The University of Minnesota football team was riding high after beginning the year 4-0 following four impressive non-conference wins. All of that momentum was seemingly squashed last weekend as Iowa rolled into Minneapolis and topped the Gophers by a 23-7 final that felt completely one-sided. Minnesota must now put that game in the rearview mirror as it gears up to face undefeated and 19th-ranked Michigan this Saturday in Ann Arbor, Mich. Here are five things to watch as the Gophers and Wolverines battle for the Little Brown Jug in the Big House.
1. Can Minnesota’s running game get back on track?
The Gophers believed they had finally established an identity as a power running team, racking up big yardage on the ground in four non-conference games. Then Minnesota set foot in Big Ten play and everything changed. The previously successful Gophers running game met its match against Iowa, which held Minnesota to just 30 rushing yards on 27 carries — an average of a measly 1.1 yards per carry. The Gophers simply got beat in the trenches and were never able to clear much space for the running backs.
Things won’t get much easier Saturday against Michigan. The Wolverines’ defense has allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game (79.0) in the Big Ten so far this season. Like Iowa, Michigan has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. That statistic figured to give when the Gophers met the Hawkeyes last weekend, as Minnesota had rushed for a Big Ten best 16 touchdowns through four games. But the Gophers’ only score last Saturday came through the air. If Minnesota can’t establish its running game this weekend against the stout Michigan defense, it could be another long day for the Gophers offense.
2. Will we see Mitch Leidner at all?
Before last week’s game against Iowa, many expected redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner to start at quarterback after he ran for four touchdowns the previous week against San Jose State. Instead, head coach Jerry Kill opted to play sophomore Philip Nelson, who missed time with a hamstring injury. Kill left the decision up to Nelson as to whether or not he was healthy enough to play, and Nelson decided that he was. So after all the success Leidner had the week earlier, he watched the entire Gophers loss from the sideline.
Once again, Leidner and Nelson are listed as co-starters on Minnesota’s weekly depth chart, which was released Thursday. Kill hasn’t tipped his hand as to which quarterback will get the start. Nelson was far from sharp in last week’s loss, going 12-for-24 for 135, a touchdown and two interceptions. Nelson also looked as if his mobility was affected by his hamstring, even though he denied that after the game. So whether or not Leidner starts remains to be seen, but it might behoove the Gophers to at least use both quarterbacks and give Leidner the opportunity to contribute.
3. Containing Devin Gardner
The Gophers went into last year’s game against Michigan without knowing for certain which Wolverines quarterback would start. Senior Denard Robinson was banged up but took part in warmups before the game at TCF Bank stadium. Ultimately, though, it was Devin Gardner who got the start and led Michigan to a win. He was 12-for-18 for 234 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 45-yard score to Drew Dileo after Gardner scrambled in the backfield for nearly 10 seconds. That long touchdown pass tied the game and seemed to deflate Minnesota’s confidence midway through the second quarter.
Looking at Gardner’s numbers so far this season, he appears human, as Gophers defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman noted. Gardner has thrown for eight interceptions in four games, including three in one game. Michigan is 4-0 but barely snuck past Akron and Connecticut, thanks in part to Gardner’s shaky play (he was picked three times against UConn). Minnesota’s defense believes it can have similar success against Gardner and Michigan’s offense. Given his ability to scramble to extend the play, though, the Gophers’ defensive backs may need to hang with the Michigan receivers for longer than normal.
4. Staying focused in the Big House
There’s no bigger stadium in terms of capacity than Michigan Stadium, better known as the Big House, in Ann Arbor, Mich. The Wolverines’ home since 1927, the Big House is as iconic as the blue and gold jerseys and the winged helmets Michigan football has become known for. When Notre Dame played at Michigan Stadium earlier this year, a single-game attendance record of 115,109 was set. That’s more than double what a normal game at TCF Bank Stadium draws.
Minnesota last played there in 2011 and was walloped 58-0 to drop to 1-5 on the season. An impressive 111,106 fans were there to witness that game. Before that, the Gophers’ last visit to Ann Arbor was in 2007 — a 34-10 loss to the Wolverines. Minnesota hasn’t won a game in the Big House since 2005 when Glen Mason’s Gophers topped Michigan 23-20 to claim the Little Brown Jug.
The underclassmen on this year’s Minnesota squad have not yet experienced what it’s like to play in the Big House. On Saturday, they’ll find out what it’s like to play in front of more than 110,000 screaming fans.
“That’s what college football’s supposed to be like,” Kill said. “That’s part of the head coach’s job is to make sure they’re focused, make sure they don’t get caught up in all that. And that happens, but the mature teams and the good teams don’t let that happen.”
5. Special teams could be a factor
Even in last week’s loss to Iowa, Minnesota nearly turned the momentum around with a few big plays on special teams. Marcus Jones — who already has two special teams return touchdowns this year — ran a kickoff back 66 yards to the Iowa 35-yard line. A few plays later, thanks to the great field position, the Gophers scored to cut the Hawkeyes lead to 20-7. While Minnesota ultimately fell short, Jones’ big return provided a temporary spark for a struggling Gophers squad.
Entering Saturday’s game, Minnesota leads the Big Ten in kick return average (27.5 yards per return) and is third in punt return average (14.8). The Gophers also boast the top coverage team on kickoffs, averaging 43.4 net yards per kickoff. Winning the field position battle could be huge for Minnesota as it looks to gain any advantage it can against the 4-0 Wolverines.