MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Michigan has long been counted as one of Minnesota’s Big Ten rivals, even though the states don’t border each other and the series has been as lopsided as can be for the last several generations.
There’s still a quaint prize for the winner, of course, that Little Brown Jug that has been in Michigan’s possession so often there ought to be a permanent dust ring around the bottom of it on the school trophy case shelf. Minnesota won in 2005 and 1986 — no, those painful losses in 2004 and 2003 don’t count — and that’s all since 1977, the last time the Gophers beat the Wolverines at home.
This is one of those years, though, where an upset might not be such a surprise as it has been — or would’ve been — in the past. The Gophers (5-3, 1-3) have some momentum going, with freshman quarterback Philip Nelson taking over, last week’s decisive victory over Purdue still fresh and one more win needed for bowl-game eligibility.
The Wolverines (5-3, 3-1) could be vulnerable, coming off a discouraging defeat at Nebraska with seemingly more difficult matchups ahead against Northwestern, Iowa and at Ohio State. They haven’t scored a touchdown in three weeks.
The Gophers are also motivated by the humiliation of last year’s 58-0 defeat in Ann Arbor.
“It was just embarrassing to our program and to our state. We look for a little revenge this year,” cornerback Troy Stoudermire said.
The Wolverines had their goals set toward more prestigious hardware, but the jug, they insisted this week, is desired just as badly as the Gophers.
“We are concentrated on winning this game, and we can’t really focus on the standings and where everyone else is,” defensive end Craig Roh said. “The only thing we can focus on is ourselves right now.”
Nebraska has the tiebreaker over Michigan now, but the Huskers must face Michigan State and Penn State in their next two games. With a little bit of help, the Wolverines can still win the Legends Division, the conference championship game and reach the Rose Bowl. That’s not a far-fetched scenario. They’ll have to revive their offense, though, to keep that hope alive.
“That’s why you come to Michigan: You come to Michigan to win games and Big Ten championships,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said.
Finishing drives in the end zone is where the formula begins. The Wolverines beat Michigan State with four field goals and managed only three three-pointers last week at Nebraska. Russell Belomy threw three interceptions against the Huskers after replacing Denard Robinson at quarterback.
Robinson has a nerve problem in his elbow, but he’s expected to play on Saturday.
“There’s nobody like him. You know what I mean? He’s electrifying,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said, adding: “He’s a great football player. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. I really do.”
The Heisman Trophy isn’t on the radar anymore for the elusive senior, who has accounted for two-thirds of Michigan’s offensive production. But for a Gophers defense that’s been trampled by several Big Ten runners, Robinson remains a real danger to the game plan.
“It’s a whole different animal when you have Denard and some of the runs he’s been able to make,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.
Minnesota must stay in the running lanes. Forcing a turnover or two won’t hurt, either. The Wolverines have given the ball up 17 times this season, tied for third-most in the conference.
“You play against a guy that fast: You have to have control to be able to tackle him,” Gophers safety Brock Vereen said. “When he breaks tackles, when he jukes people out, that’s what he’s good at.”
Nelson threw for three touchdowns in the first half last week. He’ll face a stiff test in the nation’s stingiest pass defense, tied with Alabama with 145 yards per game allowed.
The Gophers hope to have leading wide receiver A.J. Barker available, but he sprained his ankle against Purdue and has been gimpy this week. The team’s injury report Thursday declared him questionable along with starting left tackle Ed Olson, who has been bothered by the same problem.
Michigan’s defense is a clear strength, but even though the group was put in some tough spots at Nebraska, Hoke made clear the 23 points allowed weren’t acceptable for this program.
“Those guys are on scholarship to play defense. If that team doesn’t score, they don’t win,” Hoke said. “I mean, it’s simple as that. We talk to them that way all the time. They understand the expectations.”
Going to a bowl game has become the Gophers’ expectations. If they can’t beat Michigan, they’ll have the chance to win at Illinois, at Nebraska or at home against Michigan State. But that’s not their mindset.
“We don’t want to win just one more. We want to win them all,” Nelson said.
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