Minnesota football ventures to the Big House

John R. Carter

From the outside, Michigan Stadium looks like an oval grandstand at a county fair – an assortment of 75-year-old bricks and metal pillars extending little more than 30 feet off the ground.

But upon entry, you’re sucked into a cave of blue bench seats and green natural grass – a giant bowl structure that seems to go a mile below the earth’s surface.

Now fill what the natives call the Big House with 107,501 bodies, and you have the ultimate college football experience.

Minnesota’s football team encounters all this when the Gophers travel to Ann Arbor on Saturday to take on the 12th-ranked Wolverines. Michigan Stadium is as good as it gets – a true modern-day Coliseum.

“I’ve dreamed about playing in the Big House, just like playing at Penn State or in the Horseshoe,” Gophers safety Jack Brewer said. “Once you get into a game like that, there isn’t too much that can be said. If your adrenaline’s not pumping, it’s not going to pump.”

After knocking off No. 2 Penn State in Beaver Stadium in 1999, then No. 5 Ohio State in the Horseshoe last season, Minnesota goes for a college football shrine three-peat against the Wolverines.

It won’t be easy. Michigan is 337-101-15 all-time in the Big House.

Besides overcoming the elements of the nation’s largest college football stadium and its six-figure crowd, the Gophers also have their hands full with an impressive team on the field.

Defensively, Minnesota will be constantly tested by Michigan’s passing game, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten at over 242 yards per game.

More specifically, the Gophers secondary will be challenged early and often by wide receiver Marquise Walker. The 6-foot-3-inch threat leads the conference in receptions per game (7.25) and is third in yardage per game (101.1).

Forty-two percent of the Wolverines passing yardage goes through Walker. And he has nine of Michigan’s 29 touchdowns this season.

“If you watch him, it’s like, ‘Wow,'” Brewer said. “He’s a human highlight reel. If you have a player like that you have to get the ball in his hands – and they do that. He makes plays.”

The same can pretty much be said of Michigan’s defensive unit as well. They make plays, especially when the Wolverines’ opponent runs the ball.

Averaging just 65.8 yards per game, Michigan’s rush defense – ranked fourth in the nation – allows by far the least amount of yards on the ground for a Big Ten team. Purdue is next at 119.3 yards per game.

“I don’t know what they’re giving up a game rushing,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “But it’s in the double digits, rather than the triple digits.

“They match up well against us. They’re extremely tough against the run.”

Minnesota’s marked men are Tellis Redmon and Marion Barber III, the driving forces of a Gopher running game churning out 240.5 yards per contest.

But according to Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, the Wolverines concerns start with Gophers quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq, not Redmon, Barber or receiver Ron Johnson.

“When you have to worry about two (running) backs that can hit the big play on you, and a wide receiver, the guy who goes back and can create runs for you is what makes Minnesota the seventh best rushing team in the nation,” Carr said. “The guy who touches the ball every down has the ability to run for a lot of yardage on you.”

Abdul-Khaliq must play the game of his life against Michigan for Minnesota to prevail.

A tough opponent – and harsher elements – looms on the horizon for the Gophers on Saturday.

If Minnesota doesn’t leave the Big House with a win, the Gophers’ bowl hopes will be over.

And Michigan Stadium will have come out victorious again.

John R. Carter covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]