After two long weeks spent trying to process a shocking loss to Michigan State on Oct. 17, the Michigan football team will finally return to the playing field Saturday.
The Wolverines travel to Minnesota to take on the Golden Gophers in a game that will be influenced in large part by emotion.
For Minnesota, Saturday will be an opportunity to win for Jerry Kill, the former Golden Gophers coach who retired Wednesday due to health concerns. Kill suffered two seizures on Tuesday, leaving him little choice but to address his epilepsy head-on and step away from coaching.
A year after Kill’s squad brought home the Little Brown Jug, his team will have to defend the trophy without its leader. But as far as Minnesota’s game plan goes, Michigan isn’t expecting anything different from interim coach Tracy Claeys.
“I think that’s probably very indicative of who (Kill) is, and maybe the best credit to him is they would play like their hair’s on fire regardless,” said Michigan tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh. “I think that says a lot about who he is and how he coaches. You’re not going to show up and see a different team. I think that’s how he would want it, too, and that’s how those guys play.”
The Golden Gophers run a fairly balanced offense in which they rush slightly more than they pass. Running back Rodney Smith is the primary ball carrier, and he has earned a solid 4.1 yards per carry so far this season, totaling 487. Outside of Smith, change-of-pace back Shannon Brooks has done more with less this season, cranking out 321 yards on just 45 carries.
But the player to watch for Minnesota is quarterback Mitch Leidner. Leidner is on pace for a career year with 1,310 passing yards through seven games. If he holds those numbers, he’ll shatter his 2014 total of 1,798. Of course, racking up yards against the Michigan defense has proven a near-impossible task all season long for opponents.
Of the seven quarterbacks Michigan has faced, just two — Utah’s Travis Wilson and Michigan State’s Connor Cook — have eclipsed 200 yards passing. And with the Wolverines coming off a devastating loss on the final play against Michigan State, the Golden Gophers’ offense is in the unenviable position of getting the next crack at them.
“I feel bad for Minnesota,” said senior defensive end Royce Jenkins-Stone on Monday. “We’re going to be coming out with a lot of energy now.”
Even after giving up 27 points and 386 yards to the Spartans, the Wolverines boast the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense and the No. 1 total defense. Anchored by a stout, veteran line, Michigan has wreaked havoc in opponents’ backfields all season. Leidner can expect to be forced out of the pocket early and often, at which point he’ll be tasked with finding receivers blanketed by one of the Big Ten’s top secondaries.
Junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis leads the team with 14 pass breakups, and though the Spartans’ Aaron Burbridge burned him for 132 yards, Lewis is one of the toughest cover corners in the Big Ten.
“He’s putting all those things together and putting it all into one, and you can see it just from him playing each and every week,” said Michigan defensive backs coach Greg Jackson. “I mean, he’s getting stronger and stronger each and every week.”
On the other side of the ball, things are a little less certain for the Wolverines. De’Veon Smith will get his carries against a Minnesota defense that ranks in the middle of the Big Ten in rush defense, but he has proven to be a boom-or-bust back so far this season.
While Smith has gone over 120 yards twice this year, he has also been held under 60 yards four times, including each of the last two games. But Smith’s bruising style remains a threat, and it can be bolstered by contributions from senior fullback Sione Houma and redshirt junior running back Drake Johnson.
Still, this contest will be heavily influenced by the way each team harnesses its emotions. And while Michigan is favored by two touchdowns, the unpredictable reactions to those emotions could swing the contest in either direction.