ha! Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it.” The 6’2″, 239 lb. converted linebacker didn’t seem like a natural running back last season when he was needed as a short yardage back, but he had shown glimpses of his talent in the 2022 spring game. In this game Mullings was the second running back to get a carry – not Donovan Edwards – and Mullings ended up with 8 carries for 47 yards, while Edwards had just 4 carries for 20 yards. (Mullings added 1 catch to bring his touches to 9, while Edwards’s 4 receptions put his total touches at 8.) Whether it was a situation-specific substitution or a kind of warning shot to Edwards that he might be moving down the depth chart is unclear. Regardless, Edwards is the least productive qualifying running back in the Big Ten on a yards per carry basis:

Welcome back, Mason Graham. Graham was an absolute beast in this game. He had a couple weeks off to deal with a hand injury, and he returned with a club on said hand. He brought the metaphorical club, too, as he led the team with 6 tackles, notched 2 tackles for loss, and had 1 sack. The tackles and TFLs were career highs, and the 1 sack matched his best effort, along with last year against Iowa and Nebraska. His sack in this one was comical as he literally leapt on Kaliakmanis for an 8-yard loss. Effort has never been a question mark for him, but if this is how he looks after a little rest . . . Michigan should just keep him on the bench and bring him out every two or three weeks for big games. Yowzers.

The Little Brown Jug is where it belongs. Michigan is now 77-25-3 in the rivalry and Michigan has retained the jug since 2015. The last time Minnesota won was the send-off season for Brady Hoke when the Wolverines lost by a score of 30-14. The 52 points scored in this one were the most since Hoke’s first season when Michigan ran for 363 yards and touchdown passes were thrown by Denard Robinson (2) and running back Vincent Smith (1) on the way to a 58-0 victory.

I could have written this without saying anything about J.J. McCarthy. For better or worse, I feel like I could have written this game column without mentioning McCarthy. He had a ho-hum day (14/20, 219 yards, 1 TD; 4 carries for 17 yards and 2 TD) despite accounting for three scores. His two rushing touchdowns were fun but probably not necessary as he squeezed inside the pylon on both, and his biggest play through the air was a back-shoulder post (huh?) on which Cornelius Johnson made an unnecessarily acrobatic catch. The real stories were Michigan’s defense and domination up front, but McCarthy just kept the ball rolling throughout. It’s great that we’ve come to expect these types of performances from McCarthy, and I have a feeling we’re going to miss his consistency and playmaking ability when he’s gone. Even though he has the #3 completion percentage (77.6%) and the #4 passing efficiency rating (188.53), he ranks #56 in the country with just 97 completions and #88 in attempts.

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