Preview: Plenty to prove as Morgan, No. 21 Gophers host 18th-ranked Michigan
MINNEAPOLIS — Michigan hasn’t left Minnesota with a loss since 1977.
This time, the only fans in the seats will be family members of the players, drastically reducing the disadvantage for the visitors.
This is a much different Gophers team than most of those that wilted in the past against the Wolverines, though. This pivotal sixth season with coach Jim Harbaugh for the storied program will finally begin in difficult fashion at No. 21 Minnesota on Saturday night.
Long before the 18th-ranked Wolverines can worry about that next swing at rival Ohio State, they must contend with the Gophers, who won 11 games last season, a mark that Michigan hasn’t hit since 2011. The Wolverines will again boast a stout defensive line and a deep group of running backs, but there’s plenty to prove in order to end their 16-year drought without a Big Ten title.
“I’ve never seen any team I’ve been a part of here come together as much as we have,” senior linebacker Josh Ross said. “I’m ready to show everybody how good we actually are.”
The Gophers got a lot better when star wide receiver Rashod Bateman had his eligibility reinstated last month, after he initially opted out of the season due to health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The connection between him and quarterback Tanner Morgan ought to be one of the best in the conference, if not the country.
“Tanner has just grown as a leader throughout this whole quarantine,” running back Mohamed Ibrahim said. “He has really good control of this whole team.”
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER
First, the Big Ten canceled nonconference games. Then the whole season was off, for about a month, until more stringent virus protocols fueled another revision and this late October start. Regardless of how the conference got here, both teams are eager to get going.
“It really kind of surreal right now,” Michigan fifth-year senior defensive tackle Carlo Kemp said. “I’m thankful for this opportunity. They didn’t have to change their decision.”
This is the first time a ranked Minnesota team will open against an opponent also appearing in the AP poll since 1968, when the Gophers faced USC.
“We were all at home for months. We weren’t even able to be around each other. So to start the year off, to be able to play football, is something that we’re very grateful for,” Morgan said.
THE BIG STAGE
Minnesota’s matchup with rival Wisconsin for the Big Ten West Division title last season lured ESPN’s College GameDay to campus, the first time the Gophers hosted the weekly preview show since it began on-location broadcasts in 1993.
Now the network is returning on Saturday for a second straight home game, and this one is the 104th meeting between Michigan and Minnesota with the Little Brown Jug at stake. All but eight of the 65 power conference programs have been picked at least once, with Illinois, Maryland and Rutgers the lone Big Ten teams yet to host.
The virus precautions will take some luster off the scene, with fans not permitted to attend the filming and thus eliminating the eye-catching cardboard sign holding tradition that clever students clamor to take part in around the country.
“It’s an event. It’s a spectacle. It’s a chance for us to be able to put our program, our university, our state on display in front of the whole country,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said.
Michigan junior quarterback Joe Milton is expected to make his first start, hoping four new starting offensive linemen can give him enough time to throw to an inexperienced group of receivers.
“He’s made a lot of great strides,” Harbaugh said. “Really good command of the offense and savviness — and a lot of talent.”
Dylan McCaffrey, the brother of Carolina Panthers All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, decided not to return for a fourth year after falling behind Milton on the depth chart. The 6-foot-5, strong-armed Milton played sparingly as a backup the previous two seasons behind Shea Patterson.
Minnesota’s defensive line has a new look, too, with defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway the only incumbent starter. Junior Boye Mafe will take the lead at defensive end, following the departure of Carter Coughlin, one of four players in last year’s defensive lineup who became NFL draft picks. Maye, who had three sacks in a backup role last season, credited the coaching staff for his progress.
“They pushed me to go harder with the weights and do more,” Mafe said. “I think it’s translating over to the field. If you ask me how I feel about my body now compared to freshman year, I couldn’t even play then. So it’s made a tremendous difference in my game.”
The Gophers lost star safety Antoine Winfield Jr. to the NFL, but their secondary has plenty of returning experience. That includes cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, who tied for the team lead with 10 pass breakups last year. The native of Quebec played his first two seasons for Michigan.
No. 18 Michigan at No. 21 Minnesota, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET (ABC).
Line: Michigan by 3.
Series record: Michigan 75-25-3.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Michigan starts head coach Jim Harbaugh’s sixth year with a 47-18 record under the former Wolverines star quarterback, including 32-12 in the Big Ten and 0-5 against rival Ohio State plus a 1-4 mark in bowl games. Michigan’s most recent of 42 conference titles came in 2004, the program’s longest stretch without one. This pivotal season for Harbaugh opens in difficult fashion at Minnesota, albeit without tickets sold after the Big Ten delayed and reduced the schedule due to virus concerns. Minnesota won 11 games under third-year head coach P.J. Fleck last season, a total Michigan hasn’t reached since 2011. The Gophers have lost 16 straight matchups with the Wolverines at home, last winning in 1977 at since-demolished Memorial Stadium. Minnesota last hoisted the Little Brown Jug trophy in 2014 after a 30-14 victory at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan QB Joe Milton vs. Minnesota DBs. Milton, a junior who played sparingly for the Wolverines the last two seasons, is on track to make his first career start. Two of Minnesota’s secondary stalwarts from last year were NFL draft picks, Antoine Winfield Jr. and Chris Williamson, leaving Coney Durr, Jordan Howden and Benjamin St-Juste as the leaders of the group.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Michigan: DE Kwity Paye. One of three returning starters on the defensive line, Paye made the Big Ten’s top 10 player list in the preseason media poll. He was sixth in the conference last year in tackles for loss.
Minnesota: RB Mohamed Ibrahim. With the departure of Rodney Smith, who finished second on the program’s all-time rushing list, the junior Ibrahim becomes the featured runner. He led the Gophers with 1,160 rushing yards in 10 games in 2018 when Smith was injured.
FACTS & FIGURES
Harbaugh and Fleck are the only current head coaches among the 65 power conference programs who both played and coached in the NFL. … Michigan has won 41 of the last 45 games against Minnesota, losing only once per decade: 2014, 2005, 1986 and 1977. … This is the first time that a Gophers team ranked in the AP poll faces another ranked opponent to start the season since 1968, when they played USC. … The Wolverines have won 12 of their last 14 conference openers and are 48-4 in their first Big Ten game of the season since 1968.