No. 19 Michigan entered Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Minnesota with a 4-0 record and as a decided favorite against the Golden Gophers.
And well in line with the Wolverines’ historical dominance in the battle for the Little Brown Jug—Michigan has won 36 of its last 39 games against Minnesota—the Wolverines are shellacking the Golden Gophers so far.
Michigan outgained Minnesota 217 to four in first-quarter yardage and the carnage has continued in the second stanza.
All told, the Wolverines have played well in the first half and hold a dominating lead over the Gophers.
Still, here are five things Michigan must do to keep control (and build for the future) in the second half against Minnesota:
1. Keep getting Denard Robinson more comfortable throwing the ball
Denard Robinson has struggled mightily at throwing the ball so far in 2011, completing just 48.6 percent of his passes and throwing six interceptions to go with his six touchdowns entering Saturday’s tilt against Minnesota.
No problem there.
On Michigan’s first play with the ball, Robinson hit Jeremy Gallon on a nine-yard slant. Michigan then ran the ball the rest of the way on an 80-yard drive for the opening touchdown.
On the first play of their second drive, Robinson hit a pop pass to fullback Stephen Hopkins for 28 yards. They went down and scored another touchdown, this a nine-yard scamper from Shoelace himself.
Again on the third drive, Robinson hit Gallon—again on the first play—for an 11-yard completion. And again, the Wolverines rolled down the field 85 yards for another touchdown.
Give offensive coordinator Al Borges a ton of credit for creating easy, non-pressure throwing situations for Robinson, especially at the start of drives.
And Robinson deserves some credit, too: He was 10-for-10 through the air for 129 yards and a touchdown on Michigan’s first four drives, almost all on simple, confidence-building throws.
2. Get the running backs more comfortable making plays
Entering Saturday’s game, there were some concerns about the offensive line continuing to open up huge holes for Denard and company, especially with Michael Schofield replacing the injured Ricky Barnes at left guard.
No problem there.
From running the ball (Vincent Smith, Fitz Toussaint and Michael Shaw have all looked great) to receiving (Smith and Hopkins have each caught balls for 28 yards) and even throwing passes (Smith also hit Drew Dileo with a 17-yard TD on a halfback option-pass), Michigan’s running backs have been more involved today than during any game to this point.
This is a trend they need to continue as they go deeper into Big Ten play.
3. Get Devin Gardner some snaps
With this game largely out of hand, there’s little reason to keep Denard Robinson behind center and taking more punishment (aside from No. 1 above, getting him more comfortable throwing the ball).
Given Denard’s stature and his penchant for running the ball (and therefore taking lots of hits from opposing defenders), the second half against Minnesota seems like the perfect opportunity to get true sophomore Devin Gardner some additional experience under center.
An equally slippery runner—but purportedly with a better arm than Robinson—Gardner has all the makings of an exciting college quarterback. Why not get him even more involved than he was in the first half? Let him run a few series, let him guide the offense and let’s see how he fares. It could only help further down the line in Big Ten competition.
4. Keep pressure on the young Minnesota quarterback
Minnesota’s offensive line has struggled so far this season. Michigan’s three first-half sacks mean the Gophers have allowed 14 already this year through just four and a half games.
If Ryan Van Bergen, Jake Ryan, Jibreel Black and others continue to put pressure on freshman quarterback Max Shortell, the Gophers might not get another first down.
5. Avoid special-teams disasters
I said it last week and I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face: The special teams play over the last few years under Rich Rodriguez has been laughable and horrendous. Each specialist—kicker, punter, kick returner, punt returner—managed to embarrass himself at one point or another.
Jeremy Gallon has handled a couple of punts poorly so far today against the Gophers, but this year, the Wolverines have largely avoided disaster. That said, continuing to make chip-shot field goals and avoiding other huge mistakes on special teams will be important if they hope to continue their rise up the rankings.