The Schedule So Far
Minnesota has raced out to a 4-0 start for a second consecutive season. The Gophers defeated a fairly average UNLV outfit 51-23 in week one, before defeating their western neighbors New Mexico St 44-21 in week two. Those two teams were a combined 3-21 last season, but the Gophers took care of business when they needed to.
In week three, Minnesota defeated Western Illinois 29-12. This past weekend they faced off against yet another Mountain West foe in San Jose State, who finished last season 10-2. Though the Gophers struggled to slow down Spartan QB David Fales (439 passing yards, 3 TD's), they were able to effectively move the ball at will on San Jose State as they won 43-24.
The formula for the Gophers has been the same in each game. Run, run, and run some more. Through four games Minnesota is averaging just over 280 yards rushing per game, good for 11th nationally.
Who to Watch out For...
Minnesota has a couple of personnel issues to sort through, with the first being at quarterback. Incumbent QB Philip Nelson sat out the Gopher's last game versus San Jose State and his replacement, Mitch Leidner, played well in his absence. (Edit: Leidner will start this weekend against Iowa)
Neither are particularly great passers, but both quarterbacks are a major component in the Minnesota running game. Leidner rushed for 151 yards in the Gopher's 43-21 win over San Jose State last weekend, while Nelson rushed for 122 two weeks prior.
Speaking of the running game, RB David Cobb had a huge game against the Spartans, racking up 125 yards on 25 carries. Cobb has rushed for over 300 yards so far, with his backup, Roderick Williams, adding another 277 yards of his own.
The Gophers are one of those teams that will look beat you by running the ball relentlessly and dominating the time of possession (they held ball for nearly 40 minutes last weekend).
Outlook vs. Michigan
This game will be a big test for a Michigan squad that needs to rebound after two lackluster performances against non-conference foes. Fortunately for the Wolverines, their strengths should serve them well against an improving Gopher's squad.
As I mentioned earlier, the Gophers will look to run the ball early, but through four games Michigan is giving up just 79 yards per game on the ground. Now, those numbers are low partially due to the fact that 3 of the 4 teams Michigan has faced are passing-based teams.
It will be pivotal that Michigan's defenders maintain their discipline while the Gopher's are on offense. They aren't a triple option team like Georgia Tech, but they will hand the ball off to their backs and allow the QB's to run very often as well.
On the other side of the ball, Minnesota hasn't faced any particularly great offenses, and when they did, they got shredded. If Michigan's offensive line can protect Devin Gardner, he should be able to have a big game throwing the ball against a below-average secondary. Michigan will need Gardner to move the ball downfield because if he doesn't, then the Gophers will be able to pin their ears back and stack 8 defenders in the box to slow down Michigan's running game.
Another component of Minnesota's success has been their lack of turnovers on offense; through three games the Gophers have a +3 turnover margin (26th nationally), while Michigan, as we know, has been dreadful with a -5 margin thus far. Even if Minnesota isn't turning the ball over, if Devin Gardner is more careful with the ball it will greatly enhance Michigan's chances of winning the game.
Prediction: Michigan 31, Minnesota 23.