Michigan football cautious about letdown vs. Gophers

by Jeff Sherry

Just past the midpoint of the season, Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr has plenty of things on his mind. But the Big Ten title isn’t one of them.
“I’m not concerned with the Rose Bowl at this point,” Carr said Tuesday. “I’m concerned with Minnesota. I think the nature of this race is that when you start looking ahead, you’re headed for trouble.”
Carr wasn’t just offering the usual pregame pleasantries to the Gophers. Although No. 10 Michigan will come to the Metrodome on Saturday with an eight-game winning streak against Minnesota, Carr actually is concerned.
And after what happened to Carr’s team last weekend, it’s tough to blame him.
The Wolverines, playing their Homecoming game against a team that hasn’t won a conference game since 1994, needed a second-half comeback to defeat Indiana, 27-20. Michigan almost proved what Gophers coach Jim Wacker preaches every week: Anything can happen on any given Saturday.
“We were very fortunate to come away with a victory over Indiana,” Carr said. “The lesson hopefully that we’ve learned is that you’ve got to be up every week, because we were not at an emotional pitch for Indiana.”
Considering Michigan’s schedule, Carr better hope his message sinks in quickly. For the first five weeks of the season, the Wolverines played arguably the toughest schedule in college football.
They opened with wins over Illinois, Colorado, Boston College and UCLA before losing by one to Northwestern. Their regular season ends with games against Penn State and Ohio State. So back-to-back games against Indiana and Minnesota might seem like a couple weeks off.
But even if Michigan isn’t pumped up for Saturday, there’s a good chance it won’t matter. The Wolverines defense has been playing well enough to make up for any shortcomings on offense. Despite facing tough competition, the defense has given up just six touchdowns in its first six games.
The unit is made up of some of the conference’s biggest names and bodies. Defensive end David Bowens leads the team with eight sacks. By comparison, the entire Minnesota team has four sacks. The linebackers are anchored by senior All-American Jarrett Irons, who injured his ankle against Northwestern but should be back at 100-percent Saturday.
Then there’s sophomore cornerback Charles Woodson. A year ago he was one of the league’s up-and-coming players. Now everyone in the conference, including Minnesota receiver Ryan Thelwell, knows him well.
“Last year I’d heard about him, and that was about it,” Thelwell said. “Then I went running out there to try to block him a few times, and he ran right by me. I was like, `Who was that?’ He’s really a fast player, a really strong player.”
And Woodson, an All-Big Ten selection last year, has added another dimension to this game. Woodson has lined up offensively at times for Michigan and had similar success. He has five catches so far and is averaging 35.3 yards on six rushes.
All together, Wacker thinks Minnesota is going up against the type of team that could end up in Pasadena.
“Defense isn’t very flashy,” Wacker said. “But I’ll tell you what, when it comes to nitpicking time, put your money on the great defense. Right now Michigan has as good a shot (at the Rose Bowl) as any of them because of their rivalry with Ohio State.
“Who knows what’s going to happen in that ballgame. It could very well come down to the end, unless the Gophers mess them up along the way.”