Gophers preparing for unknowns in Michigan’s quarterback and defense

The two ranked rivals will face off Saturday for the Little Brown Jug and significant momentum towards the Big Ten Championship.

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Kamaan Richards

Gophers Defensive back Benjamin St-Juste leaps for an Auburn pass at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Wednesday, Jan. 1.

Brendan O'Brien

Gameday has finally arrived for the No. 21-ranked Gophers as they take on Michigan on Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium.

Plenty of scouting and projecting has been done about Minnesota heading into 2020 as fans hope this season will be an extension of the success in 2019. But with the opening game set to kick off this weekend and the Gophers preparing all week for the No. 18-ranked team in the country, let’s take a look at what the Wolverines bring to the table.

While the Gophers are to start veteran Tanner Morgan at quarterback, Michigan will turn to a relatively unproven signal caller in Joe Milton. Appearing in only eight games over his career, Milton is a junior who was a four-star recruit in high school. Because of his lack of playing time, Milton is somewhat of an unknown to coaches. He has thrown for one touchdown and two interceptions on 11 passing attempts while running for 47 yards on 12 carries.

“Anybody who looks at Milton knows what type of special talent he is,” Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck said. “He’s once-in-a-decade type talent that comes through the program when you’re talking about his skill set … There’s not a ton of data on him based on what we’ve been able to watch but he’s been in some games [and] we’ve watched his high school recruiting film to gather as much information [as possible] to evaluate him.”

The run game is expected to be a focal point of the offense regardless of Milton’s inexperience. Running backs Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins return to the team, combining for over 1,300 rushing yards in 2019. Michigan also had 30 or more rushing attempts in 10 of its 13 games last season.

On the opposite side of the ball, Michigan has always had the perception of being a solid defensive team under defensive coordinator Don Brown. Last season, the Wolverines ranked fourth in the Big Ten in total defense, allowing just under 21 points per game.

Heading into the matchup, Gophers’ running back Mohamed Ibrahim said the Gophers will need to take each play individually given the variety of defensive looks Brown will throw at an opposing offense. But as the defensive looks change, Michigan will continue to be aggressive and bring pressure.

“[Brown’s] very difficult to prepare for,” Fleck said. “He’s one of the best in the country for a reason. There’s probably 60% that we probably know based on what they’ve done in the past and they’ve had all offseason to make it better, change it, develop it, create things that are maybe just specifically to our game.”

Michigan is just one of many other teams that have had players opt out for the season. Wide receiver Nico Collins opted out and was expected to be a top perimeter threat for the Wolverines. Quarterback Dylan McCaffrey also opted out and requested a transfer, accompanying Milton’s rise to the top of the depth chart. Jalen Mayfield, the only returning starter on the offensive line, opted back in after originally deciding to opt out.

Nevertheless, Fleck is not overlooking the opponent based on who will not be playing.

“They’ve lost some wideouts, but it’s Michigan,” Fleck said. “They’ve got 44 four-stars and two five-stars on their team, so they’ve got plenty of talent and skill that can fill a lot of the positions that they’ve lost.”

The matchup holds a great deal of weight for both teams. The Little Brown Jug is on the line in this traditional rivalry game, and a win against a ranked opponent will increase both team’s chances of making a run at the Big Ten Championship.

ESPN’s College GameDay will also be in Minneapolis for the second time since the show’s inception.