For just the fifth time in program history, the Michigan football team will be playing a night game in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines didn’t have to wait very long since the last one.
A month ago, Michigan lost a sloppy tilt with now-No. 24 Michigan State amid a torrential downpour, and had to watch the Spartans walk off its field with the Paul Bunyan Trophy. Saturday night, there will be another trophy on the line.
Michigan (3-2 Big Ten, 6-2 overall) will be facing off against Minnesota (1-4, 4-4) for the Little Brown Jug, which the Wolverines claimed after beating the Golden Gophers two years ago thanks to a goal-line stand with seconds remaining on the clock in Minneapolis.
Here’s how Michigan matches up with Minnesota on Saturday night.
Michigan pass offense vs Minnesota pass defense
Whether coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff choose to admit it publicly or not, Brandon Peters will be the leader under center for the foreseeable future. The redshirt freshman quarterback took full advantage of his first taste of meaningful game action last week, putting a 10-for-14, 124-yard, one-touchdown performance on his resume.
While he didn’t light up Rutgers, Peters settled into the groove of the offense and did what the Wolverines needed him to do to turn the game around. From his quiet confidence to his poise in the pocket, Peters impressed his teammates and coaches as well as the Michigan faithful. He may have jumpstarted the Wolverines’ struggling offense last Saturday, but he needs to show that he can have that much of an impact on a regular basis.
Peters will have his work cut out for him in a matchup against the Golden Gophers’ 20th-ranked defense. In eight games, Minnesota has given up just eight touchdowns through the air. It has also allowed an average of 114 passing yards per game, which is 10 less than Peters gained last Saturday. While Peters has yet to throw an interception, the Golden Gophers have forced eight and returned them for 98 yards.
Peters is bound to face some bumps in the road eventually. They might come sooner than expected Saturday night.
Michigan run offense vs Minnesota run defense
It’s not every day that a ground game gains 334 yards. But last Saturday was no ordinary day for the Wolverines’ running back rotation. Junior Karan Higdon and fifth-year senior Ty Isaac both eclipsed 100 yards rushing, and Higdon teamed up with redshirt freshman Kareem Walker to score three touchdowns.
As far as Michigan is concerned, it was no fluke. After starting the season with concerning flaws, the offensive line has been on the mend according to fifth-year senior Patrick Kugler. With a mentality to open up holes for the Wolverines’ talented backs, Kugler and his unit have worked to resolve the little mistakes that plagued them for much of the year.
Regardless, Minnesota will provide a more challenging test than they have faced. The Golden Gophers’ trio of linebackers, Thomas Barber, Jonathan Celestin, and Carter Coughlin, have the ability to wreak havoc in stopping the run. Barber leads the team with 75 tackles, Coughlin leads with 8.5 tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks, and Celestin has both an interception return and fumble recovery.
The running backs and offensive line had their best outing against Rutgers, and that momentum should be enough to push them past Minnesota’s tough front.
Minnesota pass offense vs Michigan pass defense
More often than not, operating an offense with two different quarterbacks is a recipe for disaster. Despite relatively solid numbers from Minnesota’s Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft, the Golden Gophers are no exception.
Minnesota has one of the worst offenses in the nation, ranking 110th nationally in total offense. Rhoda and Croft have combined for 1,251 yards and just nine touchdowns in eight games played. They should be grateful to have a target like receiver Tyler Johnson, who has caught 31 passes for 591 yards and seven of those scores.
Michigan, on the other hand, has one of the best pass defenses in the country. Ranked as the fifth-best unit in passing efficiency, the Wolverines’ secondary has held opponents to just six total scores this season. While their individual statistics might not stand out as much, the chemistry of the back four has been a strength for Michigan.
Whichever quarterback takes the field will have a hard time breaking through the defense in the air.
Minnesota run offense vs Michigan run defense
As is the case with the Wolverines, Minnesota’s run game is the dominant offensive unit. And it has a trio of backs of its own in Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Kobe McCrary.
The three have combined for 12 touchdowns, with Brooks and McCrary coming up with five each. Smith is the lead back, though, as he has received the vast majority of carries with 153. Together, they have helped the Golden Gophers rank in the top-50 nationally with an average of 182 yards per game.
Despite Minnesota’s strength in this area, Michigan has a strength of its own, too. The Wolverines’ defensive line has only improved as the season has progressed, with the combination of fifth-year senior tackle Maurice Hurst and sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary continually causing fits for opposing offenses.
As good as Michigan’s front four is, it may not be able to contain Minnesota’s running back trio, though.
It hasn’t been the best of times for redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin.
After missing a PAT against Penn State amid rousing boos for the one-time Nittany Lion commit, Nordin missed another kick against Rutgers — this time, a 37-yard field goal. He is still 14-for-17 on the year, which is good for an 80-percent completion rate, but his recent string of games hasn’t been the most encouraging.
Nordin will be up against a kicker with a comparable record in Golden Gopher Emmit Carpenter, who is 11-for-15 — a 73.3 completion percentage.
In a game that could turn out to be closer than expected, one of these two kickers might play a role in the decision.
While it may not have been long since Michigan’s last home night game, it has been a long time since the Wolverines played host to Minnesota. They won’t want to remember it.
In the midst of Michigan’s catastrophic 5-7 season back in 2014, the Golden Gophers came away with a 30-14 victory. That was all before Harbaugh took over the program.
Under his watch, the Wolverines brought the Little Brown Jug back to Ann Arbor in 2015. They won’t want to give up another trophy.
Prediction: Michigan 21, Minnesota 17