This is a game that the Gophers have probably had circled since last year’s heartbreaking 27-24 defeat. After that setback, Minnesota dropped four of its next six games. But the buildup for this year’s contest has subsided a bit after the Gophers’ 44-14 loss to Penn State last weekend. Still, the game still holds meaning because of one of college football’s greatest traditions – the battle for the Little Brown Jug. Minnesota comes to Ann Arbor needing a win and would love to take the Jug to Minneapolis for the first time since 1986. Michigan has plenty of momentum after its 34-31 overtime victory over Michigan State.
Michigan passing offense vs. Minnesota passing defense:
Wolverines quarterback Chad Henne seemed to bounce back last week against the Spartans. But will his 26-for-35, 256-yard, three-touchdown performance be enough to turn the sophomore’s season around? He’ll face his next test against Minnesota’s mediocre secondary.
The Gophers are giving up 231 passing yards per game, but they’ve intercepted five passes. The Minnesota secondary won’t be at full strength, since an injury Owens suffered in last week’s loss to Penn State will keep him out of action against the Wolverines.
Michigan’s receivers will likely be too much for the Gophers to handle. Senior co-captain Jason Avant continued his strong play this season against Michigan State, with 10 catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. He has 514 yards and five scores so far this year. True freshman Mario Manningham is becoming a household name, as well.
Michigan rushing offense vs. Minnesota rushing defense:
Mike Hart provided the Michigan offense with quite the spark last week, rushing 36 times for 218 yards on his way to being named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week. Hart also came up big in Michigan’s comeback win over the Gophers last season with 160 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries.
The Gophers let Penn State run all overthem last week. Led by tailback Tony Hunt’s 114 yards and two scores, the Nittany Lions’ balanced rushing attack gained 364 yards. But quarterback Michael Robinson got in on the act as well, amassing 110 yards on the ground. Henne won’t provide quite the same threat this week, but Minnesota will be hard-pressed to stop Hart.
Minnesota passing offense vs. Michigan passing defense:
Redshirt junior quarterback Bryan Cupito has had a career full of ups and downs, and he still hasn’t gotten over the hump yet. Cupito comes in having thrown for 1,069 yards, with nine touchdowns and six interceptions. While his numbers are solid, teams aren’t scared of the signal caller beating them.
Leon Hall leads the secondary, but safeties Brandent Englemon and Willis Barringer have played well, even though they were not highly regarded entering the season. The Wolverines will probably make Cupito try to beat them but the Gophers have the receivers – namely Ernest Wheelwright III and Logan Payne – to make Michigan pay. But look for the Michigan secondary to finish the day with at least two interceptions.
Minnesota rushing offense vs. Michigan rushing defense:
Every team knows that the key to stopping the Gophers is stopping the dynamic Maroney. The junior started the season with a bang, gaining 698 yards and six touchdowns in the first four games. But Penn State shut down Maroney, holding him to just 48 yards on 16 carries while handing the Gophers their first defeat.
Michigan comes into Saturday’s matchup feeling much better about its defense after holding Michigan State – one of the country’s most potent offensive attacks – mostly in check. This week, sophomore Alan Branch is slated to start at defensive end, filling in for the injured Rondell Biggs and providing a stiffer resistance to the Minnesota rushing game. Gabe Watson is also expected to start after coming off the bench in the Wolverines’ last four games.
Garrett Rivas showed his toughness last week against Michigan State. He made up for his missed field goal at the end of regulation with a the game-winning boot. Punter and kickoff specialist Ross Ryan has been a godsend for the Wolverines this year. The two of them have turned Michigan special teams into a strength – a pleasant surprise for recent Michigan fans.
Minnesota hasn’t been quite as lucky. Punter Justin Kucek ranks dead last in the Big Ten, and placekicker Jason Giannini hasn’t fared much better. But to be fair, the Gophers didn’t have to rely on punts or field goals until last week, thanks to their high-scoring offense.
The Gophers haven’t beaten Michigan in 18 years. Their struggles have haunted them in their games following showdowns with the Wolverines. Even Minnesota coach Glen Mason has joked about not ever seeing the trophy. Michigan obviously has the mental advantage, knowing that the Gophers have a certain amount of fear going into the game. The Wolverines are Minnesota’s kryptonite.
This battle of the running backs figures to be a close game; it always is when Michigan and Minnesota get together. There’s every reason to believe history will repeat itself in the final score, too.
Pick: Michigan 31, Minnesota 24