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Previewing The Enemy: Minnesota Golden Gophers

This game is a big one, folks.

No. 4 Penn State football (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) will square off against No. 17 Minnesota (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) for a battle of the unbeatens Saturday in Minneapolis. Both teams are coming off of a bye week, and whichever side emerges victorious will undoubtedly get a leg up in the conference and (possibly) national title conversations.

The Golden Gophers had a fairly easy start to the season, but things will become difficult for the team this weekend. Minnesota took down South Dakota State, Fresno State, and Georgia Southern by narrow margins of victory before opening Big Ten play with a 38-31 victory at Purdue. The team’s October was much smoother sailing, and featured victories over Illinois, Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland by a combined score of 168-41.

The Team

Head coach PJ Fleck is eight games into his third season at the helm of Minnesota’s football program. He’s amassed a record of 20-13 throughout his two-plus seasons in the Twin Cities, including a perfect 8-0 start in 2019.

Fleck’s time in charge of the Golden Gophers began with a 5-7 record in 2017 — a season that ended in a 31-0 defeat to archrival Wisconsin. However, the team bounced back to secure postseason eligibility with a 37-15 win over the Badgers the following season. A 34-10 victory over Georgia Tech in last year’s Quick Lane Bowl capped off a 7-6 season — Fleck’s first winning record as Minnesota’s head coach.

In 2019, everything has come together for the Golden Gophers after last season’s strong finish. Minnesota’s offense is statistically ranked among college football’s 15 best programs, and the defense has also been strong.

Offense

Minnesota’s offense has scored 38.4 points per game so far this season, which places it third in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and Penn State and 14th in the nation. It averages 429.5 total yards, 225 passing yards, and 204.5 rushing yards per game — figures that rank 47th, 72nd, and 31st in the nation, respectively.

Starting quarterback Tanner Morgan has been excellent for Minnesota. He’s gone 113-for-173 with 1,761 passing yards and 18 touchdowns with just four interceptions. Sean Clifford has been the Big Ten’s best at taking care of the ball with just three turnovers this year, but Morgan is right behind him through eight games.

Morgan is a very accurate passer, too — as evidenced by his 65.3 completion percentage that ranks fourth in the Big Ten — but that might be a byproduct of his lack of volume. He’s thrown the ninth-most passes among Big Ten starting quarterbacks this year.

Among Morgan’s favorite targets are wideouts Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, who have both accumulated more than 30 receptions and 600 yards so far this year. Johnson leads the team with 43 grabs and seven touchdowns, but his 626 yards through the air are second to Bateman’s total of 644. Bateman ranks second on the team in receptions (31) and touchdowns (6) so far this year.

Like Penn State, The Gophers have largely leaned on their top two targets in the passing game. Wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell has 17 grabs for 288 yards and four scores, but beyond him, none of Minnesota’s other pass-catchers have more than eight grabs and 61 receiving yards. The team doesn’t utilize its tight ends much when throwing the ball, as Jake Paulson has hauled in just four passes for 51 yards.

Meanwhile, Rodney Smith leads the charge in Minnesota’s run game, and he’s having an excellent season. He’s gained 889 yards and scored seven touchdowns on 154 carries, and his yardage output is third in the Big Ten behind JK Dobbins and Jonathan Taylor.

Mohamed Ibrahim and Shannon Brooks have both contributed nicely to the Minnesota run game with 307 and 286 yards, respectively, on a combined 115 touches. Ibrahim has scored six touchdowns this year. They’re definitely boosted by a large offensive line.

Here are Minnesota’s five starting offensive linemen:

  • Left Tackle: Sam Schlueter: 6’6″, 325 pounds
  • Left Guard: Blaise Andreis: 6’6″, 325 pounds
  • Center: Conner Olson: 6’5″, 305 pounds
  • Right Guard: Curtis Dunlap: 6’5″, 345 pounds
  • Right Tackle: Daniel Faalele: 6’9″ (!), 400 (!!) pounds

Defense & Special Teams

Minnesota’s defense played lights-out football throughout October, but a slower start to the year means it currently averages 20 points allowed per game — good enough for 23rd in the nation. Its pass defense has allowed 166.4 yards per game while the run game has conceded 117.4 per game. Those totals rank ninth and 23rd in the country, respectively. As far as total yardage is concerned, opponents have averaged 283.8 yards against the Gophers, which is 13th in the country.

These numbers are impressive — especially considering the team lost top linebacker Blake Cashman to the NFL. This year, Minnesota’s star pupil on defense is defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr., who Penn State head coach James Franklin said he has a “man-crush” on. Winfield is tied for the team lead in tackles with 46, and his five interceptions are tied for second in the entire country. The senior is having a career year, and Sean Clifford will have to be wary of where he is at all times.

Linebacker Kamal Martin is tied with Winfield with 46 tackles, but his availability on Saturday will be a game-time decision. He made 59 stops and recorded 3.5 sacks last year, but he hasn’t gotten to the quarterback at any point this season.

Speaking of rushing the passer, Minnesota has struggled to put up sacks this year. Defensive end Carter Coughlin leads the team in sacks with 3.5, but he’s one of just seven Gophers with more than 1.5 sacks this year. Winfield has two sacks to his name (seriously, what can’t he do?), and defensive back Chris Williamson also has 2.5 to rank third on the team behind tackle Sam Renner’s three.

As far as special teams is concerned, placekicker Michael Lantz is 36-for-38 on extra points and 5-for-8 on field goals. He’s a perfect 2-for-2 from 20-29 yards out, but he struggles from mid-range with a 3-for-5 mark from 30-39 yards. He also missed his only 50-plus-yard try of the year. Punter Jacob Herbers has pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 10 times this year, and kickoff specialist Grant Ryerse has booted 27 touchbacks on 53 attempts this year.

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About the Author

Mikey Mandarino

Mikey is a senior majoring in journalism and Onward State's Sports Editor. He grew up in Bedminster, NJ and is way too obnoxious about all the best things his home state has to offer. Mikey loves to play golf, but he sucks at it because golf is hard. If you're dying to see more hockey/golf content on your timeline, you can follow Mikey on Twitter @mikey_mandarino. Send all hate mail, death threats, and your vote for the best chicken parm in State College to [email protected]

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