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Gophers facing ranked teams in next three games

MINNEAPOLIS -- With the bye week in the rearview mirror, the Gophers enter a three-stage obstacle course against ranked opponents with top-tier defenses.

MINNEAPOLIS --  With the bye week in the rearview mirror, the Gophers enter a three-stage obstacle course against ranked opponents with top-tier defenses.

First up, Minnesota plays No. 15 Michigan and its top-rated scoring defense on Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium.

Then come No. 1 Ohio State and its ninth-rated defense and No. 10 Iowa and its 10th-ranked scoring defense.

“Kind of like they say on how you eat an elephant: one bite at a time,” Minnesota’s associate head coach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said Tuesday.

The Gophers (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) had trouble with Nebraska’s defense in a 48-25 loss Oct. 17. The Cornhuskers have allowed an average of 99 rushing yards in eight games this season, and Minnesota managed only 65.

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On the other side, Minnesota has allowed the 28th-fewest total yards on defense this season (328.7), but the Huskers put up 464 yards and scored 48 points, the most Minnesota has allowed since 2011.

“Did a terrible job,” Claeys said of himself.

Where Claeys said he erred most was with middle linebacker and leading tackler Cody Poock. In the week leading to the Nebraska game, Poock took most of the snaps on Tuesday and Wednesday, but he couldn’t practice Thursday and didn’t play Saturday because of an unspecified injury.

“Now we’re having to juggle our linebacker groups on what we were doing,” Claeys said. “And knowledge gives kids confidence. We played hesitant because of having to switch everybody around.”

Claeys said this week’s practice reps will likely go to backup Everett Williams and others.

“We’ll make sure that Cody knows what to do,” Claeys said, “but we’re going to give the reps to the other guys until we know he’s ready to go for sure.”

The Gophers reversed course against Michigan last season, winning 30-14 behind 373 total yards of offense and 171 yards allowed on defense. Minnesota took home the Little Brown Jug and ended a six-game losing streak to the Wolverines.

New Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was coaching the San Francisco 49ers last season but has a strong opinion of what happened in Ann Arbor.

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“They whipped us pretty good last year,” Harbaugh told Michigan reporters Monday.

Michigan (5-2, 2-1) has been putting the whooping on most other teams this season, allowing 9.3 points a game. The Wolverines allowed seven or fewer points in five straight games before Michigan State stunned them Oct. 17 by returning a fumbled punt attempt for a last-second touchdown in a 27-23 victory in Ann Arbor.

Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said the Wolverines’ defense is good at all three levels.

“They play a lot harder than they did last year,” he said. “That’s a testament to the coaching staff, those defensive coaches, because they had good players last year. I don’t think they always played hard, but now they play hard.”

Michigan also has returned to focusing on its ground game, with 286 rushes to 200 passes.

“They’ve gotten back to getting downhill, doubling you on the defensive line, not losing yards and keep getting in a manageable third down,” Claeys said. “That’s what they’ve done. They have kept the ball away from people and scored enough to win.”

Michigan also incorporates a fullback, with Sione Houma and Joe Kerridge combining for 26 carries, 119 yards and three touchdowns this season.

“The fullback carries the ball more than any major college football team the last 20 years,” Claeys said, “and they’re good at it.”

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The Gophers are just trying to forget about last week’s Nebraska loss and remember the good times against Michigan last year. Defensive end Gaelin Elmore said coaches didn’t have players watch tape of the entire Nebraska game.

“I didn’t even want to watch it,” he said.

While junior quarterback Mitch Leidner has been replaying last year’s Michigan game in his head, he called that win his favorite highlight as a Gopher.

“I can’t even describe the feeling after we beat Michigan to be able to run over and grab the Jug, hoist it up and bring it over to our fans and celebrate in the locker room,” he said. “It was just an awesome feeling.”

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