Gophers vow to compete with Wolverines

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2012 - 9:13 AM

Last season's 58-0 pasting aside, the Gophers believe they can recapture the Little Brown Jug if they play smart and believe.

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Elusive Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is expected to be near full strength Saturday after suffering an injury to his right (throwing) elbow last week in a loss to Nebraska.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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After 20 games as the Gophers' coach, Jerry Kill owns eight wins, but he doesn't really have a "statement" victory yet -- a game that announces to the world and the Big Ten that progress is being made.

He definitely has a signature loss, however.

It came in Ann Arbor last September, in Kill's Big Ten debut in front of the third-largest crowd ever to witness a Gophers football game. Michigan 58, Minnesota 0, and it was that close only because the Wolverines grew bored after halftime.

"It was a pretty lousy day," said safety Brock Vereen, one of the Gophers' leading tacklers that day. "Just one of those days where nothing went right."

No game could better illustrate the challenge that Kill faced at Minnesota. Now he has had 399 days to make changes, 13 months to plug the holes that allowed 18 different Wolverine plays of 10-plus yards or train an offense that crossed midfield in Michigan Stadium only twice.

But of course, the Gophers have spent a couple of generations trying to be competitive with the Wolverines -- Michigan's last loss in Minnesota came in Memorial Stadium 35 years ago. Yes, the Wolverines make their first visit to TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, having gone 12-0 in the Metrodome.

That's a lot of history to reverse, overwhelming domination from both short-term and long-term perspectives. The Gophers claim it's motivation, that retrieving the Little Brown Jug for just the fourth time since 1967 is a goal that compels them to work harder and execute more precisely this week.

"We've talked about how last year there were two embarrassing games: Purdue and Michigan," said quarterback Philip Nelson, who was starting for Mankato West when those back-to-back blowouts took place. "We made one of them right. We're ready to go make another one right."

They certainly sound as though 58-0 is a rallying cry for this week, and last week's 44-28 thumping of the Boilermakers, Nelson's first collegiate victory, undoubtedly instills some confidence. But couldn't the opposite be true, too -- doesn't the utter one-sidedness of that rout inevitably create doubt?

"It can, if you allow it. But our point is, there's no reason to let it," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "Part of our message is, 'Hey guys, it's not physical, it's mental. If you believe you can win this game, you can.' That's why last week was so important. There's a feeling that, hey, this stuff works. If we do our jobs, if we stick together, it works."

Making it work against the Wolverines is a particularly gnarly challenge, especially if Denard Robinson has recovered from a nerve injury in his throwing elbow (and according to Michigan coach Brady Hoke, he has). Michigan's three losses this year came against teams ranked in the top 20 of the BCS standings: No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Notre Dame, No. 20 Nebraska.

That's the wrong way to look at it, Limegrover insists. "To us, they're 5-3," said the offensive coordinator, on guard against "they're-too-good" sentiments. "They're not undefeated. I mean, Purdue should have beaten Notre Dame, and we beat Purdue."

The keys to beating Michigan are simple: Contain Robinson and force him to throw; his nine interceptions are the most in the conference. And be patient against the Wolverines' no-big-plays defense, the best pass-stopping unit in the league.

"Michigan will make you beat them. They're going to say, OK, take the 5-yard out, take the short pass. Because they have the mentality that people aren't patient enough, and that things tend to break down when you have to move the football nine, 10, 11 plays instead of [using] quick strikes," Limegrover said.

"We have to be very comfortable in moving the chains 5 yards at a time, and make sure everyone realizes we're gong to have to be very sharp, because one breakdown might mean we have to kick the ball away."

And never allow those 58-0 doubts to creep in.

"That's the thing we have to change more than anything, that mindset," Kill said. "We're not even close to reaching our potential. We've got a lot of room to get better."

  • GOPHERS VS. MICHIGAN • 11 a.m. today • TCF Bank Stadium • TV: Big Ten Network (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

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