- Adam Glanzman/Daily
By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 1, 2012
The Michigan football team enters the 93rd battle for the Little Brown Jug desperately needing to rid itself of the poor taste left by last week’s 23-9 loss to Nebraska.
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The defeat in Lincoln was a huge setback for the Wolverines, who saw their season-long three-game winning streak come to an end and lost control of the Big Ten Legends division. Michigan’s defense played well, but not well enough against the Cornhuskers, while the offense was, quite frankly, a disaster after senior quarterback Denard Robinson left with a nerve injury in his elbow.
Luckily the Wolverines will take on a Minnesota team that shouldn’t provide near the challenge that Nebraska did. The Golden Gophers are still trying to build a program under coach Jerry Kill. With just one Big Ten win, they don’t seem like much of a candidate to pull off the home upset.
But Michigan might still be without Robinson on Saturday — and if that’s the case, it could be anyone’s game.
Michigan rush offense vs. Minnesota rush defense
This is the key matchup of the game. Even if Robinson does play and is effective against Minnesota, offensive coordinator Al Borges will still rely heavily on his ground attack. Play has followed this pattern since the loss to Notre Dame, and there’s no indication that the rest of the season will be different.
Redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint has to step up, especially if Robinson doesn’t play. The other two quarterbacks don’t pose nearly the threat on the ground as Robinson, meaning Toussaint will be forced to carry the load.
The Gophers are 10th in the conference in rush defense with 178 yards allowed per game, so the Wolverines should have the advantage. If Toussaint again can’t get going, it will be a huge disappointment — and with the passing game a question mark, it’ll mean Michigan could struggle to move the ball.
Michigan pass offense vs. Minnesota pass defense
The question of the game is whether or not Robinson will play. Michigan coach Brady Hoke has said all week that his signal caller should be ready to go, but indicated it could be a game-time decision.
Whether Robinson plays or not, the Wolverines will be up against a very tough Minnesota secondary. The unit is second only to Michigan in pass defense in the Big Ten, and Derrick Wells is one of the conference’s best cornerbacks.
If Robinson can't go, indications are junior Devin Gardner will get the bulk of the playing time at quarterback, having practiced extensively at the position this week for the first time since moving to receiver at the beginning of the season.
Neither Gardner nor redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy should play as poorly as Bellomy did against Nebraska, when he was thrown into the fire in a hostile environment.
Still, if Michigan can move the ball effectively through the air, it’ll be something of a surprise. The Wolverines will also have to account for defensive linemen D.L. Wilhite and Ra’Shede Hageman, who are among the leaders in the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks and four sacks, respectively.
Minnesota rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
Gopher running back Donnell Kirkwood packs a punch at 219 pounds and has been a decent threat this season, averaging 4.4 yards per carry.
But in the past few weeks, the Wolverines have proven themselves to be one of the top run-stopping defenses around, thanks to improved gap maintenance by the defensive line and more consistency from linebackers.
Michigan has shut down better running attacks than Minnesota’s this season, and though the team wasn’t happy with its effort against Nebraska, the unit still held down the explosive Cornhuskers better than anyone else has. Expect more of the same against the Gophers.
Minnesota pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
The Wolverine back seven probably isn’t as good as the statistics say, with the team tied for tops in the country at 145.9 passing yards allowed per game. Michigan's hasn’t been tested as much as other top units.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a solid bunch, though. Making his third career start, Minnesota freshman quarterback Philip Nelson will face perhaps his stiffest challenge yet. Nelson has been pretty solid since taking the reins from MarQueis Gray, and he has a couple solid targets in Gray — the team’s best athlete — and A.J. Barker. This will be a test of just how good Nelson is.
Thank heavens for Brendan Gibbons.
With the Michigan offense suddenly impotent, the redshirt junior kicker picked up the slack with six field goals the last two weeks, including a career long 52-yarder against Nebraska. With junior Will Hagerup continuing to boom his punts, the Wolverines might have one of the top specialist duos in the country.
Minnesota isn’t nearly as strong in this department. Kicker Jordan Wettstein is 9-for-16 on field goals this season, and the Gophers aren’t great in any other department either.
Yes, this is technically a rivalry game, and both teams want to win the Jug. But its one-sidedness means it lacks the passion and intensity typical of most rivalries, so there shouldn’t be any significant impact from that aspect.
Give the slight advantage to Minnesota, just because of the mental lift the Gophers will get if Robinson can’t play and since they’re likely highly motivated to avenge the 58-0 drubbing the Wolverines gave them last season.
FINAL SCORE (with Robinson): Michigan 38, Minnesota 6
FINAL SCORE (without Robinson): Michigan 23, Minnesota 12