They entered the season as defending national champions. Within the first two weeks, they were dethroned and left for dead.
But Michigan’s football team has since been resurrected. The Wolverines are keeping their lingering Rose Bowl hopes alive by winning their last four games and will come to the Metrodome hoping to leave the Gophers in their dust.
Unlike last season, the resurgent Gophers (4-3) actually stand a chance of competing against Michigan (4-2) and will look to utilize the home-crowd advantage to the fullest.
Gophers on offense
The Wolverines’ defense was simply plowed over in its first two games against Notre Dame and Syracuse, respectively. Since then, Michigan has clamped down on its opponents and risen to fourth in the Big Ten in total defense. However, the unit is still a far cry from last season, when it was considered one of the best defenses in college football history.
How can the Gophers exploit the 1998 Michigan defense? Keep it simple and keep it balanced. If the Gophers can keep the Wolverines defenders on their heels with some early success running the football, then things will open up for the passing game.
The Wolverines are not going to be fooled by tricky or elaborate plays, so the key is to play honest, smash-mouth football. Gophers’ coach Glen Mason hinted at extended use of halfback Byron Evans, who is currently averaging an impressive 8.4 yards per carry.
The key to getting running success against the Gophers is to bounce plays outside. Michigan linebacker Sam Sword basically cuts off the inside route against opposing runners, but teams have had success against left linebacker Dhani Jones. Jones is a solid defender, but he has had some difficulties with stuffing the run.
The Wolverines’ secondary, despite losing cornerback Charles Woodson to the NFL and safety Marcus Ray to suspension, is still outstanding. Strong Safety Tommy Hendricks (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) has played like a quick linebacker against the run, but has also been a key defender in pass coverage.
Key matchup: Quarterback Billy Cockerham versus Michigan’s defensive front seven.
With the aura of his terrific relief performance behind him, Cockerham must prove why he should remain the starting quarterback for the team.
Athletic quarterbacks like Syracuse’s Donovan McNabb and Notre Dame’s Jarious Jackson have given the Wolverines fits, and Cockerham has the outside speed to do the same. Wolverines pass rusher James Hall (three sacks) will look to get in Cockerham’s face all game.
Gophers on defense
Michigan has yet to establish a consistent ground game, which is a big concern for Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. His main option has been sophomore tailback Anthony Thomas (394 yards, five TD), but Carr has also used freshman speedster Justin Fargas in the backfield. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Fargas is still getting a feel for the position, but he is sure-handed and has developed into a breakaway threat.
Look for the Gophers to keep the pressure on junior quarterback Tom Brady, who has performed adequately as a starter. But the bigger problem is stopping 6-foot-4 receiver Tai Streets. Streets has always been a deep threat, but this year he has developed into an outstanding physical possession receiver as well. The key for the Gophers is to use the same occasional two-deep coverages they deployed against the Spartans.
Don’t be surprised if the defense mixes up its coverages and alignments in an effort to throw the Wolverines’ offense out of its rhythm.
Key matchup: Strong safety Tyrone Carter versus the Michigan running game.
Carter is candidate for the Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation’s outstanding defensive back, but he should be nominated for the Butkus Award, which is given to top linebackers. Carter plays more like a linebacker in run support schemes, and it will be up to him to stop Thomas, a 225-pound hammer, and Fargas, who might be the fastest player on the Wolverines. If Carter can help contain the run, it will free up the other defenders to slow down Brady and the passing game.