It was a microcosm of Michigan’s 2005 season.
Minnesota had the ball deep in its own end with the score tied at 20 and the game bound for overtime. That is, until Gary Russell broke a 61-yard run, and Minnesota kicked a field goal to win the game and capture the Little Brown Jug for the first time in 19 years.
But the Wolverines (1-0 Big Ten, 4-0 overall) have proven so far that they’re a different team from last year’s. After a slow start in its first two games, now-No. 6 Michigan handily defeated Notre Dame at South Bend and grounded out a Big Ten opening win against Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, the Gophers (0-1, 2-2) have struggled recently. In its Big Ten opener, Glen Mason’s squad lost a close contest to Purdue.
Here’s how the two teams break down:
Michigan running offense vs. Minnesota running defense:
In four games, the Wolverines’ running game would make former coach Bo Schembechler smile. Michigan has returned to smash-mouth football. Running back Mike Hart has averaged 119.2 yards per game.
Lining up on the other side, the Minnesota defense has given up more than 100 yards rushing in three of its first four games. Even though the Gophers’ front seven sees a zone-blocking scheme like Michigan’s every day in practice, expect Michigan to run over, around and through Minnesota’s ‘D’.
Michigan passing offense vs. Minnesota passing defense:
Quarterback Chad Henne struggled against Wisconsin, throwing three interceptions. Still, he completed 18 passes, and opposing defenses haven’t figured out how to cover wideout Mario Manningham. Even more bad news for the Gophers: Junior Adrian Arrington stepped out of the shadows last week when he collected 79 yards on four receptions. With the Wolverine passing attack finally finding its wings, the Minnesota secondary will have a tough time stopping all of Michigan’s options. Last week, Minnesota gave up 245 yards to Purdue. Look for the Gophers to stuff the box, and Henne will take advantage with the deep ball.
Michigan rushing defense vs. Minnesota rushing offense:
When Michigan and its vaunted front four travels to the Metrodome this Saturday, it’ll face probably its toughest test this season. The Gophers average 226.8 yards on the ground even without Wolverine-killer Gary Russell, who left the team for academic reasons. Amir Pinnix has picked up the load for Glen Mason, who has always been a run-first coach. Pinnix leads the team in rushing (386 yards) and ran for 172 yards against Purdue last week. But the Michigan defense is familiar with the zone-blocking scheme the offense runs in practice, which is similar to Minnesota’s. And it has abused opposing running backs. Michigan hasn’t surrendered a 100-yard rushing game yet this season, and with Alan Branch and company, don’t look for Minnesota to break that streak.
Michigan passing defense vs. Minnesota passing offense:
The Wolverines’ secondary looked confused early in last Saturday’s game. But it recovered nicely after giving up an early touchdown off a John Stocco checkdown pass to a wide-open Hill. The best part of the Wolverine pass defense is the heavy pressure it puts on the quarterback. Stocco threw 42 times but was hurried numerous times by the Michigan pass rush and sacked four times. Minnesota’s Bryan Cupito has put up solid numbers this season (742 yards and seven touchdowns), but against a pass rush as strong as Michigan’s, it will be tough for him to find an open receiver. Michigan’s defense should dominate the point of attack, and defensive coordinator Ron English will definitely bring the pressure.
Early this season, the Michigan kickoff and punt coverage teams struggled to contain opponents’ return men. But against Wisconsin, the units stood out. They knocked around the Badgers’ returners and forced a key fumble. Meanwhile, senior Steve Breaston looks like he’s back. The career Big Ten record holder for return yards, Breaston totaled 119 yards.
On the other side of the ball, Minnesota’s kicker, Jason Giannini, has missed one field goal out of five attempts. With both teams focused on running the ball, field position will play a tremendous role. Breaston should give Michigan a short field more often than not, and punter Zoltan Mesko and gunner Darnell Hood should pin Minnesota deep in its own end.
This week, the Michigan football players claimed they had forgotten about the humiliation of last season’s loss to the Gophers. But bet on the thought of that Minnesota flag planted on the 50-yard line resonating in the team’s mind. Carr and his players want the Little Brown Jug back. Michigan should come out and get it.
Michigan 27, Minnesota 6