MINNEAPOLIS — The likelihood of the Gophers’ subpar offense struggling against Michigan’s top-tier defense was a safer prediction heading into Saturday night’s game at the Big House in Ann Arbor.
Minnesota’s top-20 ranked defense being minced like an onion by the Wolverines’ 38th-ranked running game was not such a ready-made prognostication, however.
While the first matchup played out that way, the latter also proved true as Michigan running backs Karan Higdon and Chris Evans averaged 13.4 yards on 29 carries in the 33-10 blowout over Minnesota. It was the first time in 42 years Michigan had two backs exceed 100 yards in consecutive games — Hidgon had 200, Evans 191.
“Some of the big runs came spitting out ... because of a lot of missed tackles,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.
The foreshadowing of other defensive issues, primarily poor angles to make tackles, showed up on the game’s second play — Higdon’s 47-yard gain. If cornerback Antonio Shenault, who was returning from injury, takes a better angle, this play could have been capped at 13-yard gain and not the big play that leads to the game’s opening touchdown.
On Michigan’s second scoring drive, Higdon went untouched for 77 yards, with Duke McGhee and Thomas Barber failing to bring him down by his shoelaces.
The Wolverines had nine rushes of 12 or more yards, the overwhelming majority coupled with Gophers taking poor angles, missing tackles and being unable to shed blocks. After watching the film, Fleck said on WCCO-AM on Sunday morning that Minnesota defenders not churning their feet on contact was a key technique breakdown.
The Gophers missed 12 total tackles, many with huge chunks of yards coming after the miscues. Three missed tackles came on Evans’ 60-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. When linebacker Jon Celestin, who is battling through a right elbow injury, couldn’t stop Evans, he tacked 57 more yards to paydirt.
“He’s a really, really tough linebacker, and he’s been able to get by with playing with one arm for a while,” Fleck said. “But when you play a team like this, you’re not able to play with one arm. That is what we were noticing.”
Celestin left the game, with Blake Cashman stepping in. He was one of the few defensive bright spots for the Gophers. “I thought Blake played really well,” Fleck said.
Cashman finished second on the team with six tackles, a tackle for loss and a sack. On consecutive drives to start the third quarter, the Gophers defense had sacks from Cashman and then Merrick Jackson whacked Michigan’s first-start quarterback Brandon Peters.
But the Wolverines scored on the next two drives, with the Gophers missing three more tackles on Evans’ 67-yard score. Some of those tackle attempts were complete whiffs due to poor angles to cut off Evans.
“I never question their effort,” Fleck said. “It’s one thing I love about our team, I never question their effort. They gave everything they had (Saturday night). It just wasn’t good enough. We got beat by a better team, period.”
While it won’t be recorded as a game against a ranked opponent, it might as well have been. With a 7-2 record, Michigan, after falling from No. 7 in the AP Top 25 to out of the rankings, regained a spot at No. 21 on Sunday.
The Gophers (4-5, 1-5) have three remaining games, including this Saturday’s contest against Nebraska (4-5, 3-3). On Saturday, the Cornhuskers gave up a touchdown apiece in the fourth quarter and overtime to lose 31-24 to Northwestern.
“We as a team have to really, really learn from this — physically, emotionally,” Fleck said. “And we will.”