Going into the 2020 season, I had my suspicions that Minnesota might struggle to match their 2019 success. It might have been the Gophers’ stumbles in their non-conference games, or the fact that they never beat anyone last season who had a returning starter. It might also have had to do with the fact that the Gophers only had four returning starters on defense.
But Minnesota throttled Nebraska and Auburn, so I pretty much had to accept “scoreboard” as a reason that boat rowing was now a very real factor in the Big Ten’s West division. But all of that started to unravel when the Big Ten’s season began in October. In game one, Michigan stomped the Gophers 49-24, giving everyone an early misread on Michigan’s strength. The next week, Minnesota missed an extra point in overtime as Maryland won 45-44. Against Illinois’ fourth-string quarterback, Minnesota looked like they had the boat afloat again in a 41-14 victory. But then the Iowa Hawkeyes capsized the Gophers in a 35-7 thrashing that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated. Minnesota was the benefactor of one of the biggest officiating mistakes of the season, where the side judge hallucinated a vision of offensive pass interference, wiping out Purdue’s last minute game-winning touchdown pass.
Purdue just got jobbed by the most phantom offensive PI call in the history of football. pic.twitter.com/6JDWM879h6— Jake Query (@jakequery) November 21, 2020
That was the last we saw of the Gophers, as COVID-19 shut down the program the last two weeks. Will the Gophers be ready to play this Saturday? P.J. Fleck insists that Minnesota will play, though they will be down at least 20 players who must sit out at least 21 days following a positive COVID diagnosis to ensure there are no complications from this virus.
What makes this preview so difficult is that we won’t know who those players are until Saturday morning. This preview can only assume that most, if not all, of Minnesota’s top players prior to their shutdown will be playing, though it’s quite possible that some will not be available.
Probably the one Gopher that Minnesota can least afford to be out is junior running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who leads the Gophers with 817 yards and 13 touchdowns in just five games. Despite playing in only five games thus far, Ibrahim leads the Big Ten in rushing by 161 yards over Iowa’s Tyler Goodson, who’s played in seven games. Ibrahim is averaging 5.3 yards per carry over 155 carries this season; freshmen Treyson Potts and Cam Wiley have combined for just 30 carries and 205 yards this season.
Junior Tanner Morgan has taken all of Minnesota’s snaps this season, but his completion percentage is down from 66% to 59% this season. In five games, he’s thrown for 1,033 yards and four touchdowns with four interceptions versus 2019’s marks of 3,253 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 13 games. And with leading receiver Rashod Bateman sitting out the rest of 2020, only Chris Autman-Bell has double-digit receptions with 14 catches for 315 yards and a touchdown. Freshman Daniel Jackson has five catches for 59 yards.
The loss of seven starters on defense has taken Minnesota from one of the Big Ten’s best (second in total defense last season) to the worst in both scoring and total defense. The Gophers are 13th in the Big Ten in rush defense (215.6 yards per game) and ninth in pass defense (240.6 yards per game) Minnesota’s defense is led by it’s secondary, which shouldn’t be a surprise since three of the Gophers’ four returning starters from last season play back there. But it also points out how ineffective Minnesota’s front seven are on defense.
Sophomore safety Tyler Nubin (6’2” 205 lbs.) and junior linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin (6’3” 245 lead the Gophers with 29 tackles each. Junior safety Jordan Howden is third in tackles with 27. Senior cornerback Coney Durr leads the Gophers with four pass breakups this season; he also is fourth in tackles with 23. Junior defensive end Boye Mafe (6’4” 260 lbs.) leads the Gophers with 3.5 sacks and two quarterback hurries; he’s fifth in tackles with 16.
Considering that Minnesota’s defense will almost certainly be missing some pieces of a really bad defense, it would seem that this would be an opportunity for Nebraska to have a big day and win back Nebraska’s only true rivalry trophy, the $5 Bits of Broken Chair trophy. But the last time Nebraska underestimated an opponent, Illinois throttled the Huskers quite handily. Complicating things even further is the weather forecast, which is calling for snow and winds, which could act as a big equalizer. And if the conditions make this a ground game, Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim could be the star of the game if he’s available to play. P.J. Fleck isn’t going to disclose who is unavailable to play this week ahead of time, so while we have to assume most of the starting line up will play, we also should expect backups at some positions.
Now, for reference, another look at the summer preview of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Minnesota caught the nation’s attention in 2019 with an 11-2 season that ended with a 31-24 victory over #9 Auburn in the Outback Bowl on New Years’ Day. Impressive, right?
The Gophers were impressive at the end of the season, but the start of the season was something completely different. A fourth quarter South Dakota State fumble set up Minnesota’s game winning touchdown, averting an embarrassing upset loss to a 1-AA foe. A week later, Minnesota tied Fresno State on a 4th and 13 last minute touchdown pass to force overtime; the Gophers would eventually prevail 38-35 in double overtime. Against Georgia Southern, the Gophers scored with 13 seconds left to avert an upset for the third straight week. But in the second half against Nebraska, the Gophers stopped futzing around and dropped the hammer on the Big Red. After a couple of blowout victories against Rutgers and Maryland from the bottom of the Big Ten’s east division, the Gophers stunned #5 Penn State at home to launch themselves into the top ten.
