When the Gophers travel to Ann Arbor this weekend, they’ll be facing a team with whom they share some similarities. However, anyone who has watched both teams this season can tell you that there are some drastic differences as well. Here’s how I think the two teams compare, and what to expect on Saturday in the battle for the Little Brown Jug.
How They’re Similar
-Both teams have struggled in the passing game this year. I’ll expand on their respective quarterback situations later on, but Michigan ranks a disappointing 104th and Minnesota 115th in passing offense. The Wolverines’ fortunes may have turned a bit with the insertion of quarterback Brandon Peters a week ago- again, more on that later- but this isn’t likely to be an air-it-out type of game.
-Fortunately for both teams, they’ve been good on the ground. Michigan has a total of 1,547 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. Karan Higdon, who had a big day against Rutgers, leads the team with 604 yards and eight scores. Ty Isaac and Chris Evans have combined for another 846 and four touchdowns. Minnesota, too, has three strong backs sharing duties. Rodney Smith leads with 627 yards and two scores, while Shannon Brooks and Kobe McCrary have 369 and 290 yards respectively, and five touchdowns each. The Gophers’ team total is very similar to Michigan’s: 1,456 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. Both teams have the luxury of using whoever gets hot in a given game, and keeping all of their backs fresh. Nationally, Michigan’s run game is ranked 38th, Minnesota’s 47th.
-Both teams’ defenses are highly rated as well. Michigan’s total defense is currently fourth-best in the country, while the Gophers are ranked 20th. Both are especially strong at linebacker, and each has a stud at defensive tackle in Maurice Hurst (Michigan) and Steven Richardson (Minnesota).
-Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck reminds me of a younger version Jim Harbaugh. Both men are insanely energetic, and more than willing to exploit loopholes in the NCAA’s arcane rules. I can see how both of them drive the fans of other Big Ten schools nuts.
How They’re Different
-Here’s where I’ll discuss the quarterbacks. On the surface, quarterback could be considered a similarity. Both teams are dealing with a lack of experience under center. Michigan’s Brandon Peters is a freshman, and Minnesota is replacing a four-year starter in Mitch Leidner. The difference is that Michigan has a fifth-year senior on the roster in John O’Korn. He took over when Wilton Speight was injured at Purdue, and started the next four games. Harbaugh went to Peters in the second quarter against Rutgers a week ago, and he played well enough to earn the start this week.
Minnesota, on the other hand, has gone with fifth-year senior Conor Rhoda, and junior Demry Croft. While both have been on the roster for some time, both had played very sparingly before this season. Neither has lived up to expectations thus far. To be fair, Minnesota did bring in a new coaching staff, and they are playing in a new offense. Even so, Michigan seems to have the edge here despite playing a true freshman.
-Talent and recruiting are the other main difference. Michigan is a premier program with a national presence, Minnesota less so. The Wolverines bring in four- and five-star recruits every year. Sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary was the top recruit in the country coming out of high school in New Jersey. Minnesota brought in Fleck in the hopes that he can get them to a similar level, but that turnaround isn’t going to happen overnight. Time will tell. It will be interesting to see if the two similar coaches continue to field similar teams.
In Summary: Minnesota versus Michigan
No one has really emerged as a secondary passing threat for the Gophers. That means covering Tyler Johnson goes a long way toward shutting down the passing game. As a result, Minnesota lives and dies with the run, and Michigan is only allowing 104.7 yards per game on the ground. It’s supposed to be chilly with possible rain showers Saturday night, so I’m expecting a fairly low-scoring, grind-it-out, old-school Big Ten type of game, with Michigan keeping the Little Brown Jug.