The Little Brown Jug is up for grabs once again, as the undefeated Michigan Wolverines open Big Ten Conference play this Saturday against the visiting Minnesota Golden Gophers. One of 65 trophy games currently involving teams at the FBS level, the battle for the Little Brown Jug is the oldest, having been established back in 1909.
Minnesota comes into this year's clash sporting a disappointing 1-3 record, having logged a win over Miami-Ohio, but dropping bouts with USC, New Mexico State and most recently, FCS foe North Dakota State. The 37-24 setback to the Bison was even more costly as it was announced shortly thereafter that head coach Jerry Kill, who suffered a seizure on the sidelines in the loss to NMSU, would take some time off to deal with lingering health concerns.
Minnesota has lost four of its last five Big Ten openers.
Coach Kill sees an issue with focus as a big reason for his team's lack of success in the first month of the season, "You have to play disciplined football. We have to change the culture and it's not going to happen overnight. We have to push through it."
Michigan is currently ranked 19th in the nation, having disposed of Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan and San Diego State during a season- opening five-game homestand. The 28-7 win over the Aztecs last weekend earned the Wolverines their third straight sweep of the non-conference opponents on their schedule, and gave current head coach Brady Hoke a victory over his former team. Hoke coached SDSU in 2009-10, and he will try to lead the Maize and Blue to its 42nd win in its last 44 Big Ten openers this weekend.
Coach Hoke obviously likes the fact that his team has won its first four games, but knows the rigors of Big Ten play have a way of tempering one's enthusiasm.
"It's what you play for, the Big Ten championship," said Hoke in a recent media session. "And Minnesota coming in here is game one. We've got to have a great week of preparation and work together and getting to know our opponent. Jerry Kill is a tremendous football coach. He and I both have MAC ties, and he'll have his group ready."
This is the first meeting between these two long-time rivals in three years, and Michigan owns a commanding 70-24-3 lead in the all-time series. The Wolverines have won the last three encounters, and 19 of the last 20 overall.
The Minnesota offense was lackluster at best in last week's loss to NDSU, as QB Marqueis Gray completed a meager 5-of-12 passes for 53 yards with an INT, while backup Max Shortell went 4-of-8 for 71 yards with a TD and a pick of his own. The Bison scored two TDs off Gopher turnovers. The UM ground attack was fueled by Duane Bennett's 74 yards, and Donnell Kirkwood's career-high 70- yard, two-TD effort, but the Gophers finished with just 292 yards of total offense, and lost the game despite converting 9-of-14 third-down opportunities and scoring on all three of their trips to the red zone.
Through four games, Gray is completing just 50.6 percent of his pass attempts for an average of 130.2 ypg, and he has thrown just three TDs against three INTs. Gray is the team's leading rusher as well, having amassed 351 yards, or nearly 90 ypg. Kirkwood leads the way with three rushing scores. DaJon McKnight paces the receivers with 19 grabs for 260 yards and a TD.
Bennett put things into perspective as the Gophers turn their attention to the rest of the season, "We just need to stay together as a team. The last thing we need is to have guys fall apart and go by the wayside. We just need to tip our hats to North Dakota State and make the corrections as a team."
With the offense having difficulty finding its footing, the Minnesota defense hasn't lived up to its end of the bargain either, yielding just shy of 27 points and more than 383 yards per contest. DB Kim Royston is the leading tackler with 42 stops, 15 more than his closest teammate, and a glaring lack of big plays has hurt the Gophers on both sides of the ball. The team has just one sack on the year, and only four takeaways.
In last week's loss, the Gophers were stunned by a 28-point second quarter put up by the Bison, the visitors picking up 336 yards in the game compared to just 292 for the home team. Royston led all defenders with 11 tackles, marking his fourth straight double-digit performance.
Michigan QB Denard Robinson rushed for 200 yards and three first-half TDs to power the Wolverines to a three-TD win over San Diego State last weekend. Robinson, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, added 93 yards passing, with WR Vincent Smith catching three balls for 44 yards. When the dust had settled, the Wolverines had rolled up 413 total yards, 320 of which came on the ground. It was the second straight outing UM had churned out more than 300 yards via the run -- the first time that has happened since the first two games of the 2003 season.
With his impressive effort against the Aztecs, Robinson (2,605) moved into second place all-time in the Big Ten for rushing yards by a quarterback, trailing only Indiana's Antwaan Randle El (3,895). This season, Robinson has rushed for a team-high 552 yards and five TDs, while his exploits in the passing game have resulted in just a 48.6 percent completion rate and an average of only 156 ypg. He has six TD passes against the same number of INTs, and his scoring strikes have gone to six different players. No receiver has more than eight grabs (Jeremy Gallon) to this point in the season.
Michigan has scored on all 13 of its red-zone opportunities thus far, 12 of which have been TDs.
The Aztecs finished with 376 yards of total offense, including 253 through the air, but three lost fumbles and just 1-of-3 success in red-zone scoring opportunities proved to be their undoing. It was a balanced defensive effort from Michigan, as 20 different guys recorded at least one tackle, with Thomas Gordon, Blake Countess and Kenney Demens each tallying seven stops on the day.
Coach Hoke thought his defense put forth its best effort of the season last week, "I think that we got enough pressure on the quarterback at times with four guys, which is something we need to continue to strive for. I think Greg (Mattison) called a nice game. I think the guys in the back end did a nice job, and I think we forced some bad throws, but it all starts with stopping the running game."
Through four games, the Wolverines are giving up just 12.8 ppg and they have come up with 13 turnovers (nine fumbles, four INTs). Demens and Gordon sit atop the team's tackles list with 30 apiece.