Gophers defense aims to shut down Perry’s run

Aaron Blake

Prior to his team’s matchup with Oregon on Sept. 20, Michigan senior tailback Chris Perry led the nation in rushing for a fifth-ranked team with a legitimate shot to unseat Ohio State as Big Ten, or even national, champions.

Then the Ducks found a way to completely shut down the Wolverines’ running attack in a 31-27 win, dashing Michigan’s national championship aspirations in the process.

In that game, Perry gained just 26 yards on 11 carries and was a non-factor throughout. As a team, Michigan finished with negative rushing yards on the final stat sheet.

“Oregon put a lot of players in the box, so we knew we were going to have a tough time running against them,” said Perry. “And then we were coming from behind, and we had to get points on the scoreboard quick. So we had to put more focus on the passing game.”

After No. 14 Iowa contained Perry in a 30-27 win last Saturday, it has become abundantly clear that as Perry goes, so do the Wolverines. In their four victories, Perry has averaged 165.3 yards rushing. In their two losses, he has gained just 56.5 per game.

No. 17 Minnesota (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) will surely take that into consideration when the Gophers take the field Friday night against No. 20 Michigan (4-2, 1-1) at 7 p.m. in the Metrodome.

Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr admitted the Hawkeyes were able to take away the running game and eventually, the whole game from his team.

“We struggled in the second half. We didn’t run the football very effectively,” Carr said. “I don’t think anyone in the country is going to run the ball for a lot of yards against Iowa. They have an outstanding defense, personnel-wise.”

Perry rushed for 87 yards on 24 carries, bettering his performance from two weeks before but still falling short of his Heisman Trophy-candidate billing in the second half.

In both the Oregon and Iowa games, Michigan quarterback John Navarre threw the ball at least 49 times because of rushing woes and scoreboard deficits. Carr and Perry said both teams keyed on their running game.

“You can keep people from running the football when you put nine players (near the line of scrimmage),” Carr said. “What you have to do is go in with a plan but you always have to adjust. You certainly need to have a will to run the football. There’s no question about that.”

Stopping the run

And if the Wolverines’ two losses serve as examples, there is no question the Gophers will need the will to stop Perry and force Navarre to beat them through the air.

Even then, Minnesota coach Glen Mason will not feel overly confident about his team’s chances.

“You can take certain things from watching certain games on film,” Mason said. “But I think it’s a big mistake to think that you can just shut down Chris Perry. Michigan’s got a lot of weapons. They’ve got as good of wide receivers as there are in the country.”

Regardless, the ability of the Gophers to control the line of scrimmage and control Perry will signal their ability to control the game.

Number one goal

Defensive tackle Darrell Reid said stopping the run is the defense’s number one goal week in and week out.

Reid and his linemates will have their hands full with one of the biggest and best offensive lines in college football. Michigan’s senior center Dave Pearson is the smallest starter at 6-foot-3 and 297 pounds.

The heaviest starter on the Minnesota offensive line is junior left tackle Rian Melander at 295 pounds.

“It’s important to stay patient and know the opponent’s defensive scheme and where the hole will be,” Perry said. “Having a great offensive line in front of me and great wide receivers that are willing to block for me makes things easier. When you have a great cast around you, you have no choice but to run well.”

The greatest factor in determining Perry’s success should rest with who controls the line of scrimmage. According to Carr, that is how Iowa came up big on Saturday.

Growing as a team

Perry said he and the offensive line have grown up together over the past few seasons. The resulting chemistry boosted Perry to some great performances, including 177 total yards and four touchdowns in a 38-0 lashing of Notre Dame on Sept. 13.

He and his teammates haven’t been impressive since that game, losing twice and struggling to a 31-17 home victory over lowly Indiana. They know they will need to approach perfection in their final six games for a shot at the Big Ten title.

“Our goals are still out there for a Big Ten Championship and we know that we can’t stub our toe again,” Navarre said. “We can go one of two ways. I think the consensus is that we are going to pick ourselves up, we are going to move forward and we are going to make a run at this.”