The Battle for the Little Brown Jug has been played 103 times dating back to 1892, and historically the Wolverines have dominated the series posting a 75-25-3 record. Michigan has held on to the trophy for nearly five years since they won it back on Oct. 31, 2015, following a 29-26 win where they stuffed the Gophers on the goal line on back-to-back plays to seal the victory.
The most recent contest between the two programs was back in 2017 when Jim Harbaugh and Michigan topped the Gophers 33-10 in P.J. Fleck’s first year with the Minnesota football program.
A lot has changed that day for the Gophers. Last season, the P.J. Fleck-run team finished 11-2, the second-best team in the Big Ten West Division, and finished the year as a top-10 team following an Outback Bowl win over a hyped-up Auburn team.
Last year was Fleck’s third at the program, and the bowl win was the second of his tenure. He owns a 23-15 record with the Golden Gophers and the team is trying to prove that last season was no fluke. A win for Minnesota against the prestigious Michigan program would be a great jump start to push that idea.
Michigan does not want to be a part of that narrative. The Wolverines are coming off an offseason where they lost 14 starters to the draft or by opting-out. Still, there is enough potential on this team to compete in the Big Ten and the AP ranks the Wolverines as a Top-20 team heading into this matchup with Minnesota.
Michigan Offense vs Minnesota Defense
The Passing Game
Joe Milton is set to take the reins and lead the Michigan offense in 2020. Harbaugh and many others have boasted his arm strength and playmaking ability, but many still question his decision-making and accuracy heading into the season. Still, there is hope that Milton will fit Josh Gattis’ ‘speed in space” offense as the starter for the upcoming season.
Nico Collins, Tarik Black, and Donovan Peoples-Jones are all absent from the Michigan roster after being the 1-2-3 options to start last season. The good news is that leading receiver Ronnie Bell is back alongside some talented young receivers like Giles Jackson, Mike Sainristil, Cornelius Johnson, and others. Nick Eubanks will provide some veteran experience at the tight end position as well.
Similarly, Michigan also returns only one starting offensive lineman from a year ago. Thankfully, it is a really good one in Jalen Mayfield who will anchor the right side of the line. Outside of that, it will be relying on offensive line coach Ed Warinner to put the best unit out there even with the inexperience that lies ahead.
Let’s look at some numbers last season for the Wolverines in the passing game:
- 250.8 yards per game through the air (50th in the country).
- 55.6% of passes completed (102nd in the country).
- 31.5 passes per game (70th in the country).
Meanwhile, Minnesota boasted an elite secondary last season with most of its starters returning in 2020. The key loss is safety Antoine Winfield Jr. who was taken in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Buccaneers. Still, there is a lot of talent to like there in Coney Durr and former Wolverine Benjamin St-Juste. Both were the starting corners last season and both earned Big Ten honorable mentions last season.
Like the Michigan offensive line, the Gophers defensive line has only one returning starter: Micah Dew-Treadway, who recorded just half a sack last season as an interior defensive lineman. Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo were rotational edge rushes last season and totaled 5.5 sacks, they will be relied on much more heavily in 2020.
Here is how the Gophers fared last year in passing defense:
- Allowed 183.5 passing yards per game (8th in the country).
- Allowed 6.7 yards per pass attempt (26th in the country).
- Allowed 56.5% completion percentage (27th in the country).
- Allowed 8.56% of pass plays (17th in the country).
Even with a youthful pass rush, Minnesota has the advantage. Joe Milton is going to face a tough secondary in his first game as a starter in the maize and blue and may have to force the ball into some tight windows if his young wide receivers can’t get open.
The Rushing Game
The running back position is arguably the Wolverines’ deepest group. Zach Charbonnet looks to build on a promising true freshman season. Hassan Haskins and Christian Turner provide needed depth alongside Chris Evans who returns after a year away from the team. Coaches have also raved about true freshman Blake Corum’s potential. The question will be if this new offensive line can open up the same kind of holes that a veteran-laden group did last season.
Let’s take a look inside the rushing numbers for Michigan:
- 151.2 rushing yards per game (68th in the country).
- 4.0 yards per attempt (79th in the country).
- Charbonnet led the team with 726 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 159 carries.
