The No. 15 Michigan football team has had an extra week off since a last-second loss to Michigan State two weeks ago. While the Wolverines won’t get to erase that loss this weekend, they can exact revenge from another defeat from last season.
Michigan will travel to Minnesota, where it will play the Golden Gophers on Saturday night. Minnesota won the Little Brown Jug in crushing fashion last season, defeating the Wolverines in Ann Arbor, 30-14. This year’s game will be a chance to remedy the situation and bring the trophy back to Schembechler Hall. Michigan had defeated the Golden Gophers in six straight contests prior to last year’s game.
Here’s what to watch for Saturday.
1. How will both teams start?
There will be no lack of emotion in Saturday’s game. Michigan will be playing for the first time since its heartbreaking loss against Michigan State, in which a fumbled punt turned into disaster on the game’s final play. Minnesota, meanwhile, will be playing its first game without coach Jerry Kill, who retired Wednesday because of health problems.
The Wolverines have insisted all week that they will come out ready to play, motivated instead of defeated. But this team hasn’t yet had to face a great deal of adversity this season. Sure, Michigan lost its season opener at Utah, but that was no shock. This will be a different test altogether. The Wolverines have said that they will not let one loss turn into two, but Saturday’s game will be their chance to prove it.
From afar, it seems as though the Golden Gophers took Kill’s retirement hard. Players took to social media to wish him well and express how much Kill meant to them. While Michigan tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh said this week that he thinks Kill always had his team so fired up that it couldn’t possibly play any harder, it will be interesting to see if Minnesota comes out playing inspired in honor of its former coach.
2. Will Jabrill Peppers play more offense?
The redshirt freshman safety made a couple of appearances on offense against the Spartans. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Peppers could very well play offense in the future, but exactly how much remains to be seen.
When he went in on offense, Peppers had an immediate effect against Michigan State. Spartan coach Mark Dantonio called back-to-back timeouts the first time Peppers appeared with the offense, an indication that Peppers presented an immediate concern to the seasoned coach. In limited offensive action, Peppers finished with two receptions for 35 yards.
It will be interesting to see how Harbaugh deploys Peppers on offense going forward. Is he a weapon to be used only against the toughest opponents, or is he going to become a regular part of the offense now that he has had more than half a season to settle in on defense? Jackson said this week that Peppers playing offense likely had to do with both of those factors. No matter the situation, Peppers playing more offense would certainly be a way to mix things up.
3. How will Blake O’Neill respond?
The fifth-year senior punter has shown nothing but grace ever since his game-ending gaffe that filled sports highlight shows. He spoke to the media last week, emphasizing that one mistake will not define him.
But now comes the next part of the equation: actually kicking. While the Wolverines have expressed no doubts about their confidence in O’Neill going forward, it will ease the minds of fans to see him back in his old form, pinning opponents inside the 10-yard line.
4. Can Michigan’s defense return to its dominant ways?
Before the Wolverines’ defense surrendered 21 points against Michigan State — with the Spartans’ last touchdown coming on special teams — the unit had recorded three straight shutouts. Michigan’s defense had been suffocating until it faced the task of shutting down an experienced Michigan State offense, but even then, the Wolverines held their own.
This week will be an opportunity for Michigan’s defense to return to its dominance. The Golden Gophers have experienced mixed results offensively this season. Minnesota scored 41 points against Purdue on Oct. 10 but could not muster a score against Northwestern the week before.
The Wolverines’ defense should come out fired up, particularly senior linebacker Joe Bolden, who was ejected from the game against the Spartans for targeting. A fourth shutout of the season, especially after last week’s loss, would be quite an impressive feat.