Michigan’s los to Nebraska last weekend put the Wolverines in a must-win scenario for every game the rest of the season. And it all starts tomorrow with the battle for the Little Brown Jug. It’s our very own Matt’s favorite rivalry.
Minnesota enters with a 5-3 record, but has won just one of four since Big Ten play started. The Gophers munched on douglas-firs – UNLV, New Hampshire, Western Michigan, and Syracuse – before dropping three straight to Iowa, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. Last week, Minnesota got back in the win column with a 44-28 win over Purdue.
TCF Bank Stadium - Minneapolis, Minn.
Minnesota is fighting for bowl eligibility, needing at least one more win in its four remaining games. That will likely come next week against Illinois, but the Gophers would like to become bowl eligible this week and take back the Little Brown Jug. Can they? Let’s take a look at the matchups.
When Minnesota has the ball
Minnesota will be starting freshman quarterback Philip Nelson for the third straight week. He turned in rather pedestrian numbers against Wisconsin in his first start (13-of-24 for 149 yards, two interceptions and two touchdowns) but had a good game against Purdue last week (15-of-22 for 246 yards, three touchdowns, and no picks). He can also run a little bit, having carried the ball 25 times for 104 yards.
He will be throwing to junior A.J. Barker and a bunch of other guys. Barker leads the Gophers with 30 receptions for 577 yards and seven touchdowns. The next best receiver is Isaac Fruechte who has just 13 catches for 193 yards and two touchdowns. MarQueis Gray, who converted from quarterback to receiver, has caught seven passes for 73 yards in the past two weeks. He’s a great athlete, so he’s always dangerous with the ball in his hands.
In the backfield, Donnell Kirkwood is the workhorse with 138 carries for 609 yards and three touchdowns so far. He had his best game of the season last week, rushing for 134 yards on 6.1 yards per carry. No other running back has done much – Gray and Nelson are second and third on the team – but freshman Rodrick Williams Jr has been getting more carries each of the last three weeks.
The Gophers are only scoring 25 points per game and were held to 13 by Iowa, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. You might recognize that as the magic number Michigan has allowed a few times this season. Michigan’s defense has been outstanding the past six weeks, giving up an average of 9.8 points per game. The Wolverines held Nebraska well below its season average despite an offense that couldn’t stay on the field in the second half without Denard Robinson. Minnesota shouldn’t hurt Michigan at all with the run game, so look for Nelson to challenge Michigan’s secondary downfield. Even though Michigan features the top-ranked pass defense in the country, the corners have still been susceptible over the top.
When Michigan has the ball
Minnesota has the 7th-ranked pass defense in the nation but the 82nd-ranked rush defense. That shows that teams have been able to run all over the Gophers. The best rush offenses Minnesota has faced, Wisconsin and Northwestern, put up 337 and 208 rushing yards, respectively. Iowa also had a 100-yard rusher.
Rushing Attempts: 12 – Denard will pass Tyrone Wheatley for 6th in career rushing attempts.
Safety Troy Stoudermire and cornerback Derrick Wells are the leading tacklers, while Wells also has a pair of interceptions. Linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper are returning starters from last season and rank third and fourth on the team in tackles.
The defensive line found a pair of guys to step up after being a disaster last season. DL Wilhite leads the team and ranks second in the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks and also has nine tackles for loss. RaShede Hageman has also made an impact in the backfield, ranking sixth in the conference with four sacks.
Expect Michigan to run the ball just like it did against Purdue and Illinois. With a healthy Denard, Michigan should be able to eat up chunks of yards on the ground and only pass a handful of times.
The other third
Kicker Jordan Wetterstein is just 9-of-16 this season with a long of 44, while punter Christian Eldred averages just 37.4 yards per punt, which ranks ninth in the Big Ten. The Gophers don’t have much in the way of a return game. Barker handles punt returns and averages 7.1 yards per, but no one ranks in the top ten in the conference in kick returns.
As I mentioned above, look for Michigan to run the ball. Denard better go out of bounds when necessary to avoid big hits, and hopefully the game can be well in hand by the end of the third quarter so he can rest and give Russell Bellomy some more game action. On the other side of the ball, Minnesota may connect a couple long balls, but shouldn’t be able to move the ball very much against Michigan’s defense. Michigan will retain control of the Jug for the fifth straight year.
Michigan 37 – Minnesota 10
Bonus: After Michigan’s win, root hard for Michigan State. Yes, I said it and I know it goes against everything you’ve been taught, but Michigan’s only chance of winning the Legends division is for Nebraska to lose one if its remaining game, and this is their best chance. So go Sparty!