The game against Northwestern had shades of it, and the game against Michigan State did, too. But the Michigan football team’s game Saturday at Minnesota will have old-fashioned power football written all over it.
The Wolverines and Golden Gophers match run-first offenses and hard-nosed defenses Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Minnesota cruised in last year’s meeting at Michigan Stadium, 30-14, but Michigan won six straight in the series before that.
The Wolverines have a good chance to win this one, too, if they can limit mistakes in a tough road environment. The Golden Gophers have been decimated by injuries this season but could play their best game Saturday in the spotlight.
Here’s how the teams match up:
Michigan pass offense vs. Minnesota pass defense
Fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock is averaging just 186.1 yards per game passing this season, and he failed to meet that mark in his last game against Michigan State. He did, however, establish a big-play component, throwing four of his 15 completions for more than 20 yards. Just as impressively, he threw them to four different receivers: senior tight end A.J. Williams, redshirt junior wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and the Wolverines’ newest offensive weapon, redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers.
In all, Rudock has thrown this year to 21 different receivers, including himself (he caught a deflected pass against Michigan State). The deep passing game still needs work, but Rudock will need to focus on taking care of the football above all else Saturday.
The Golden Gophers have been average at forcing interceptions (six total) this year, and their pass rush has been weak (tied for 103rd in the nation). Their pass defense has been stingy, though, allowing just 177.3 yards per game. Defensive back Jalen Myrick leads Minnesota with three interceptions, and Adekunle Ayinde and Eric Murray have added four pass breakups each.
Michigan rush offense vs. Minnesota rush defense
The Wolverines managed just 83 yards on 28 carries last season against Minnesota, but their offensive line has been much more successful this year. A big reason for that is continuity: Michigan has started the same linemen at the same positions in every game this season, and many of them have previous starting experience.
Junior running back De’Veon Smith leads the team with 436 yards, and he figures to get more than the nine touches he had in last year’s meeting. After missing one game and being limited in another, he returned to being the featured back against Michigan State, earning 19 carries while no one else had more than three.
Minnesota ranks 52nd nationally against the run, giving up 151.4 yards per game, so the Wolverines could find daylight on the ground. The defensive line has been one of the Golden Gophers’ healthiest units this season, however. Defensive linemen Steven Richardson and Theiren Cockran have combined for 12 tackles for loss and will look to create havoc in the Michigan backfield as they did last season.
Minnesota pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
Like with Michigan, Minnesota’s passing game is its second option. Quarterback Mitch Leidner has seven fewer yards than Rudock through seven games. He, too, has six interceptions, but also seven touchdowns. And the Gophers’ passing attack is conservative like Michigan’s, with a season-long play of 38 yards.
Michigan secondary coach Greg Jackson touted the play of Minnesota wide receivers KJ Maye and Eric Carter, and the Gophers also rely heavily on tight end Drew Wolitarsky.
The Wolverines allowed a season-high 328 passing yards against Michigan State, but it took a strong effort from Spartans quarterback Connor Cook, and they won’t face a receiver like Michigan State’s Aaron Burbridge this week. If they can limit the deep ball as they have all season, they won’t have any trouble.
Minnesota rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
The Gophers’ bread and butter is their power running game, but they haven’t been able to establish it as they did last year, when running back David Cobb steamrolled the Wolverines for 183 yards on 32 carries. Cobb graduated, and Minnesota hasn’t been able to replace him with another workhorse. Running backs Rodney Smith (467 yards, one touchdown) and Shannon Brooks (316 yards, three touchdowns) have shared the load.
Part of the issue for the Gophers is also their health, or lack thereof, on the offensive line. While Michigan has maintained a consistent group, eight different players have started on the line for Minnesota, and the Gophers have used five combinations of starters in seven games.
Minnesota will need to establish some continuity to brace for Michigan’s defense. Sixteen different Wolverines have teamed up for 55 tackles for loss, led by redshirt junior defensive end Willie Henry’s nine and redshirt junior defensive tackle Chris Wormley’s eight. If Michigan comes out angry after a heartbreaking loss to Michigan State, the Gophers will have their hands full.
Finally, the Wolverines can confidently say their special teams are a strength. Senior kicker Kenny Allen is now 10-for-12 on field goals, and fifth-year senior punter Blake O’Neill’s 80-yard bomb against Michigan State has been the highlight of a strong season for the Australian punter. In the return game, Peppers continues to be a weapon.
The Gophers have similar numbers. Ryan Santoso is 10-for-13 on field goals, and Peter Mortell is averaging 44 yards per punt with only one touchback on the season.
This is the toughest category to judge this week. Both teams are at difficult points in their seasons. Michigan must recover from a last-second loss to Michigan State and prove its Big Ten title hopes aren’t dead yet. The Wolverines must also manage the atmosphere on the road, where they have played just two times this year, one of which was a fairly pro-Michigan crowd at Maryland.
Minnesota, meanwhile, will play without head coach Jerry Kill, who retired Wednesday amid health concerns. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will lead the team Saturday night, so the Gophers, too, could respond in one of two ways. They could play an inspired game in honor of their highly respected coach and pull off an upset to put their season back on track, or they could be disorganized and struggle to hold off the Wolverines.
Coming off bye weeks, both teams should respond well from their setbacks. But Minnesota should be fired up to win one for Kill under the lights on its home turf.
Pick: Michigan 23, Minnesota 17