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October 5, 2013

Michigan keeps Jug in romp, 42-13

The Little Brown Jug stayed as snug as the football, Michigan steamrolling Minnesota's Golden Gophers in the Big Ten opener at Michigan Stadium, 42-13.

The Wolverines beat back the Gophers with their first turnover-free game since the 2011 battle with Minnesota. Quarterback Devin Gardner went an efficient 13-for-17 for 235 yards and one passing touchdown, while running another in himself.

Tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint tacked on 78 rushing yards and two TDs on 17 carries, and the Wolverines unleashed a not-so-secret weapon in eye-opening fashion. Sophomore tight tend Devin Funchess split wide at times, hauling in seven passes for 151 yards and a touchdown.

Michigan's defense got after the Gophers enough to limit them to 281 total yards and one touchdown, which cornerback Blake Countess negated himself, racing back 72 yards with an interception return.

All in all, the Wolverines (5-0) quelled some of the queasiness built up through a turbulent pre-bye week fortnight, and moved forward like they mean business.

U-M head coach Brady Hoke appeared to place as much emphasis on not dropping the football as he did on not dropping the Jug - and it worked.

"It's huge," Hoke said. "No turnovers, and we had two penalties. That speaks to how these guys have really worked. The bye week came at a good time for us in a lot of ways, and it was good to see us respond."

Michigan responded with a revamped offensive line, featuring Graham Glasgow at center and Chris Bryant at left guard, and a determined attitude.

"They told me they weren't going to let me get hit," Gardner said, with a grin. "I like that."

Meanwhile, the Gophers hit Michigan with a protracted early drive behind quarterback Mitch Leidner (14-for-21, one TD, and 66 yards on 18 carries). But after that, Michigan outscored the visitors 35-6, sinking Minnesota's chances like a rock-filled rowboat in one of its 10,000 lakes.

The Wolverines couldn't have concluded their football fast with any faster start. On the game's opening series, defensive lineman Jibreel Black forced a fumble by Leidner, linebacker James Ross III diving on it at the Minnesota 35.

Six runs later - behind the reordered Michigan offensive line -- Toussaint took a Gardner pitch moving right, cut back left and dashed into the end zone from eight yards out. Just like that, the Wolverines were off and running - literally.

"With my experience, offensive linemen love to run the football," Hoke noted. "They would rather run it than throw it. I think they were very happy we were running the football."

That drive took just 4:24, and the Gophers drained nearly the rest of the first quarter off the clock. They answered with a 16-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in which Leidner tormented the Wolverines with QB draws and scrambles, rushing for 32 yards before floating a seven-yard touchdown pass on a fade pattern to big tight end Maxx Williams.

That made it 7-7 with just 52 seconds remaining in the quarter. The Wolverines thus faced their first post-bye gut check, after getting gutted on the ground.

"It's us playing better on first and second down," Countess noted of what changed thereafter. "When you get a team that gets a third-and-one, third-and-two, third-and-three situations, it makes it hard on a defense. It makes it hard on a defensive coordinator with his play calling. We stepped it up on first and second downs, and that helped us out a lot."

Michigan answered, but it took awhile. The teams spent much of the second quarter backing each other up to their respective goal lines. A 43-yard Minnesota punt spun down at the Michigan 2, forcing the Wolverines to battle out of a deep hole.

They did, enough for Matt Wile to bounce a 55-yard punt that rolled to the Gophers' 1. One three-and-out later, the Wolverines controlled the ball at the Minnesota 38.

Concluding a first half of largely sputtering and sporadic offense, the Wolverines didn't miss this open door. Gardner didn't miss Funchess, either, gunning throws of 18 and 24 yards to him, sandwiched around a sack. The latter toss saw Funchess bull his way into the end zone with 1:25 remaining, giving the Wolverines a 14-7 halftime lead.

It wasn't always pretty, but in a four-possession first half, the Wolverines played a turnover-free 30 minutes and grabbed the upper hand.

After intermission, the Wolverines looked a little more like Carl Spackler on a crazed Gopher-gutting mission. They started out pounding away on the ground, then Gardner unleashed throws of 22 yards to Chesson and 21 to Funchess, setting up Derrick Green's battering ram TD from two yards out.

At 21-7 with 4:52 gone in the second half, the Wolverines created some breathing room.

Minnesota's Chris Hawthorne banged through a 44-yard field goal to draw the Gophers within 21-10 at the 4:26 mark of the third quarter. But the Wolverines' offense was starting to roll downhill.

Gardner directed another touchdown drive, with a lot of help from his friends. He gunned a 30-yard throw behind Jeremy Gallon, but his favorite target spun around, snatching the ball with honey-laced hands.

Gardner kept the eight-play, 75-yard drive alive with a 13-yard scramble, and Toussaint finished it off with a 12-yard dash to the end zone just 11 seconds shy of the third-quarter's end.

At 28-10, The Big House crowd of 111,079 enjoyed its first serious calm since the opener against Central Michigan. Hawthorne dented that a bit, via a 27-yard field goal with 10:07 remaining.

The Wolverines had tired of fourth-quarter nail-biters, though, and finished the game targeting the Gophers with a nail gun. Gardner went bombs away to Funchess for 46 yards on Michigan's final drive, then kept on a two-yard TD dash to further bury the Gophers.

Countess capped the U-M rout, picking off Leidner and sprinting 72 yards to put a little extra shine on the Little Brown Jug.

"It wasn't the best pass, but I broke on it pretty well," Countess noted. "I got underneath it, and my teammates sprung me for the touchdown with great blocks."

For the Wolverines, it wasn't the most impressive stretch leading up to the opening of the Big Ten season. But they're not looking back, any more than equipment manager Jon Falk packing away the Jug for a final time.

"Those games are behind us," Gardner assured. "We weren't thinking about anything but Minnesota. It's a Big Ten game, the first Big Ten game. We opened up the Big Ten season like we always say: 'You never get a second chance to make a first impression.' It's a Jug game, it's the Homecoming game. There is a lot going on."

And there's a lot more to anticipate, with a trip to Happy Valley right around the corner.


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