College football: Gophers headed to ‘Big House’
By Marcus R. FullerSt. Paul Pioneer Press MINNEAPOLIS -- For this year's edition of the Battle for the Little Brown Jug, the headlines have been dedicated to embattled Michigan coach Brady Hoke and the four quarterbacks who have taken turns leadi...
By Marcus R. Fuller
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS - For this year’s edition of the Battle for the Little Brown Jug, the headlines have been dedicated to embattled Michigan coach Brady Hoke and the four quarterbacks who have taken turns leading the Wolverines and Gophers through four games.
But the deciding factor Saturday in Ann Arbor likely will be defense. with two of the Big Ten’s best meeting in the conference opener for both teams.
Michigan leads the Big Ten in total defense, allowing 261 yards a game. Minnesota leads the conference and is tied for second nationally with 13 turnovers forced.
The Gophers (3-1) have won games with an opportunistic defense this year, and will wait for Michigan’s quarterback Devin Gardner to do what caused him to get benched already this season - turn the ball over.
The Wolverines (2-2) hang their hat on stopping the run, but will be challenged by Minnesota tailback David Cobb, who has two 200-yard performances in his first four games.
Let the chess match begin.
“They’ll bring somebody about every snap somewhere,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “They’re stronger than they were a year ago up front. The secondary is where I’ve seen the real improvement from them. The tackling by the safeties are just like our defense. They’re stiff on the run but they also do a good enough job on the back end of putting enough pressure for you not to be able to get down the field.”
Utah didn’t have any offensive touchdowns despite leading 13-10 at halftime in last week’s 26-10 win at Michigan.
The Utes only offensive touchdown of the game was on Travis Wilson’s 28-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
Minnesota is far less threatening through the air with just one completion for seven yards in a 24-7 win against San Jose State last Saturday.
But Hoke acknowledged how difficult it will be to slow down Cobb, who wasn’t even a starter when he carried the ball seven times for 22 yards in Michigan Stadium last year.
Following the Michigan loss a year ago, though, Cobb rushed for more than 100 yards in four straight Big Ten wins, which hadn’t been done since 2000. He had over 100 yards rushing against five Big Ten opponents, including Michigan State’s daunting run defense last year.
Michigan isn’t too far behind Michigan State in defending the run this season, ranking eighth nationally with only 80.3 yards allowed a game.
“We gave up 2.2 yards per rush the other day, and 168 yards total (run yards) in the last three football games, which hasn’t been done since 2006,” Hoke said. “I think the front seven has been playing well. I think the two linebackers are active, and I think Jake (Ryan) has a knack for making football plays - and it’s called instinct.”
Ryan, a preseason All-American and returning All-Big Ten first-team player, is a familiar star on defense. Meanwhile, the Gophers are led by a lesser-known standout in linebacker Damien Wilson, who leads the Big Ten with 11 tackles a game this year.
Wilson will likely have to keep an eye on Gardner for the entire game.
Michigan claims it won’t be naming a starting quarterback until Saturday with backup Shane Morris in the mix. But Gardner has definitely had Minnesota’s number completing 71 percent of his passes while throwing for 469 yards and scoring five total touchdowns in two victories as the starter in 2012 and 2013.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys blames Gardner’s struggles on an inexperienced offensive line with true freshman and two sophomores are starters. He’s been sacked eight times this year.
“He’s an awfully good player,” Claeys said. “They’ve won a lot of games because of him. In our opinion, in evaluating the tape, over the last two years, they’ve lost some good offensive linemen. They’re not playing quite as well up front as they have in the past.”
To control the game Minnesota’s defense will, of course, need to force turnovers, but also be better on third down.
In the win last week against San Jose State, the Gophers allowed the Spartans to go 8 of 15 on third-down conversions, while also giving up a 46-yard catch, the longest play by an opponent so far this season.
The first four opponents ran spread offenses, so Minnesota stuck with a nickel defense that allowed its talented secondary to make a lot of plays without as dominant a pass rush as last year.
“Nonconference has been a little bit misrepresentative of what we’ll see in the Big Ten,” senior defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli said. “That’s what I told those guys to get ready for because it’s coming.”
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