ANN ARBOR, MICH. – The Little Brown Jug might be one of the most famous rivalry trophies in sports, but the ancient water container remains almost mythical to current Gophers.
“I don’t even know what it looks like,” senior David Cobb said.
The jug has spent only two of the previous 37 years in Minnesota. The Gophers won in 1986 and 2005, only to give it right back the following autumn both times.
On Saturday, the Gophers (3-1) will arrive at the Big House with a firm belief they’ll be taking that 111-year-old jug home with them. There haven’t been many times in the modern era when Michigan (2-2) has looked this vulnerable.
But a win would require a performance far better than anything the Gophers have shown this season, especially on offense.
“Michigan hasn’t changed,” coach Jerry Kill said. “Defensively, they’re better than they were a year ago, by far.”
The Wolverines, who beat the Gophers 42-13 last year, lead the Big Ten in total defense, averaging just 261 yards allowed per game. Last week, Utah entered Michigan Stadium averaging 57.5 points per game and scored one offensive touchdown in its 26-10 win.
The Wolverines have been especially stingy against the run, as their past three opponents — Notre Dame, Miami (Ohio) and Utah — rushed for 168 yards combined. Enter the Gophers, who have such a run-heavy offense, they threw seven passes last week against San Jose State, completing one.
“This could be the perfect game for us to explode as an offense in the passing game,” wide receiver KJ Maye said.
But the two biggest keys to their passing attack — quarterback Mitch Leidner and tight end Maxx Williams — are questionable because of injuries. With those two out last week, the Gophers went ultraconservative, as quarterback Chris Streveler and Cobb combined for 368 rushing yards.
It won’t be that easy against Michigan. The Gophers have struggled mightily against top defenses, including their 30-7 loss at Texas Christian, and also last year in losses to Iowa (23-7), Wisconsin (20-7) and Michigan State (14-3).
The Gophers have an underrated defense themselves, and Michigan has myriad offensive issues — a quarterback controversy, turnover woes, an inexperienced offensive line — so the Gophers could win with a low score.
That’s what happened in 1986, when the defense forced quarterback Jim Harbaugh and the No. 2 Wolverines into five turnovers, before Chip Lohmiller hit a 30-yard field goal as time expired. The 20-17 upset silenced Michigan Stadium.
In ’05, the Gophers held Mike Hart and the Wolverines to 94 rushing yards. That score was tied 20-20 and looked headed for overtime, when Gary Russell ripped off a 61-yard run, setting up Jason Giannini’s last-second 30-yard field goal.
Minnesota fans prepared for another jug celebration in 2008, when Michigan was 2-7 under then-first-year coach Rich Rodriguez.
The Gophers were 7-2 under Tim Brewster and favored by eight points. Of course, Michigan rolled to a 29-6 victory at the Metrodome.
The Gophers have a six-game losing streak to Michigan, but they felt last year’s game was closer than the 29-point final margin. They controlled the ball for nearly 19 minutes in the first half and trailed only 14-7 at halftime.
Starting quarterback Philip Nelson had a hamstring injury, and Leidner didn’t learn he’d be starting his first career Big Ten game until the morning walkthrough. Leidner fumbled on the opening drive, leading to a quick Michigan touchdown, and he threw a pick-six late in the game. But in between, he completed 14 of 20 passes for 145 yards, and rushed for 66 yards.
“Sometimes not knowing may be the key,” quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said. “Maybe I won’t tell my kids anything anymore until the last second because [Leidner] went out there really relaxed. Take away that last pick, and he played really well.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke hasn’t announced whether he will start Devin Gardner or Shane Morris at quarterback, but either one will be playing behind a line featuring true freshman Mason Cole at left tackle.
The Wolverines’ inability to limit pressure on Gardner has been a key reason they have 12 turnovers, more than all but two of the 128 FBS teams. Meanwhile, the Gophers rank tied for second in the nation with 13 takeaways.
The Gophers can’t wait to see how it plays out before another expected crowd of 100,000-plus at the Big House. Defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli is among the seniors who will be playing their third career game there.
“It’s a joy,” Botticelli said. “There’s no better feeling than hearing 100,000 sigh and moan and groan.”
Botticelli hopes those sounds are a prelude to a rowdy Gophers celebration, if they recapture that elusive jug.