It’s easy for Nebraska fans to dislike and disrespect Minnesota football. The Huskers out-recruit the Gophers every year. Minnesota has the Flakey coach with the sideline antics who rubs everybody else the wrong way.
And most revoltingly, the Gophers have won four out of their last five games against the Huskers. There it is: scoreboard.
Whether you hate it or despise it, P.J. Fleck has Minnesota football playing at a higher level than Nebraska. At least when it comes to conference play. Non-conference play might be something else entirely. In 2019, the Gophers trailed South Dakota State late in the game, only to come back late to win. A week later, the Gophers needed to convert a 4th and 13 in the closing minute just to take Fresno State to overtime, and then needed another last minute scoring drive to beat Georgia Southern. A season that arguably could-have and maybe should-have started out 0-3 ended up going 11-2 and being ranked in the Top Ten in November.
Or take last season when the Gophers lost to Bowling Green, then two games later beat the Huskers, bringing us Jon’s infamous quote:
“There’s no hope. F*** Everything. Go Big Red.”
I’ve learned my lesson with Minnesota and PJ Fleck. What they do against New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado simply DOES NOT MATTER. Coming off two weeks of COVID quarantine and fielding a patchwork lineup DOES NOT MATTER. PJ Fleck’s teams just come out and outplay opponents like Nebraska.
I’m going to go ahead and provide my typical analysis of the Gophers, but in the end, it probably WILL NOT MATTER if Fleck keeps finding ways to win.
Senior quarterback Tanner Morgan (6’2” 215 lbs.) isn’t anywhere near the most talented quarterback in the league, but has the knack for success. It also helped to have great receivers like Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman to throw to in that magical 2019 season where Morgan earned second team All-Big Ten honors, completing 66% of his passes for 30 touchdowns. But then Johnson headed to the NFL, Bateman missed most of 2020 with COVID and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca left for Penn State. The last two seasons, Morgan regressed to completing under 60% of his passes and throwing 17 touchdowns with 14 interceptions. Ciarrocca is back for 2022, but does Morgan have the receivers to deliver results more like 2019 than 2020? That’s the question.
Senior Chris Autman-Bell (6’1” 215 lbs.) has seen plenty of playing time, first as the understudies to Johnson and Bateman and now as the featured receiver. Last season, Autman-Bell was limited early on until exploding against (you guessed it) Nebraska for a career high 11 catches and 103 yards. For the season, Autman-Bell caught 36 passes for 506 yards and six touchdowns. Sophomore Michael Brown-Stephens caught 23 passes for 392 yards and a touchdown. Sophomores Dylan Wright (6’3” 215 lbs.) and Daniel Jackson (6’0” 200 lbs.) split time, catching 18 and 25 passes respectively for 365 and 267 yards. If a 2019 performance is in the offing, one or more of these sophomores will need to put big numbers.
One thing that’s been a constant for Minnesota is a powerful running game. Last season, senior Mohamed Ibrahim (5’10” 210 lbs.) rushed for 30 carries and 163 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio State before suffering a season-ending injury. In his career, Ibrahim has rushed for 3,003 yards, so when healthy, he’s a beast. Sophomore Treyson Potts (5’11” 210 lbs.) rushed for 552 yards and six touchdowns over the next four games before suffering his own season ending injury. Minnesota did lose the two freshman (Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving) that filled in for Ibrahim and Potts (1,523 yards and ten touchdowns!), so depth could be an issue if injuries continue to be a problem.
A big reason Minnesota has had such success running the ball was a veteran offensive line, but now that line has moved on only senior center John Michael Schmitz (6’4” 320 lbs.) returns. A two-year starter, Schmitz earned second team All-Big Ten honors last season. Michigan transfer Chuck Filiaga (6’6” 320 lbs.) started 10 games in his Wolverine career, and Notre Dame transfer Quinn Carroll (6’7” 320 lbs.) played extensively his first two seasons for the Irish. It’s going to be tough to replace 198 lost starts on the offensive line, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if the Minnesota rushing game isn’t quite as powerful early in the season.
Six starters return from a Top Ten nationally ranked defense. Minnesota allowed 278.8 yards per game (third nationally) and 17.3 points per game (sixth nationally) last season, so while some regression might be in order, the Gophers likely will still be strong defensively. But up front, it’s a rebuilding project as only sophomore defensive tackle Trill Carter (6’2” 300 lbs.) returns. The Gophers have to replace two NFL draft picks at the end positions, which will be a challenge.
At linebacker, the Gophers need to replace last year’s leading tackler but the #2, senior middle linebacker Mario Sori-Marin (6’3” 245 lbs.) after totalling 85 tackles in 2021. Sori-Marin was the Gophers leading tackler in 2020, and had a career high 18 tackles against Nebraska that season. Junior Braelen Oliver (6’0” 230 lbs.) might be recovered from a spring 2020 dislocated knee injury that also tore his ACL, LCL and hamstring. As a promising freshman, Oliver had 22 tackles and three sacks in 2019.
The strength of the Gophers defense should be in the secondary where junior safety Tyler Nubin (6’2” 210 lbs.) and senior safety Jordan Howden (6’0” 210 lbs.). Nubin was third in tackles last year with 52 and led the Gophers with three interceptions last season. Howden is a three year starter who had 43 tackles in 2021. Sophomore Justin Walley (5’11’ 185 lbs.) had 29 tackles and eight pass breakups as a true freshman last season. Western Kentucky transfer cornerback Beanie Bishop (5’10” 175 lbs.) was a first team All-Conference USA honoree last season.
From a pure analytical perspective, I’d be tempted to peg Minnesota as a seven win team in 2022, considering that the schedule makers swapped Ohio State, Maryland and Indiana with Michigan State, Penn State and Rutgers. But considering PJ Fleck’s track record, the Gophers will be a contender in the Big Ten’s west division and have a decent shot at playing in Indianapolis.
Even if the Gophers cough up yet another non-conference hairball...such as their season opener against former head coach Jerry Kill’s New Mexico State Aggies. There’s no love lost between Jerry Kill and PJ Fleck, and I would not be shocked if the rebuilding Aggies don’t put up a fight against the Gophers. And if it happens, just remember: It won’t matter when the Gophers come to Lincoln in November.
What happens when Minnesota brings the Broken Chair Trophy back to Lincoln.
This poll is closed
The Gophers take the Chair right back to the Twin Cities. Sigh.
This time, the Huskers manage to finally reclaim the chair.
The Huskers finally stomp on a Quadrangle of Hate opponent. The boat sinks in the Sea of Red.