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Previewing the 2021 Minnesota Golden Gophers

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PJ Fleck’s teams join the list of frustrating opponents for the Huskers in the Big Ten’s west division.

Minnesota v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Minnesota is one of those teams that’s hard to put a finger on, in my opinion. In 2019. they narrowly avoided three potentially embarrassing upsets to start the season, then caught enough breaks to win 11 games, including a New Years Day bowl game against Auburn. Last year, the Gophers found a way to win in Lincoln despite being down 33 players due to COVID-19.

That’s the epitome of PJ Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mantra. The story behind the slogan isn’t quite as well known, to be honest. Yes, it’s about overcoming adversity, but it’s more than that.

“It’s a never-give-up mantra that has to do strictly with life or adversity or handling success, never giving up, and it means a few things. When you row a boat, you’re rowing, don’t ever look at me and paddle. That’s completely different. We’re rowing. Your back is to the future, which is something you cannot control, nor can you see. You have to trust the person in front of you, that you’re looking at, that they’re doing their job and rowing at the same speed, same efficiency as you are. But that’s the future, you can’t control that.”

In all the hype of “RTB”, what’s been lost is it’s origin, which is likely why it’s become something worthy of eye-rolls and parody. It actually was Fleck’s way of coping and dealing with the death of his newborn son ten years ago:

“As you hold your son as he passes away, your whole life changes. What you believe in, how you’ve believed in it, what you’ve done to that point, where you’re going to go and how you’re going to live your life all changes. But Row the Boat is really my second son’s life as I continue to live his life for him. It’s his life. “

So it is a serious thing, at it’s core. It doesn’t mean that you can’t make fun of it becoming a marching band halftime show though either.

That’s not on opposing fans.

Tanner Morgan (6’2” 215 lbs.) returns at quarterback after a regression back from a 2019 second-team all-Big Ten season. In 2018, Morgan completed 58.6% of his passes for 1,401 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions. Last season, Morgan completed 57.9% of his passes for 1,374 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Zach Annexstad (6’3” 220 lbs.) hasn’t played since his 2018 injury against Nebraska; that season, he completed 52% of his passes for 1,277 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.

So why did Morgan regress in 2020? My theory is that a passing game needs a good quarterback AND good receivers to succeed, and last year, Minnesota was missing receivers Tyler Johnson all season (drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Rashod Bateman part of the season (opted out, then back in, then out again). Now Bateman is with the Ravens, leaving just Chris Autman-Bell (6’1” 215 lbs.) from that 2019 receiver corp. Last season, Autman-Bell caught 22 passes for 430 yards and a touchdown. Freshman Daniel Jackson (6’0” 200 lbs.) played in four games, catching 12 passes for 167 yards. Tight end Ko Kieft (6’5” 265 lbs.) is more of a blocker than a receiver; he’s caught five passes over the last four season. If Morgan is to return to 2019 form, he’s likely going to need at least two more receivers to emerge complementing Autman-Bell, and one of them is going to have to be a contender for conference newcomer of the year honors. Do they have those guys on the roster? It’s a key question for the Gophers.

Something that’s an exclamation point and not a question mark for the Gophers is running back Mohamed Ibrahim (5’10” 210 lbs.). Ibrahim rushed for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns in seven games earning him first team all-Big Ten honors. Backing him up is Cam WIley (6’2” 210 lbs.), who only carried the ball 29 times for 179 yards and a touchdown last season. Bryce Williams (6’0” 210 lbs.) only carried the ball five times in 2020, but don’t forget that he 502 yards in 2018 when the Gophers top two backs went down with injuries.

The Minnesota offensive line is still intact from the 2019 season with the return of right tackle Daniel Faalele (6’9” 400 lbs.), who opted out of the 2020 season. Right guard Connor Olson (6’5” 310 lbs.) has started 45 games the last four seasons, gaining a fifth season due to the COVID rules. Left tackle Sam Schlueter (6’6” 325 lbs.) has 34 starts in his career, while left guard Blaise Andries (6’6” 335 lbs.) has 33 starts. Andries was a third-team all-Big Ten performer in 2019. Not only is this line huge, they are experienced and should enable the Gophers to run the ball at will in 2021.

Minnesota’s defense wasn’t great in 2020, finishing ninth in scoring defense (30.1 ppg) and tenth in total defense (415.9 yards per game). The Gophers were better at stopping the pass (sixth in pass defense with 208.7 yards per game) than at stopping the run (12th in rush defense, allowing 207.1 yards per game). The good news for the Gophers is that (like many teams in 2021) nearly every starter returns.

Up front, the Gophers add Clemson transfer defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney (6’1” 290 lbs.), who started 15 games in his career with a total of 98 tackles (13.5 for a loss). That could send Deangelo Carter (6’2” 310 lbs.; 16 tackles) to a reserve role after starting every game last season. Defensive end Boye Mafe (6’4” 265 lbs.) was second in the Big Ten with 4.5 sacks last season.

Last year’s defense took a hit when linebacker Braelen Oliver (6’0” 235 lbs.) missed the season with a knee injury. He’s back, and is joined by Abilene Christian transfer Jack GIbbons (6’4” 200 lbs.), who had 258 tackles in four years at Abilene Christian. Middle linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin (6’3” 245 lbs.) has 14 starts in his career and led the Gophers with 54 tackles last season.

The only starter from last season who isn’t returning is cornerback Benjamin St. Juste, who was drafted by the Washington Football Team in the third round. (That’s an awkward sentence to write...) Cornerback Coney Durr (5’10” 200 lbs.) has started 30 games for the Gophers, and was fourth on the team with 29 tackles. Durr led the team with five pass breakups and had an interception. Safeties Tyler Nubin (6’2” 205 lbs.) and Jordan Howden (6’0” 210 lbs.) trailed only Sori-Marin in tackles last season with 41 and 37 respectively.

There’s a common theme amongst Nebraska’s Big Ten west division brethren: they punch higher than their recruiting rankings would seem to indicate. Northwestern is the best example of this, but you can also say this about Wisconsin, Iowa and now Minnesota as well. Looking at the Gophers in 2020, an unfavorable non-division schedule (Ohio State and Indiana from the Big Ten east, plus a Colorado team that went to a bowl last season) would seem to indicate that the Gophers probably will end up being within a couple games of .500 in 2021. Is this a game Nebraska can win? Definitely, but it probably depends on Nebraska turning the corner on development more than Minnesota jumping up to the next level.

Poll

Who wins the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy in 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 53%
    Goldy gets another one. Sigh.
    (84 votes)
  • 32%
    Nebraska cuts down on the mistakes enough to get a win.
    (50 votes)
  • 14%
    Nebraska figures it out, and wins convincingly to claim the chair.
    (22 votes)
156 votes total Vote Now