Junior quarterback Tanner Morgan (6’2” 215 lbs.) is now the unquestioned leader of the Gophers’ powerful offense, though curiously, I don’t believe P.J. Fleck and his staff believed that until last season. As a freshman, Morgan backed up Zack Annexstad (6’3” 220 lbs.) until Annexstad’s season-ending injury suffered against the Huskers. Morgan finally got his shot and immediately started a comeback push in Lincoln. Morgan would lead the Gophers to a 4-2 record the rest of 2018, but still found himself as the backup until Annexstad suffered a season-ending foot injury at the start of preseason practice. But now that Morgan earned second-team All Big Ten honors last season, it’s safe to say that Morgan is the guy after completing 66% of his passes for 3,253 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season. Compare that Annexstad’s 52%, nine touchdown and seven interception season in 2018, and the quarterback debate in Minneapolis is over.
Junior running back Mohamed Ibrahim (5’10” 210 lbs.) regains his starting role with the graduation of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. When Smith and Brooks were injured in 2018, Ibrahim took over and rushed for 1,160 yards as a freshman. Last year as a backup, Ibrahim rushed for 604 yards and seven touchdowns. Sophomore Bryce Williams (6’0” 205 lbs.) rushed for 526 yards, backing up Ibrahim in 2018. Williams played sparingly last season with just 17 carries in a redshirt season. True freshman Ky Thomas (5’11” 205 lbs.) arrives as the Kansas high school player of the year.
Until junior Rashod Bateman announced that he was planning to sit out the 2020 season over COVID-19 concerns, the Gophers receiver corps looked well stocked. Now Minnesota has to replace both Tyler Johnson and Bateman, who combined for 146 catches, 2,537 yards and 24 touchdown catches last season. That leaves juniors Chris Autman-Bell (6’1” 215 lbs.) and Demetrius Douglas (6’0” 195 lbs.) as the only returning contributors at receiver; Autman-Bell caught 28 passes for 371 yards and five touchdowns last season, while Douglas caught 14 passes for 157 yards. Minnesota’s tight ends might become more involved in the passing game in 2020. Junior tight end Jake Paulson (6’5” 270 lbs.) and sophomore Brevyn Spann-Ford (6’7” 270 lbs.) combined to catch eight passes last season.
Did you notice the size of those tight ends? Well, then check out the size of the five returning starters on the Minnesota offensive line. Senior center Conner Olson (6’5” 305 lbs.) is the munchkin of the bunch, who’s started every game in his Gopher career. Sophomore right guard Curtis Dunlap (6’5” 345 lbs.) and junior left guard Blaise Andries (6’6” 325 lbs.) also return as entire-career starters; Andreis earned third team all-Big Ten honors last season. Senior left tackle Sam Schlueter (6’6” 325 lbs.) has started 27 games at tackle (and tight end!) during his career. And then there is junior right tackle Daniel Faalele, who is officially listed at 6’9” tall and weighs 400 pounds.
Only four starters return for a Gopher defense that, quite honestly, caught a break last season in not facing an established returning starting quarterback until playing Iowa in November. In fact, they played 5 teams with first-year starting quarterbacks and six (!!!) other teams having to play their backups --- and (not coincidentally) won every one of those games. Iowa and Wisconsin’s returing starters at quarterback came out victorious against Minnesota. (Anybody believe Nebraska put their best effort on the field in Minneapolis last season?)
Only one starter returns in the front seven: senior defensive tackle Micah Drew-Treadway (6’4” 315 lbs.), who spent his first two years of his college career at Notre Dame. Junior middle linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin (6’3” 245 lbs.) did start seven games as a backup with 42 tackles. P.J. Fleck’s recruiting and development will be put to the test, as there are a lot of holes up front on the Minnesota defense at the start of this season.
Junior safety Jordan Howden (5’11” 200 lbs.) is the Gophers’ leading returning tackler with 57 last year. Senior cornerbacks Benjamin St-Juste (6’3” 200 lbs.) and Coney Durr (5’10” 200 lbs.) each broke up ten passes last year and have 45 and 33 tackles respectively last season. The Gophers will definitely miss last year’s leading tackler, All-American Antoine Winfield, who’s off to the NFL.
It’s easy to roll your eyes at P.J. Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mantra, but his results at Western Michigan and Minnesota speak for themselves. His players definitely have bought into the metaphor, which means you disparage Fleck at your own peril. That being said, this year’s Gophers is missing several of the oars that got them to a New Year’s Day bowl game, which should also serve to temper expectations for the next football season --- whenever that happens.