Even without senior stars Mike Hart and Chad Henne, the Michigan offense was still expected to light up the overcast skies over the Big House.
So who would’ve guessed the Minnesota defense – a unit allowing an average of 533.6 yards per game heading into Saturday – would blank the 15th-ranked Wolverines through the first quarter?
For the first time this season, the Golden Gophers had held an opponent scoreless through the first frame, and Michigan looked ahead toward a possible upset.
But a Hart-less and Henne-less Michigan stormed back from a 10-0 deficit to run away from Minnesota in the second half. The Wolverines won 34-10 to retain the Little Brown Jug and stay just one of two teams unbeaten in the Big Ten.
“We knew coming into the game we didn’t have Chad or Mike, so we really weren’t panicking,” defensive tackle Terrance Taylor said. “We were just like, ‘We have to score touchdowns, get turnovers.’ We weren’t really worried about it.”
In what has become a trend against inferior teams, the Wolverines found themselves in a close game heading into halftime. Michigan (5-0 Big Ten, 7-2 overall) held a slim 13-10 lead in part because freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett’s continued struggles.
Starting in place of Henne, who didn’t dress due to an apparent shoulder injury, Mallett couldn’t rebound from poor showings in road contests against Northwestern and Illinois.
Mallett overthrew open receivers. He had balls batted down at the line and looked visibly frustrated. Most importantly, Mallett fumbled twice, one of which was returned 46 yards for the Minnesota’s lone touchdown.
But that was just in the first half.
After the defense gave the offense a little pep talk at halftime, Mallett and Co. came out in the second half and showed how potent the Michigan offense could be – even without its stars.
“A lot of guys talked to a lot of offensive guys at halftime and just told them ‘Y’all gotta fight,’ ” linebacker Shawn Crable said. ” ‘Y’all gotta turn it up.’ . And they did that.”
The offense’s fight started with both of Hart’s replacements, sophomores Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown, who each rushed for more than 100 yards.
Minor punished the Golden Gopher defense by taking a page from Hart’s game. Whenever it looked like Minnesota had Minor wrapped up, he ended up falling forward or moving the pile another few yards.
“I had somebody outside (the program) tell me I had to start running people over more, so I had to give them what they want,” said Minor, who finished with 157 rushing yards and one touchdown.
His backfieldmate, Brown, opened eyes with his performance against Illinois and once again showcased his explosiveness Saturday.
After a first-quarter fumble, Brown tallied two touchdowns and 135 yards, most of which came off an 85-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter to effectively end the game.
But the second half proved most beneficial for Mallett.
The freshman returned from the locker room and proceeded to stretch the field with the deep ball after the Michigan rushing attack gouged the Gopher defense. Mallett threw a perfect ball to wide receiver Mario Manningham, who finished with 162 receiving yards, on a 40-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter for Manningham’s and Mallett’s only score of the day.
“What I liked is that he showed real toughness after making a couple mistakes, one of which went back for a touchdown,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “Now we’re behind in our own stadium, and at that point, you fight back and have enough poise and toughness that you’re going to get it turned around, and he did that.”
Carr said both Hart and Henne are still day-to-day, but Hart said after the game he will play next week in East Lansing.
And with the way the offense began the game against the last-ranked defense in the Big Ten Saturday, Hart might be just enough to spark a better start.