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Preview Week #5 – Minnesota Golden Gophers

John KayserThe battle for the little brown jug has a long and storied history. Unfortunately, that same history has lost most of its luster and appeal ever since Michigan began winning consistently the match ups that decided ownership of said jug for a year.

There was a time — along time ago now — when both programs were respectable and their yearly affair was considered one of the top tier rivalry games in the nation.

But now, their games are thought of as anything but a true “rivalry.” Michigan has won more than 80% of the meetings between the schools in the last thirty years. That’s pretty lopsided to say the least. With that said, here are a few reasons this year’s game might be a better game than most would think.

Sleeve of Emotions

Minnesota – who lost a battle to an FCS opponent (North Dakota State) last week – should be reeling from the health concerns of fellow first year Coach Jerry Kill who was admitted to the Mayo Clinic on Sunday for reoccurring seizers.

These health concerns for the Gophers’ coach must weigh heavily in the minds of the players and I believe that Minnesota will play harder and more efficiently as a result. Only three weeks ago, Kill was admitted to the hospital when he collapsed on the sideline in the closing moments of the Gophers loss to New Mexico State.
These emotional turns can either motivate and bond a team or unravel them. I expect Minnesota to show some resiliency in their Big Ten opener for coach Kill. Should he not be able to go, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is expected to lead Minnesota as acting coach during the game.

Between the Lines

On the field, Minnesota will be lead by junior wide receiver turned quarterback MarQuis Gray. He will be supported on offense by senior running back Duane Bennett and senior wideout Da’Jon McKnight.

Offensively last season, the Gophers excelled more through the air than on the ground, ranking 57th in passing productivity in 2010. Yet they only ranked 86th in rushing and 89th in scoring offense. Gray will have to rely on his arm, his speed and his awareness to get out of the pocket and make big plays should the Michigan pressure get to him.

After the performance Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s defense had against the 2nd leading rusher in the nation – limiting San Diego State running back Ronnie Hillman to only 109 yards on 21 carriers — I don’t see the run really working to effectively for Minnesota this week.

So the air attack will be crucial. And if the Minnesota air attack starts to struggle, MarQuis Gray’s scrambling ability should take off and Michigan’s new defensive scheme has yet to face that type of mobile QB yet. It will be interesting to see how this dynamic plays out.

On the other side of the ball for the Gophers, their defense was almost as bad as ours last year. Although, Minnesota did excel quite highly in defending against the pass.

To no ones surprise, Michigan must continue to utilize Denard “Shoelace” Robinson as a runner in addition to holding out hope that his passing skills improve, if at least become more efficient.

Running the ball should be the main focus this Saturday. The improvement of the Michigan running attack so far in 2011 will aid in play-action as I believe Minnesota will now have to respect the fact that someone other then Robinson might attempt to carry the ball across the line of scrimmage.

Minnesota ranked a terrible 98th in the country against the run last season.

On a down note regarding the Wolverine running game, I have now officially nicknamed Michigan running back Hopkins Stephen Hopkins “butter fingers” for fumbling seemingly every time he has touched the ball this season. As a result, I’m not so sure if he’ll see a lot of playing time Saturday. But if the Hoke is all about redemption, he just might.

So that leaves probably the youthful leader of the RB core Fitzgerald Toussaint too carry the grunt of the load along with Vincent Smith who I expect will be used in situations where speed and quick cuts are needed.

This is of course in addition to Denard. Yet I really don’t expect another 200 yard performance from Robinson on the ground again this week. He’s eventually going to have to increase the use of his arm and decrease his reliance on his legs. This approach might work against some inferior non-conference teams, but some Big Ten teams might be able to contain him.

And I expect the porous Minnesota running defense to be motivation enough to work on the traditional Michigan running attack.

So…

Although Minnesota will come out firing after their embarrassment last week, the Gophers just will not be able to compete against the Maize n’ Blue this weekend. Look for Brady Hoke and Michigan to get their first Big Ten victory this year and bring the little brown jug back to Ann Arbor.

Prediction: Michigan-41  Minnesota-14

Hokeamaniac.com - May the Hoke be with you! © January 11th, 2011
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