Only 2:35 remained in the first half. The Gophers and Wolverines, meeting for the 100th time, sat tied at 7-7. It seemed as if the Wolverines ran out under the banner and then, a few minutes later, it was halftime.
Minnesota had held the ball for 11 minutes and 14 seconds in the first quarter, predominantly on a single, 9-play touchdown drive (the Gophers' only touchdown score of the day). Mitch Leidner, who I decided to dub Dollar Store Tebow, waltzed up the middle of Michigan's defense with relative ease on quarterback draws that were foretold in some ancient Viking scrolls buried at the bottom of one of Minnesota's ten thousand lakes. In the year 2013, Mitch Leidner will plunder and pillage the open fields of Michigania. The QB Draw will be his ponderous, unsurprising battle axe. (Let's just pretend Vikings talked like this.)
I couldn't help but remember John Stocco's game-winning touchdown run up the middle against Michigan in Camp Randall back in 2005. That is not something you want to remember.
Once again, it seemed as if the Wolverines were doomed to struggle against a team that had not been impressive to date. It has always seemed like Michigan has a penchant for this sort of thing, more so than any other big name team, but perhaps that is just an issue of relative exposure.
As mind-numbingly frustrating as the first half was, Michigan somehow left the field with a 29 point victory in its Big Ten opener. By the box score, the game looks like a standard blowout, which I suppose it was. Minnesota never really had a chance once Michigan put that second touchdown on the board, but it sure didn't feel that way at the time.
Perhaps the previous two games have frayed the neurons in my brain that yield optimistic or even moderately rational thoughts, but, as always, the time that has passed since the game has gradually unfurled a banner of vague positivity.
Other than the score, which still feels like the closest 42-13 victory of all time, there were several other positive things happening if you're looking for something steady to cling to. For one, Devin Gardner finally played a mistake-free game, committing zero turnovers while executing efficiently when called upon. Al Borges's gameplan was a fairly conservative one--appropriately so--as he called on Gardner to throw just 17 times. However, Gardner connected on 13 of those attempts, throwing for 235 yards and a touchdown.
If you were to analogize this performance, it was like placing a short stack of napkins under one of a wobbly table's legs; it wasn't a permanent fix, but it did provide a brief respite from an uncertain, unstable existence, one lived at the edge of your seat from play to play.
Although Gardner didn't produce on the ground as he usually does, he didn't need to. In the grand scheme of things, zero turnovers on Gardner's stat line in a given game is a far more impressive feat than 100+ yards rushing. That seems like backhanded praise, but incremental improvement usually has humble beginnings.
The gameplan was clear for Minnesota: pound away with a paleolithic offense and kill the clock minute by minute, second by second. The Gophers had no other avenue for success, and for about 27 minutes, it seemed as if Michigan was headed for another rocky second half against a team they should be beating by much more.
After the last two games, a more forceful start would have been an encouraging early swat at the ghosts of the Akron and UConn games; a 21-point first quarter would have been a 15-minute exorcism.
Alas, the Wolverines couldn't stop the Gopher ground game, which slowly nibbled its way down the field with incremental ease. On Minnesota's lone touchdown drive, the longest gain was one of 18 yards by quarterback Mitch Leidner, who got the start in place of Philip Nelson. I have to admit that I haven't had the chance to watch the game a second time, but early on, the middle of the field seemed like a vast empty savannah into which the mobile but not exactly swift Leidner could amble into for decent gains. The Gophers were no threat to hit Michigan deep, but it didn't seem to matter early on in the game.
The Wolverines forced Minnesota to punt on its next two drives, critical sequences in a game that could have been much different had the Gophers managed another first half touchdown. With 2:35 left in the half, the Wolverines capitalized on tremendous field position, starting from the Minnesota 38. Gardner hit Devin Funchess for 18 yards, rushed for five on the next play, then took a sack on second down. Faced with a 3rd & 14, Gardner then hit Funchess again, 24 yards for a touchdown, which would ultimately be the winning score against a one-dimensional Minnesota offense.
With a 14-7 lead, Michigan once again went to the ground to start the second half. Fitzgerald Toussaint and Derrick Green got Michigan to Minnesota's side of the field, and Gardner completed a pair of 20+ yard passes to Jehu Chesson and Funchess. Green eventually bowled into the end zone from two yards out, and the Wolverines boasted a 21-7 lead that might as well have been 56-7 in a game like this.
Minnesota answered with a field goal drive of its own to keep the game within two scores, but the Wolverines answered back with another touchdown to take a 28-13 lead into the final quarter, powered by a couple of decent gains through the air and capped by 13- and 12-yard runs from Gardner and Toussaint, respectively.
Once again, Minnesota answered with another field goal, but by then it needed touchdowns. The Wolverines mounted one more touchdown drive and Blake Countess returned a Leidner interception 72 yards for a touchdown.
It is strange to think that I wasn't able to truly relax until that Countess interception, in a game Michigan won by 29 points. Perhaps that says more about me than it does Michigan, but I think it might be a little of both.
Nonetheless, Michigan is 5-0. As feeble an accomplishment as that may seem at the moment, that doesn't happen as often as we'd like to think. This is by no means one of Michigan's better teams, but if this squad continues to improve in the run game, if Gardner continues to improve vis-a-vis his decision-making and if Jake Ryan's return provides the boost the pass rush so sorely needs, this team might still have a shot at 10 wins.
