Never has a Gophers game gotten out of hand this season. Each Minnesota loss has been within one or two possessions, and the worst loss of the year was 31-17 at Purdue.
This was not like those losses.
The Gophers (4-5, 1-5 Big Ten) were dominated in a 33-10 loss to Michigan (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) at Michigan Stadium in front of a crowd of 111,090 people on Saturday night, keeping the Little Brown Jug trophy in Ann Arbor.
“I don’t think we got beat the way we did because of nerves, or they weren’t ready for the crowd, or anything like that,” said head coach P.J. Fleck. “We just got whooped.”
After an hour-long weather delay, the Michigan running offense took the field and throttled Minnesota’s defense. The rainy weather caused both teams to run the ball much more, but the Wolverines were much more effective. They ran for 371 total yards and four rushing touchdowns on the night.
The Gophers defense couldn’t contain the two explosive running backs the Wolverines had at their disposal. Michigan's leading rusher, Karan Higdon, ran for 200 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, while the other running back, Chris Evans, ran for 191 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries.
“They were really good and they broke a lot of tackles,” said Gophers linebacker Blake Cashman. “I think that’s what ultimately hurt us was we couldn’t execute on tackling, and they were able to break those big ones.”
While the Wolverines offense was having success running the ball, Minnesota’s offense couldn’t get things going. Michigan had 13 tackles for a loss and five sacks in the game. Before Michigan, the Gophers had only allowed eight sacks all season.
Fleck tried switching things up on the No.1 defense in the Big Ten by using a direct-snap wildcat run play to Gophers running backs Rodney Smith and Kobe McCrary. Fleck also tried to catch the defense off guard by handing the ball off to wide receiver Phillip Howard on a couple of plays.
“[Michigan coach] Don Brown’s defense, they are going to attack you from multiple ways,” Fleck said. “I mean there’s draft picks all over that field.”
The Michigan defense responded well to the wrinkles, and the Gophers ended up with just 164 yards of total offense.
“It was just a wrinkle that we tried to add to the offense to get the running backs more touches,” Smith said. “And they made adjustments, they stopped it early, and it was tough running the ball inside today.”
The Gophers running back group is looking thinner after the Michigan game, as Shannon Brooks never took the field in the contest and other starter, McCrary, suffered a neck injury after he was hit in the head recovering his own fumble in the third quarter.
Jonathan Femi-Cole, who sat fourth on the depth chart, had to play after the two in front of him were injured. He had four carries for 26 yards.
“I’m very proud of [Femi-Cole],” Smith said. “I was excited to see him get in and run a few times. He prepares like a starter, and it’s exciting to see somebody that doesn’t play as often go in and get a chance to play.”
Donnell Greene, a Gophers offensive lineman, was thrown out of the game after punching a Wolverines defensive back in the face. A Michigan player was thrown out as well in the scuffle that ensued.
“That’s not our culture. That’s unacceptable, 100 percent,” Fleck said. “But again, that’s not what we’re about whatsoever, and we’ll have to pay the price for that.”
The offensive line was shook up yet again, as Greene was ejected and center Jared Weyler was taken off the field after an injury. After two games of consistent offensive line starters, Fleck will have to rearrange things again.
Next week the Gophers will be at home in TCF Bank Stadium after a two week road stretch. Minnesota will play Nebraska (4-5, 3-3 Big Ten).
“On the way to being a champion, on the way to being successful, you’ve got to understand what it feels like to be whooped,” Fleck said. "As a team, have to really really learn from this, physically, emotionally, mentally, we’ve got to learn from this. And we will.”