Big House blocks road to the Rose

Some Gophers said they’ve thought about this year’s Michigan game since last year’s.

Dan Miller

Picture this – you’re walking through a tunnel, and as you emerge, you find yourself in the middle of a sea of hostile, screaming, maize-and-blue-clad fans numbering approximately 110,000.

Welcome to the Big House.

Saturday at 11 a.m. CDT, Minnesota’s 13th-ranked football team marches onto Michigan Stadium’s field in Ann Arbor, Mich., for one of the biggest football games in Minnesota history against the 14th-ranked Wolverines.

“You look a little nervous, Coop,” running back Laurence Maroney yelled at first-year starting quarterback Bryan Cupito, who was walking out of the Gophers’ locker room Sunday.

Maroney was goofing around, but even if Cupito is nervous, who could blame him?

Many Gophers said they have been thinking about this game ever since Michigan left the Metrodome last season with a 21-point fourth quarter come-from-behind win.

As last year, the Gophers go into the Michigan game undefeated, and coach Glen Mason is in another position to do something unheard of in Minnesota circles in recent years – beat Michigan.

Minnesota hasn’t beaten the Wolverines (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) since 1986 and only twice since 1967.

This week, Mason touched on the significance of the game for the program but said that getting too worked up about it is not good for the team.

Regardless, the game could be a big step in Minnesota’s quest to regain the national prominence that left the program decades ago.

Despite their one loss and a couple of closer-than-expected games, the Wolverines, as in most of their 125 years of existence, have one of the most talented teams in the nation.

Its most dangerous offensive weapon this season has been wide receiver Braylon Edwards.

Edwards has already caught 40 passes for 665 yards and seven touchdowns. He leads the Big Ten in receiving yards per game (133 per outing) and has emerged as a strong Heisman Trophy candidate.

At 6 feet 3 inches and 206 pounds, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said, Edwards is the strongest receiver he has coached at Michigan.

If Michigan has a question mark, though, it’s at quarterback.

Similar to the Gophers, the Wolverines are starting a new quarterback this year in true freshman Chad Henne. He has taken most of the snaps for the Wolverines this season and has 1,096 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions.

Despite some rookie growing pains, it appears Henne, who was one of the top-recruited players in the country last year, has won the confidence of his teammates.

“His presence in the huddle and his presence on the field make me feel like Chad has been there before,” Edwards said. “Everything that he’s taught, he writes it down and puts it in his memory bank, and it’s showing. He gets better every game.”

On the other side of the ball, Michigan’s legendary defense returns yet another tough unit.

They have held their first five opponents to a measly 47.2 rushing yards per game, leading the Big Ten.

With Michigan’s stingy run defense colliding with the Gophers’ nationally third-ranked running game, something must give.

In last year’s game, the Wolverines’ defense gave, allowing a program-record 424 yards despite their victory.

Rest assured, Michigan will do its best to prevent Minnesota from putting its name in the record books again.

“I think we will know a lot more about our defense after we see how we handle the challenge that is this Minnesota offense,” Carr said.

Senior Wolverines linebacker Roy Manning said he’s confident his team won’t budge.

“That’s our main thing around here – just stop the run,” Manning said.

Playing in a big-game atmosphere and in front of one of the largest crowds in the nation, the Gophers’ coaches don’t appear to be making many changes to deal with crowd noise.

“I have heard that Michigan Stadium is so loud that you can’t think, and I have heard it is so quiet you’d think you were in church,” Mason said.

But the Big House isn’t likely to sound like a church when the Gophers emerge from the tunnel Saturday. They’ll find themselves front and center on one of the biggest stages in college football.

And Mason doesn’t mind, he said.

“It’s not just a game,” he said. “It’s an event.”

Another rescheduling?

The Big Ten announced Thursday that the Gophers’ contest with Illinois scheduled for Oct. 23 at the Metrodome could potentially be rescheduled for Oct. 22 because of the Minnesota Twins’ postseason run.

If the Twins advance to the American League Championship Series by beating the New York Yankees in their best-of-five division series (the series is tied 1-1), the game will be moved to Oct. 22.

The World Series is scheduled to start Oct. 23 at the American League team’s home park.

Last season, the Gophers had to reschedule their Oct. 11, contest with Michigan to Oct. 10, because of the Twins’ division series.

The Gophers will also be responsible for any additional costs for the Illini.