The Michigan Wolverines hit the ground running…literally, when they faced the Minnesota Golden Gophers Saturday night. The Maize and Blue set the tone early behind the inspired running of junior tailback Mike Hart. The first three plays of the game were all rushing plays by Hart which tallied a total of 27 yards. He keyed a methodical march down the field with 44 yards on the ground to set up a 16-yard aerial connection between Chad Henne and Adrian Arrington to make the score 7-0. By the time the first quarter expired, Hart had pushed his total to 67 yards on 11 carries.
“We always want to pound the ball on the ground,” Hart said. “There are some situations where we won’t be able to because there are too many people in the box. Early in the game, they did not have that many people in the box so that’s why we were able to run so easy. When they brought people down in the box, we were able to pass. I guess those things go hand-in-hand.”
The defense did its part in the opening stanza, holding the Gophers to only eight plays for 38 yards and forcing them to punt on their only two possessions. Michigan’s start on both sides of the ball was just what Lloyd Carr was looking for heading into the contest. “Today, we wanted to take control and get the crowd out of the game,” Carr said. “We were able to do that, but it was still a four-quarter game because they fought their way back in there.”
Minnesota was on the ropes after a 37-yard frozen rope from Henne to Arrington tacked seven more points on the board early in the second period to put the Wolverines up 14-0. Glen Mason’s squad finally responded by getting back to the basics and churning out yardage on the ground. Amir Pinnix paced a 77-yard drive with six rushes for 37 yards before Bryan Cupito capped it off with a 21-yard strike to Logan Payne to cut Michigan’s lead in half.
The Wolverines fired back thanks to the hot arm of Chad Henne. Michigan’s sophomore gunslinger continued his marksmanship, going 5/5 on a seven play, 75 yard that ended with him hooking up with Mario Manningham on a 41 yard post for a touchdown to push Michigan’s lead back to 14 at the break.
The Gophers looked to be well on way to answering that score after the intermission, driving into Michigan territory on their opening possession of the third quarter. They seemed to capitalize on the opportunity when a fake reverse resulted in a wide open Ernie Wheelwright streaking down the center of the field. Cupito connected with his big receiver for a 38-yard touchdown to again knife into the lead and get the crowd back into the game. Unfortunately for the home team, a yellow flag would dash that enthusiasm. Reserve lineman Ryan Ruckdashel, who had entered the game for an injured starter, was caught holding Terrance Taylor, causing the play to be called back. The Wolverines made the most of their reprieve, stoning the Gophers on the next three plays and forcing them to punt.
Ron English’s defense really settled in after that initial scare and stymied the Gopher attack on the next three series, holding the home team to only 19 yards on 11 plays. Meanwhile, midway through the fourth Henne and Hart teamed up to put what they hoped would be the proverbial nail in the coffin. The two junior stars connected on a 10-yard pass that Hart turned into a 31 yard scamper into the redzone. From there, Kevin Grady punched it into the endzone make the score 28-7 with 4:57 left on the clock.
The partisan crowd of 50,000+ began to file out at that point. They seemed been resigned to what the outcome would be, but their team was not. Cupito & company went to the air for a five play, 84-yard touchdown drive that took only 1:05 off the clock to again cut the deficit in half. The Gophers then followed that up with an onside kick that they recovered at their own 44 after it bounced of the hands of Steve Breaston.
Minnesota drove the ball all the way to the Michigan eight yard line, but they would get no closer. After three straight incomplete passes the Gophers were faced with a fourth and goal. Their last ditch effort was finally thwarted when Ernie Wheelwright was flagged for offensive pass interference on another incompletion. The Wolverines then ran the clock out to preserve a 28-14 victory and reclaim the Little Brown Jug.
“I thought our offense in the first half was outstanding,” Carr said afterward. “We punted the ball once and when we did Zoltan [Mesko] had a great punt to change field position. We ran the football and we got Minnesota to where they had to bring eight guys into the box. That really opened up some big plays in the passing game. I thought Chad [Henne] was really sharp. He made a lot of great throws. I thought the first half we really were in rhythm and got a lead, but I would have liked to have put the game away. But Minnesota didn’t allow us to do that. The fourth quarter our defense made a huge stop down there after Minnesota made a great play on the onside kick. There’s no such thing as a safe lead.”
“It’s great to have the Little Brown Jug back,” Carr continued. “I give Minnesota a lot of credit. They were down 21-7 at the half and they really fought hard throughout the third quarter. We talked at the half about the kicking the ball off, getting the stop, getting good field position, which we did. We had good field position several times in the third quarter and even in the fourth quarter, but we only managed to get one touchdown out of it. I credit the really hard-playing Minnesota team. I think it speaks to the Little Brown Jug. A lot of people don’t have an understanding of that. I think you have two teams that the trophy means a lot to.”
Chad Henne finished Saturday’s contest having completed 17/24 passes for 284 yards and three touchdowns. Meanwhile Mike Hart ended the day with 31 carries for 195 yards on the ground, and Mario Manningham hauled in five passes for 131 yards and a touchdown through the air. For the full boxscore, click here.
Next on the docket for the Wolverines is intra-state match-up with the Michigan State Spartans. John L. Smith’s team will head to Ann Arbor next week looking to salvage its season after having dropped its second straight game Saturday, losing 23-20 at home to the Illinois Fighting Illni. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:30 PM EST.