It may not have been pretty, but the Michigan football team walked away with the Little Brown Jug for the 12th consecutive year.
The Wolverines won with a little help from 6-foot-4 receiver Tai Streets (six catches, 192 yards, touchdown) and a hawking defense that made the Gophers’ second-half offense look pathetic.
More importantly, the victory came in spite of Michigan’s nonexistent ground game, which mustered minus-23 yards. How could a team known for its ability to run the football be so thoroughly abused by an opposing defense?
“They were determined to stop the run,” Streets said. “So we had to make plays.”
Streets did his part, repeatedly bullying Gophers’ 5-foot-9 cornerback Craig Scruggs in single coverage. On the first play of the Wolverines’ second series, he took a deep slant from quarterback Tom Brady and torched Scruggs for a 76-yard touchdown.
“They had so many guys in the box, we had to throw the ball,” Streets said. “I have the confidence that I can get open all the time.”
In fact, the Gophers’ repeated success stuffing the run essentially forced Michigan to air it out. Brady was 19 of 27 for 282 yards and had plenty of options. Michigan’s big and fast receivers came up with key receptions to move the chains seemingly every time the Gophers came up with a key stop.
“I was confident that we could come in here and do a good job running the football,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “We just didn’t do it. There were too many times in the game where (the Gophers) controlled the line of scrimmage.”
“They were daring us to throw the ball and we did,” Brady said. “We took advantage of their man coverage.”
Despite Brady’s success throwing the football, the Gophers’ defense played with reckless abandon, hurrying him and tallying four sacks. When the Wolverines tried to fool the Gophers on a draw play with little more than 12 minutes remaining in the game, the defenders snuffed it out and forced a fumble near midfield.
Carr said Brady’s eventual recovery of the football, which went through the hands of Gophers’ defensive end Curtese Poole, was the key point in the game.
“Tom Brady made a great fumble recovery,” Carr said. “That was a tremendous play for our football team.”
But the Gophers can look at their inability to sustain a drive in the second half as the main reason for their loss. Minnesota sputtered in the second-half, and quarterback Billy Cockerham was unable to evade the pressure created by the Wolverines’ defense.
After early success using running back Thomas Hamner on pitch-outs and sweeps, the Gophers seemed unwilling to alter their offense when Michigan began spreading their defense to the outside.
“They attacked (linebacker) Dhani (Jones) with the sweep because he’s not as big as our other guys,” Carr said. The Michigan defense reacted by playing corners Andre Weathers and William Peterson at the line of scrimmage and daring Cockerham to beat them with his arm.
But the Gophers’ receivers simply couldn’t get open consistently against Michigan’s two-deep coverage. And whenever it seemed as if Cockerham finally found some breathing room in the pocket, the play would often be negated by a penalty against the offense.
Two consecutive penalties against Minnesota deep in its own territory ultimately led to Michigan defensive end James Hall’s sack of Cockerham in the end zone.
“They beat themselves with their own mistakes,” Carr said.
Mistakes severely hindered the Gophers’ offense, but it was Michigan’s suffocating fourth quarter defense that ultimately finished them off.
“We knew going into the fourth quarter that we had to come up big,” defensive end Juaquin Feazell said. “We came there and we made the plays we needed to make.”
Those plays would make the difference in an otherwise close game, and led players on Minnesota’s sidelines to wonder what could have been.