After 14 straight losses, it looked like Minnesota would finally
break the skid against Michigan last season. Up 28-7 heading into
the fourth quarter, the Gophers imploded and watched Michigan
complete the greatest comeback in the history of its program to
steal a 38-35 victory. Now, the two teams meet up again.

No. 13 Minnesota has run out to a 5-0 record, including an
impressive road win at Colorado State and solid home victories over
Penn State and Northwestern. Meanwhile, Michigan appears to have
hit a groove after back-to-back blowout wins over Iowa and
Indiana.

The winner of this game will take a monster step forward in the
race for the Big Ten conference title.

 

Michigan rushing offense vs. Minnesota rushing defense:
This will be the most important test for the Michigan ground
game to date.

This year, Michigan’s best defense might be a good
offense. That’s because last year, Minnesota put up seemingly
endless strings of yardage on the Wolverines’ defense.

The longer freshman Mike Hart and Michigan can grind away on the
ground, the longer Minnesota’s dynamic running back duo sits
on the sideline.

Minnesota is yielding just under 100 yards per game, but the
Gophers will likely need to play an extra defensive back to try and
slow Michigan’s passing game. That means Hart will get
chances to gain big yards.

The Wolverines are currently 10th in the Big Ten in rushing
offense, averaging an abysmal 101 yards per game.

That’s a very un-Michigan-like number, and one that will
have to improve over the next six games if the Wolverines are to
repeat as Big Ten champions.

Edge: Push

 

Michigan passing offense vs. Minnesota passing defense:
No matter who Michigan matches up with this season, its abundance
of talent at wide receiver should give the Wolverines the edge in
this category. This battle is no different. The Gophers come into
the game ranked No. 105 in the nation in pass defense, and are
serving up over 270 yards per contest. But they do possess some
experience in the defensive backfield and will be itching to prove
last year’s showing —where Michigan’s John
Navarre picked them apart — was simply a fluke.

That means plenty of opportunities for budding Heisman candidate
Braylon Edwards and the rest of the Wolverines’ talented
receivers. The ideal strategy for the Gophers would be to blitz
freshman quarterback Chad Henne. But that would leave the
Gophers’ secondary lingering in one-on-one situations against
Edwards, Jason Avant and the Wolverines’ receiving corps
— something that Henne exploited for three long touchdowns
against Indiana.

Edge: Michigan

 

Minnesota rushing offense vs. Michigan rushing defense:
Here it is — the Frazier-Ali matchup of the game.

The Gophers come in featuring the nation’s third-best
rushing attack, posting a whopping 323 yards per game —
that’s 150 yards per game more than anyone else in the Big
Ten. On the other side of the ball, Michigan has allowed just 47
yards per game on the ground, topping the conference and the
nation. And that number drops to 25 yards in the Wolverines’
four victories. But the Gophers — who could forget? —
pounded out more than 400 yards in last season’s game between
these two teams, meaning running backs Marion Barber III and
Laurence Maroney should ooze confidence heading into this tussle.
Chances are Minnesota will get its yards on the ground.

Michigan will use its new 3-4 defense to try to prevent Barber
and Maroney from turning the corner and breaking big gain after big
gain.

The one positive for Michigan in this area is that scrambling
quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq graduated, and Bryan Cupito is far
less mobile.

Edge: Minnesota

 

Minnesota passing offense vs. Michigan passing defense:
Opposite the way Minnesota will likely sit back against the pass,
the Michigan defense will have to stack up against the run. That
means that the Wolverines will try to force Cupito and the
Gophers’ aerial attack to win the game. But Cupito has a
decent arm, and will likely see one-on-one coverage on his top two
receivers, Jared Ellerson and Ernie Wheelwright. Plus, tight end
Matt Spaeth is one of the more underrated pass-catching tight ends
in the conference.

Add in the threat that Barber and Maroney present when they roll
out of the backfield and the Gophers have several viable options.
Still, Michigan leads the nation in turnovers, and has 11
interceptions on the year. Cupito will probably see more blitzes
— and definitely see more speed — from Michigan than
any other team Minnesota has faced this year.

 

Edge: Michigan

 

Special teams: This area is up in the air, but special
teams could decide things if it comes down to the final minutes.
Minnesota features do-everything kicker/punter Rhys Lloyd, who has
struggled in the field goal department thus far, going a meager
five-for-nine. Still, he is considered one of the
conference’s best placekickers and has been, at the very
least, adequate as a punter. Minnesota has yet to be very
successful returning kicks, but with Barber handling most punts and
kickoffs, the Gophers have a home run threat.

For Michigan, the special teams exploded in the win over Indiana
— Leon Hall returned a punt for a touchdown and Grant Mason
set up another score with a 97-yard kickoff return. And Steve
Breaston is expected back after suffering a hand injury against
Iowa. Meanwhile, punter Adam Finley is second in the Big Ten in
yards per punt and kicker Garret Rivas has hit on seven-of-10 field
goal tries.

 

Edge: Push

 

Intangibles: There’s no doubt that Minnesota has
had this game circled on its calendar since letting that huge lead
vanish last season.

Still, the Wolverines comeback just added to the mystique they
have in this rivalry, as they have captured the last 15
contests.

Plus, Michigan is incredibly hard to beat in the Big House
during the conference season. Minnesota has the motivation, but it
won’t be easy to steal one on the road.

Edge: Push

 

This could be one of the best games the Big Ten sees all year
long. Both teams have explosive offensive potential, and both are
capable of winning the conference if they capture a victory here. A
road win could propel Minnesota to sights very rarely seen in the
Land of 10,000 Lakes.

But Michigan’s defense has been the story this season, and
provided that Barber and Maroney don’t completely dominate
for the second straight game, chances are that Cupito will be
forced into more mistakes than Henne. That would be good news for
Michigan.

 

Prediction: Michigan 31, Minnesota 24

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