Keys to the Game: Michigan Wolverines Football at Minnesota
The 104th battle for the Little Brown Jug is upon us, and this one carries a bit more weight than many.
Back in the 1940s, Michigan-Minnesota was one of college football’s great rivalries. Today … not so much. The rivalry game is an on-again, off-again affair due to conference expansion and divisions, and U-M has dominated, going 40-4 since Bo Schembechler arrived in 1969.
Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck, though, has his squad headed in the right direction. He’s recruiting well, won 11 games a year ago (including victories over ranked Penn State and Auburn teams) and has brought new energy to a once-proud program.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan and receiver Rashod Bateman are both on the watch list for the Maxwell Award, given annually to the nation’s top college football player. The offense is dynamic behind a big offensive line that improved throughout last season (and returns intact, though there are rumors that two starters might miss the game, including 6-9, 400-pound right tackle Daniel Faalele). Morgan threw for 3,253 yards last season behind the unit.
There are holes, however. Here’s what Michigan needs to do in order to exploit them and capture a season-opening win in Minneapolis:
Pressure Tanner Morgan and don’t let Rashod Bateman beat them over the top: Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown has said he wants to play to his strengths this year, and that’s the front seven — especially defensive ends Kwity Paye, a senior, and junior Aidan Hutchinson. Minnesota quarterback Morgan threw for 30 touchdowns a year ago and is probably the league’s second-best signal-caller, behind Ohio State’s Justin Fields. Morgan threw for 368 yards at Iowa in a loss last year, completed 18 of 20 for 339 yards in a win over Penn State, and passed for 278 in an Outback Bowl win over Auburn.
U-M’s cornerback position is the Wolverines’ biggest question mark heading into the season, and Morgan will take his shots. Bateman requires extra attention, but it’s really on the defensive line to pressure the quarterback and make him uncomfortable, especially if the Minnesota line is down a few men.
Don Brown’s defense has had games in which it’s done a lot right but allowed one or two big plays to beat them (see: Penn State, 2019). This can’t be one of those games. They need to make Minnesota drive the field to earn their points and keep Morgan out of any rhythm to avoid putting a lot of pressure on young corners Gemon Green, Vincent Gray and their backups.
Make Joe Milton as comfortable as possible and don’t put him in a position where he has to win the game: The Milton hype has reached fever pitch in Ann Arbor. Everyone from former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, who worked with Milton this summer, to opted-out receiver Nico Collins has praised the big-armed redshirt sophomore as a potential first-round NFL Draft choice, even though he’s only thrown 11 career passes for 59 total yards.
Michigan has a solid, tested stable of backs and an experienced-enough offensive line. Milton shouldn’t have to win this game with his arm alone. Minnesota returns only five starters on defense and loses five of its top six tacklers. This won’t be one of the top groups the Wolverines face this year.
Still, starting Milton off with some easy, scripted pitches and catches, and getting the running game going early while he gets comfortable will be paramount. Milton will take his shots downfield, but helping him with his confidence early in the game is the way to go, which means solid protection, receivers being where they’re supposed to be, etc.
The list of first-year Michigan starters who struggled on the road early in their careers is a long one: Steve Smith at Wisconsin in 1981, Demetrius Brown at Michigan State in 1987, John Navarre at UCLA in 2001 … even Tom Brady didn’t win at Notre Dame in his first road start, and Jake Rudock threw three picks at Utah in 2015.
Falling behind and asking Milton to lead the team back in his first significant game action is a recipe for a loss.
Exploit the middle of Minnesota’s defense: The Golden Gophers have only one returning linebacker with any experience, and Mariano Sori-Marin was just adequate in the role a year ago. This sets up a number of possibilities in the play-action game, underneath routes with the “speed in space” receiver group and tight ends, led by veteran Nick Eubanks.
Minnesota’s back end should be good, led by former U-M corner Benjamin St. Juste, but there will be opportunities in the running game and in the intermediate passing game, an area in which Milton has improved.
The Breakdown: Michigan Wolverines Football at Minnesota
On paper, Michigan is the more talented team and has more playmakers on both sides of the ball. However, a smoothly run spread offense has been college football’s equalizer, and Fleck is among those who have run it best.
Michigan offensive line coach Ed Warinner spoke Wednesday of his one season with Fleck and how impressed he was with the coach.
“He’s very organized,” he said. “He’s very good at communicating what his objectives are to the team and how he wants to run his program, and he has a real clear vision of how he wants to do that … and obviously, how he wanted to build his program.
"It came to fruition year three there last year with a great year and a great finish to the season. Everything about it, for me, was positive.”
Fleck is building a culture, something that’s been missing from the program for many years.
This is a great opportunity for Fleck to add another win over a ‘name’ program and rival. For U-M, it’s a chance to pick up an elusive road win over a ranked team.
It will likely come down to the quarterbacks — slow Morgan and get a solid, mistake-free (big mistakes, anyway) effort from Milton, and Michigan will have a great chance to win.
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