Michigan is much better than it was during last Minnesota visit

Published 11:12 pm Friday, November 3, 2017

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan is in a much better place than it was the last time Minnesota played at the Big House.

The Golden Gophers beat the Wolverines 30-14 in 2014 and took the Brown Jug back home in what was coach Brady Hoke’s fourth and final season.

“The whole year was just awkward and weird,” senior linebacker Mike McCray recalled earlier this week. “That game was just one of those awkward things.”

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During that game, “Fire Bra-dy!” chants broke out, and the school parted ways with Hoke after he went 5-7 in 2014. The school lured Jim Harbaugh away from the NFL, and he won 10 games in each of his first two seasons.

The Wolverines (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) have some work to do to reach double digits in wins again this year. They are expected to beat the Golden Gophers (4-4, 1-4) at home Saturday and Maryland on the road next week to get to eight victories.

Then it gets tough matchups at No. 4 Wisconsin and at home against No. 3 Ohio State.

Minnesota, meanwhile, may not earn a bowl bid for the first time since Jerry Kill went 3-9 in his debut season with the school six years ago. The Gophers need to win at least two of their last four games at Michigan, against Nebraska, at Northwestern and against the fourth-ranked Badgers to extend the season.

P.J. Fleck, though, isn’t putting any public pressure on his team to get a signature victory in his first year with the program.

“I’m not sitting there saying we’re in a dire need of some type of big, big, big win,” Fleck said. “We have to keep getting better.”

Here are some things to watch when the teams meet Saturday under the lights:

Peters’ poise

Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters is expected to make his first start, replacing ineffective John O’Korn, who filled in for injured Wilton Speight. The redshirt freshman was 10 of 14 for 128 yards and a touchdown last week, helping the Wolverines pull away to beat Rutgers 35-14 in his first extended chance to play.

“He’s going to be really, really excited about getting his start,” Fleck said. “That’s why people talk about Wally Pipp and that’s why people talk about Lou Gehrig. You get your opportunity, take it and go.”

Different dimension

Demry Croft has started the last three games at quarterback for the Gophers after replacing Conor Rhoda but has not made them more efficient. Croft’s completion percentage is just 42.1 and he has thrown four interceptions in 76 attempts. Rhoda has been picked off four times in 109 passes. Croft’s elusiveness and creativity behind the line has at least provided some spark to the offense. He has rushed for 159 yards and a touchdown.

“He’s able to make plays on his own,” center Jared Weyler said.

Bringing it

Michigan’s defense plays man-to-man on receivers and attacks quarterbacks with blitzes, a scheme operated by coordinator Don Brown.

“He’s kind of a defensive genius and always has been,” Fleck said.

Holding the line

Minnesota has had only one offensive lineman, left tackle Donnell Greene, start at the same position for all eight games. The patchwork lineup has held up well despite the rash of injuries. The Gophers have allowed just eight sacks, the fewest in the Big Ten. They’re fourth in the conference in rushing with an average of 182.3 yards per game.

By the numbers

The Gophers have won just twice at Michigan Stadium since 1986, but both victories were relatively recent. They won three years ago and in 2005 against the Lloyd Carr-led Wolverines. Minnesota, though, is 4-23 since 2007 in its three trophy games against Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin.