What to watch for: Gophers head to Michigan as heavy underdogs
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
Who: Minnesota Gophers (4-1) at No. 19 Michigan Wolverines (4-0)
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Michigan Stadium (capacity: 109,901)
TV: ABC/ESPN 2 (KSTP-TV Ch. 5 - locally)
Line: Michigan by 19
Coaches: Gophers -- Jerry Kill (3rd season, 13-17). Wolverines -- Brady Hoke (3rd season, 23-7).
Series: Michigan leads 72-24-3
Last meeting: Nov. 3, 2012 -- Despite a continually stagnate offense, the Gophers were within a touchdown of Michigan at halftime (14-7). But behind Devin Gardner, filling in for the injured Denard Robinson, the Wolverines pulled away in the final two quarters of a 35-13 defeat.
Injuries: Gophers' full injury report can be found here
State of affairs
Was last week a reality check for the Gophers? It felt like it. Regardless of qualms about strength of schedule, Minnesota was off to a strong 4-0 start. But Iowa delivered a gut punch by dispensing with the offensively challenged Gophers, 23-7, in a loss that brought back reminders of the recent history of Big Ten troubles (three straight two-win conference seasons).
Minnesota is in need of rebounding quickly, because their schedule only gets increasingly daunting from here. In the battle for the Little Brown Jug, the Gophers have defeated the Wolverines only once in the last 22 years (2005: 23-20 at Michigan), and just three times dating all way back to 1968.
Michigan at a glance
The Wolverines are 4-0 and have their aspirations for a Big Ten title still readily in sight. But all is not rosy in Ann Arbor after Michigan fended off near-losses against Akron and Connecticut in its final two nonconference games. With a bye week to regroup, the Wolverines are trying to reestablish their position in the open-for-the-taking Big Ten.
What to watch for from the Gophers
Picking themselves up
To Minnesota's credit, the disheartening impact of losing to Iowa didn't seem to linger long throughout the squad. By Tuesday, the mood reflected by coach Jerry Kill and his players was one of no panic and a notable confidence level given the highly formidable gauntlet that still awaits them.
That's a good thing, because the Gophers have no room to dwell.
Opening the Big Ten season against Iowa was a major test of Minnesota's place in he conference. Consider it a key lost opportunity. But how the Gophers respond in their next three games, especially on the road at Michigan, will be a much better judge of the progress that is possible in Year 3 of the Kill era. Minnesota fans cringe at the term "moral victory", but even a closely contested loss on Saturday could be considered a step forward.
Run or else?
Without an adequate presence on the ground, the Gophers could be in for a long day at Michigan.
Running the football is what the "U" offense does best (averaging 282.3 yards in their first four games).However, when Iowa smothered their run game, the Gophers offense had no response. Meanwhile, sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson, back after sitting one week with a bum hamstring, struggled to get the passing attack in gear (12-of-24 for 135 yards and two interceptions).
It's not good sign for Minnesota that Michigan boasts sixth best rushing defense in the country (79 ypg). On the other hand, the Wolverines have been inconsistent against the pass (232 ypg). Nelson will need to have one of the best passing performances of his young career for the Gophers take advantage, but that only happens if Minnesota creates a respectable rushing attack.
Getting to Gardner
Michigan's Devin Gardner has the capability to be one of most dangerous quarterback threats in the Big Ten, but a shaky offensive line has not made life easy. The nimble Gardner (301 rushing yards) has had to do a lot of maneuvering in the backfield. It has led to a few not-so-pretty moments when opting to pass. Gardner has the second lowest completion rate among Big Ten starters (57.4 percent: 58-of-101), in front of only Nelson. Five of his eight interceptions on the year have come in Michigan's last two games.
The Gophers must keep Gardner uncomfortable, while keeping him in-check when on the run. Minnesota's defense has had moments of notable resiliency this season, but pressure on the quarterback has waned in the last two weeks, with just one sack in that stretch.
Iowa's ability to convert on third down conversions killed the Gophers' momentum. Michigan could be prone to do the same, with proven run threats in Gardner and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Improved play from the "U" linebacker corps is a must.
Michigan 31, Gophers 17
The Gophers have done enough defensively this season, and even for much of last year, to routinely give themselves an opening to win games. The problems lie heavily on offense. Without proper reciprocation from the offense is when the "U" defense has faltered the most.
Despite its faults, which showed against Iowa, Minnesota has the tools on defense to cause problems for Michigan. But unless Nelson and the offense can establish a rhythm both on the ground and through the air early on, the Wolverines will eventually wear the Gophers down by the second half -- just like they did in 2012.