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Game Scout: Minnesota at Michigan

The SportsXchange

KICKOFF: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET

GAMEDATE: 10/5/13

SITE: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.

TV: ABC, ESPN2 (regional)

SERIES: Minnesota is 24-72-3 against Michigan, including a 35-13 loss at home last season and five straight victories in the series.

AP RANKINGS: Michigan No. 19; Minnesota unranked

KEYS TO THE GAME

Michigan and Minnesota have not played any close games in the past five years, and the professional odds-makers like the Wolverines by a bunch in this one, despite Minnesota's 4-1 record. Michigan has been so dominant in this series, winning 38 times in the last 41 meetings.

The score in this matchup was 35-13 last year, and 58-0 the year before that. Not close the three previous years, either. But delve a little deeper into this tussle whose history dates back to 1892 and you find that for three straight years (2003-05), this game was decided by three points each time, with the Golden Gophers beating Michigan 23-20 in Ann Arbor in 2005.

It seems like it could be time for the pendulum to swing back in that direction, especially with the way the Wolverines have played as of late. There is very little that is impressive about squeaking out a 28-24 win over Akron by stopping a Zips pass into the end zone on the final play of the game, or storming back from behind to slip by UConn 24-21 -- and those are the two most-recent lines on Michigan's resume.

The Wolverines (4-0) are coming off a bye week where a considerable amount of time was devoted to taking inventory of this football team.

"We've talked a lot, we've done a lot during the bye week," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said as Michigan began its specific preparations for Minnesota. No one is certain whether Hoke was purposefully vague, or just not sure which area needed the most attention.

In the opening segments of the Minnesota game, the jury will be looking very closely at Michigan's offensive line play, and the decision-making of quarterback Devin Gardner. Those two areas have been the most troubling through the first month of the season.

When addressing his approach to the start of Big Ten play, Hoke was equal parts philosophical and vague, again.

"We'll take it one week at a time. We understand what the expectations are and what they should be for this program. We'll have a good week of practice and put our best foot forward," he said. "We've got to be tested, and we will. I don't know how much UConn tested us two weeks ago. We'll find out more as we get into the league and find out what people want to do."

Kill and his staff must not only keep the team's confidence at a steady level, they must prepare the Gophers for their toughest stretch of the season. The non-conference wins over UNLV, New Mexico State, Western Illinois and San Jose State, which had given hope the Gophers could hold their own and improve on last season's 2-6 record in the league, could seem like a distant memory by the end of October.

"We know what we're up against," Kill said. "We know how challenging this conference is on a week to week basis. There are no easy games. We will prepare the best we can and be ready."

The Gophers were unbeaten entering Big Ten play last season but a loss to Iowa sent them on a downward spiral. Minnesota lost its first three conference games and only wins over Purdue and Illinois made them bowl eligible. Matching that won't be easy especially since one home game that seemed winnable is gone.

Traveling to Ann Arbor hasn't resulted in much success for the Gophers. Minnesota hasn't won at Michigan since 2005 and is 12-39-1 at Michigan Stadium. The teams will be playing for the Little Brown Jug, the oldest trophy played for in the Big Ten.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Golden Gophers

--RB Donnell Kirkwood was counted on to carry the load for the running game when the season started. Thanks to a sprained ankle suffered in the opener against UNLV, that hasn't happened. Kirkwood returned against Iowa, but carried only three times for six yards. The redshirt junior has gained 36 yards on 14 carries for the season. The Gophers must hope he's healthy enough to get more carries.

--WR Derrick Engel was one of the few bright spots in the loss to Iowa, catching five passes for 67 yards and a touchdown. He leads the team with 12 receptions for an average of 13.3 yards a catch. Engel has stepped forward in Minnesota's thin receiving corps and has become a favorite target for both Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner.

--LB Damien Wilson leads the team with 33 tackles, including 10 stops against Iowa. It hasn't taken long for the junior college transfer to make an impression. He does a solid job against the run and has shown the ability to make big plays with tackles for a loss of yardage and one sack.

--S Cedric Thompson tied for the team high with 10 tackles against Iowa. He has 24 tackles, including 17 solo stops, for the season. He also has an interception. The junior is taking full advantage of his first opportunity as a starter.

Wolverines

--WR Jeremy Gallon is clearly Michigan's go-to first option in the passing game. He has had at least one pass reception in 30 straight games, and has posted at least four catches in the last nine games.

--QB Devin Gardner needs to settle into a more consistent level of performance, and cut out the wild swings in his play-making ability. Gardner has completed 58-of-101 passes through four games for 801 yards and seven touchdowns. Gardner has carried the ball for 301 yards and five touchdowns on 49 rushes, and is averaging 275.5 yards of total offense per game this season.

--DB Blake Countess has three interceptions through four games, including two in the showcase win over Notre Dame. Just a third of the way through the schedule, Countess has the most interceptions in a season by a Michigan player since the 2009 season.

--TE Devin Funchess had five touchdown receptions in 2012, which tied him with the fourth best mark by a Michigan tight end in program history. The athletic Funchess seems due for a breakout game as the Wolverines start Big Ten play.

--C Jack Miller is on the hot seat as the offensive line continues to struggle with inconsistent play. "I think we need a little better play from the center," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said as his team prepared for Minnesota.

--OL Kyle Bosch, a true freshman, has been receiving plenty of practice reps with the first unit and could have an opportunity against Minnesota to win a starting spot.
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