We already spoke of some potential shortcomings of the Golden Gophers defensive line, and the second level has similar issues. Last year they were highly successful in halting the run against some of the powerhouse runningbacks in the Big Ten. This year may be a little different as Kamal Martin’s senior leadership from 2020 is now gone after he was drafted in the fifth round by the Green Bay Packers. Mariano Sori-Marin will be tasked with taking over the role as he did at the end of last season after Martin was injured. Braelen Oliver will his cohort at the linebacker spot. Outside of that, it will be all young depth.
Here is how the Gophers’ defense performed last year in stopping the run:
- Allowed 118.1 rushing yards per game (18th in the country).
- Allowed 3.6 rushing yards per game (21st in the country).
It may seem bleak by the numbers above, but I like the multiple weapons that Michigan has in the run game and how many different ways they can beat you. If Michigan’s offensive line can control the line of scrimmage as Warinner and Wolverines fans have grown accustomed to, Michigan should be able to move the ball on the ground.
Minnesota Offense vs Michigan Defense
The Passing Game
The Michigan secondary is going to be challenged in the opening game of the season. Minnesota’s offense has it all: a top-2 quarterback in the Big Ten, a premiere wide receiver, and an offensive line that remains completely intact from last season.
The pass rush of Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson will be one of the best in the Big Ten and needs to get to the quarterback this weekend if they hope to win.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines lost Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas, their top two corners on the depth chart from a year ago. There is no time to slowly cultivate the young cornerback room to open this season and they will be thrown straight into the fire. Vincent Gray will have to solidify himself as a CB1 in the first game of the year and the depth will need to prove itself. Daxton Hill, no matter where he plays, will be ready to take over, but a lot has to go right for the Wolverines to slow down Minnesota on Saturday.
Here are the numbers from a year ago for Michigan’s defense:
- Allowed 185.5 passing yards per game (10th in the country).
- Allowed 57.39% completion percentage per game (32nd in the country)
- Earned 2.5 sacks per game (32nd in the country)
As mentioned above, the Gophers have a prolific pass attack returning for 2020. The line is made up of two redshirt seniors, a redshirt junior, a junior, and a redshirt sophomore who all started together last season. They will protect Tanner Morgan who finished second in the Big Ten last season in passing yards (3253) and led the conference in yards per attempt (10.2).
They lost receiver Tyler Johnson to the draft, but retained their top receiver from a year ago, Rashod Bateman. Bateman averaged an insane 20.3 yards per reception (No. 1 in the Big Ten) last season on 60 receptions. The Wolverines will have to seal up Bateman because behind Bateman there isn’t a lot behind him. Expect a lot of double-coverage on one of the nation’s best receivers.
Minnesota’s passing game numbers from a year ago:
- 259.8 passing yards per game (39th in the country).
- 7.29% sack percentage allowed (85th in the country).
- 15.7 yards per completion (6th in the country).
Their offensive line was known to give up some sacks last season, but the unit will be more cohesive in a second year together. Pressure on Morgan by the Wolverines’ pass rush and forcing him to look away from Bateman will be the key to the game for Don Brown’s defense. If that isn’t done, expect some big plays and a lot of yards in the passing game for the Golden Gophers.
The Rushing Game
Unlike the passing game, the Wolverines run defense has a lot to like heading into 2020. Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith seem ready to make a jump in year two and could help solidify the interior along with Carlo Kemp and Donovan Jeter in the middle.
The linebacker core even touted that they could be the best in the nation with Josh Ross, Ben VanSumeran, Michael Bennett, and emerging star redshirt sophomore Cam McGrone ready to make a difference.
Here are the numbers on Michigan’s run defense from 2019:
- 122.7 yards per game (22nd in the country).
- 3.2 yards per attempt (9th in the country).
Their test will be slowing Mohamed Ibrahim who racked up almost 1,200 yards on the ground in 2018, but only 604 last season as a platoon back. He will be a junior running back with loads of experience coming into the season with some promising backs behind him in Bryce Williams and Cam Wiley. With strong offensive line play, there could be a lot of movement on the ground for the Gophers this season.
2019 rushing numbers for Minnesota:
- 182.6 yards per game (38th in the country)
- 4.2 yards per attempt (67th in the country)
You have to respect the experience that Minnesota has in this portion of the game, but the Wolverines have more talent. I love what McGrone and Ross bring to the table here in terms of size and quickness and the thought of Hinton plugging up gaps in the middle.