MINNEAPOLIS — Already eliminated from bowl contention, the Michigan football team arrived in Minneapolis with a struggling defense and an injured starting quarterback.
But the Wolverines had the Little Brown Jug to play for and came out with their most consistent game of the season, winning 29-6 to retain the trophy until the teams resume their series in 2011.
The win saved Michigan (2-4 Big Ten, 3-7 overall) from having an empty trophy case for almost a year after it lost the Paul Bunyan Trophy to Michigan State last month. The Wolverines also snapped a five-game losing streak to avoid the first six-game in-season losing skid in program history.
“I have been saying all year that if you work hard and have good weeks, victories will come,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “We have had great weeks and seem to come up short, but today we put it all together and played an all-around game.”
While there were question marks on both sides of the ball for Michigan entering the game, the defense responded to its critics resoundingly.
A week after giving up 48 points and more than 500 yards to Purdue, the defense started its game against Minnesota in its third formation in as many games: a nickel base with two linebackers and five defensive backs.
With more speed on the field, the scheme was immediately effective. In the first quarter, the Golden Gophers managed just 24 yards and no first downs against the Big Ten’s worst scoring defense.
Minnesota (3-3, 7-3) didn’t get a first down until midway through the second quarter, its only first down of the first half. The Golden Gophers gained just 46 yards on 23 plays before halftime.
Michigan’s defensive dominance turned around a unit that struggled mightily during the team’s losing streak.
The secondary was especially impressive. It allowed over 250 yards through the air in each game of the losing streak and ranked worst in the conference in passing defense going into the game, but held Minnesota’s third-ranked aerial attack to 105 yards. The Gophers gained just 188 total yards, the lowest total Michigan’s defense has allowed this season.
“You hold a team like that and a quarterback like that to 100 yards passing, you did a pretty good job,” Michigan secondary coach Tony Gibson said. “I thought the kids were breaking on the ball. I thought we tackled really well today. Things that we thought they could do from day one, it finally seemed like they came together.”
Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer made some significant personnel adjustments in the defensive backfield from the Purdue game. Sophomore Donovan Warren returned to cornerback with Stevie Brown and Charles Stewart as the safeties. Brandon Harrison played at nickel back and Morgan Trent was at corner opposite Warren.
Minnesota moved the ball better in the second half, but never made it into the end zone. The six points allowed were the fewest by the Michigan defense since the 13-10 loss to Toledo last month.
The Gophers had the ball inside Michigan’s 10-yard line twice in the second half but were thwarted each time. The Wolverines pressured the quarterback better than in any game against a spread offense, totaling four sacks on the afternoon.
The defensive improvement set the stage for a surprisingly consistent offense.
With starting quarterback Steven Threet sidelined with a concussion, redshirt sophomore Nick Sheridan was steady in relief, going 18-for-30 with 203 yards and a touchdown. Sheridan threw no interceptions and was never sacked.
True freshman Justin Feagin also took snaps at quarterback, showing a spark on the ground with 49 yards on seven carries.
After struggling to reach the end zone in the first half, Michigan finally broke the goal line in the last two minutes before the break. Redshirt sophomore Nick Sheridan found junior wide receiver Greg Mathews on a backside slant for the eight-yard score. The touchdown gave Michigan a 16-0 lead.
The Wolverines had brought the ball into Minnesota territory four previous times in the first half, but managed just three field goals.
Michigan got on the board less than four minutes into the game on a 44-yard field goal by K.C. Lopata. Lopata later connected on field goals of 34 and 26 yards to give Michigan a 9-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
Lopata finished the game 5-for-5 on field goals. His five field goals tied a Michigan single-game record. J.D. Carlson last completed the feat against Illinois in 1990.
Fullback Mark Moundros scored Michigan’s second touchdown on a three-yard run in the game’s final minute.
“I mean this is only one win, but this was a big game for us to get a win,” Rodriguez said. “We can take away many good things from this game and try to build off what went well today.”