Cliches are the province of the lazy, which is why I will have to use a favorite of the sporting world here: this will happen one game at a time. The Wolverines might not be "back" this season, but they can make their steps toward that abstract idea with steady improvements each game.
The Wolverines have two more games it should win (Penn State and Indiana), albeit not without some hardship, before heading into its second open week and then the trip to East Lansing. But, like I said, one game at a time.
Oh, one last thing: it always feels good to keep the Jug in Ann Arbor. May it collect dust there for the rest of time.
Given that I haven't watched the game a second time yet (I usually have a chance to by the time I write this), I'll just skip to the special teams and miscellaneous bullets.
As is usually the case, a relatively uneventful day in this department equals good things for the Wolverines. Dennis Norfleet returned two punts for a total of 52 yards, including a nice long of 29.
Brendan Gibbons did not attempt a field goal, but was 6-for-6 on extra points. Matt Wile had a solid day on punts, booting three for an average of 51.7 yards per, including a long of 55. That might get lost in the shuffle, but if Wile can stave off that creeping shankitis, the Wolverines special teams jumps from merely adequate to solid.
On the other hand, Michigan did give up a 45-yard return on a kickoff to Marcus Jones. Other than that, the Wolverines didn't give up much to write home about. In a game in which Gardner was not giving the opponent free points and the Gophers had little to no ability to challenge Michigan deep, special teams were the only way Minnesota could have kept the game close. Fortunately for the Wolverines, they did not allow the Gophers to take any punts or kickoffs to the house.
- According to Nick Baumgardner, this was Michigan's first turnover-free game since Oct. 1, 2011. The opponent? Minnesota.
- Devin Funchess had a career day, with seven receptions and 151 yards. Who knows when Funchess will become a true tight end, but for now he is without question Michigan's best non-Gallon deep threat, pending Jehu Chesson's ongoing development.
- In some unfortunate news, Ondre Pipkins was carted off the field in the second half after sustaining an injury to his left knee. Brady Hoke didn't have much to add regarding the injury in his post-game presser, but we should know more as the week moves forward. Michigan's interior pluggers haven't exactly been featured a whole lot this season, but Pipkins will be needed against the back end of the schedule. Also on the injury front, right guard Kyle Kalis went down with an injury late in the game, but returned shortly thereafter.
- Gardner's 3rd & 11 pass of 22 yards to Funchess on Michigan's final touchdown drive was a thing of beauty. Sure, Minnesota was only rushing four, but Gardner stepped up into a spacious pocket and calmly delivered an accurate laser to Funchess in the middle of the field. Again, Gardner facing the blitz has been a different story entirely, but he has often struggled when offered time. Not on this play, however, which Mike Patrick dubbed Gardner's best pass of the game.
- Fitzgerald Toussaint didn't necessarily have a huge day (17 carries, 78 yards), but he did get in the end zone twice and picked up 4.6 yards per carry. It would have been nice to see him start a streak of 100+ yard games, but, again, it wasn't exactly needed in this one. Arbitrary yardage goals aside, Toussaint looked solid for a second game in a row, and dialed up a tremendous cutback on the pitch play for his first score. Others more attuned to the intricacies of offensive line play than I (i.e. Space Coyote) can comment on Chris Bryant's role as a new starter better than I can. Removing Gardner's sack yardage (and a fumbled center exchange in the fourth quarter that lost five yards), the Wolverines managed just 3.8 yards per carry.
- Nonetheless, Michigan will need Toussaint to pitch another another effective performance in Happy Valley in order to take the play-making burden off of Gardner, who will have to deal with the Beaver Stadium crowd noise. Michigan's ground game will likely never be considered above average this season, but if Toussaint can get into the 70-80 yard range in Michigan's remaining games, with decent gains peppered here and there, that should be enough to keep the offense moving.
- Although Raymon Taylor didn't get the start, he had himself a nice day. Taylor tallied five tackles and a brilliant pass breakup in the corner of the end zone early in the fourth quarter, forcing the Gophers to kick a short field goal.
- It was another uninspiring day on the pass rush front, but it's hard to blame the Michigan defense much given Minnesota's offensive gameplan. The Wolverines recorded three quarterback hurries and one sack (by Cam Gordon) on 21 Leidner attempts.
- In the same vein, Minnesota's ground-oriented attack provided ample opportunity for Michigan's linebackers to rack up some gaudy numbers. Desmond Morgan notched 10 tackles on the day and a QB hurry, while James Ross tallied nine of his own, plus a fumble recovery on Minnesota's first drive.
- After getting a total of two carries in the three post-CMU games, Derrick Green carried the ball 10 times on Saturday. He only gained 23 yards (2.3 YPC), and was routinely stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Green did rumble for 14 yards on his first carry of the game, setting up a first & goal opportunity. When the hole is there, Green has hit it hard a few times this year in limited opportunities. However, most of his touches are getting stopped cold at the line of scrimmage. You'd like to see him start falling forward on some of these carries for at least a yard or two, but the blocking just isn't quite there yet. Either way, Green will continue to be a valuable goal line back, at minimum, with the possibility of evolving into a moderately effective complement to Toussaint's juking side-to-side style.
- As is tradition, the MGoBlue notes are here. With Saturday's victory, Michigan's winning streak at home extends to 18 games, the longest such active streak of BCS conference teams. Michigan has three more home dates this season, against Indiana, Nebraska and, of course, Ohio State. The home winning streak will be seriously challenged against the latter two, and possibly even Indiana if Michigan's defense is not ready to handle Kevin Wilson's dangerous offense.