Enough about moral victories, am I right? The Minnesota Gophers are looking for their first win of the season now, and the Colorado State Rams are next in line. What can we expect in Fort Collins on Saturday?
Last Saturday, Colorado State obliterated the Savannah State Tigers at home to the tune of 65-13. This is standard operating procedure for Savannah State, an FCS program that finished last season with an 0-12 record, including 7 losses by 30 points or more. Obviously, the Rams' stats from their season opener are appropriately gaudy. So what can we draw from a blowout against a staggeringly inept opponent? That the Rams will, at the very least, be feeling confident on both sides of the ball headed into this matchup. The game is also in Fort Collins, so Colorado State will have home field advantage over the Gophers. Colorado State is certainly not the same caliber of opponent as TCU, but Minnesota can't afford to walk into this expecting them to roll over, as the Rams upset both Colorado and Boston College a season ago.
Similar to last week, it is difficult to know what to expect from Colorado State after a cake walk of an opening game, but I think the two most important matchups are obvious.
Gophers' secondary vs Rams' wide receivers. You've heard of Rashard Higgins, right? Named to the Biletnikoff Award Watch List, Higgins is one the best wide receivers in all of college football. In 2014, he reeled in 96 receptions for 1,750 yards and 17 touchdowns. No small feat. The Rams are breaking in a new starting quarterback in sophomore Nick Stevens, but he didn't seem to have much trouble slinging it around a week ago, spreading the ball around to more than 10 different receivers against Savannah State. Colorado State returns 4 of their top 5 receivers, including Higgins, from a receiving corps that ranked 8th in the nation in passing last season. Again, their stud quarterback is gone, but a strong stable of receivers remains, including two seniors at tight end who were both named to the Mackey Award Watch List. There is no question that the Gophers' defensive backfield will have their hands full again. The uncertain status of Damarius Travis, who limped off the field late against TCU, is somewhat concerning, but there is no reason to believe that a unit with Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun at the corners is going to fall apart without one of their senior safeties.
If the Gophers' secondary can repeat last week's performance and prevent the Rams from making big plays in the passing game, I don't see Colorado State having much success on offense against this defense. The defense can't afford to sleep on this group of receivers, but I trust that Tracy Claeys is well aware of the kind of talent the Rams have at receiver and the Gophers will be well prepared with a game plan to contain them.
Gophers' offensive line vs Rams' defensive line. One of the biggest issues against TCU a week ago was the offensive line. Josh Campion was a last minute scratch at right tackle, and his replacement, Ben Lauer, had to be pulled in the second quarter in favor of Jonah Pirsig after more than a few blown assignments, clearly not having healed completely from his surgical procedure during preseason camp. It is imperative that the offensive line stabilize moving forward, and this Saturday represents a chance for them to start down that path. With Campion back at practice on Monday, I'm optimistic that we won't have to endure another game of musical chairs on Saturday.
Colorado State ranked 96th in rushing defense a year ago, allowing an average of 200 rushing yards per game. The Rams don't have a lot of starting experience up front either, having to replace all but two defensive linemen and one linebacker in their front seven. If the Gophers aren't able to impose their will on the Rams defense and open up holes in the running game, that will not bode well for the Gophers' offense in this game -- or for the rest of the season, for that matter. I expect we'll see a lot of carries for Rodrick Williams and Rodney Smith as the Gophers look to avoid testing a decent secondary that returns two starting safeties from a unit that ranked 56th in pass defense a year ago. On the defensive line, senior defensive end Martavius Foster will be one to watch for the Rams after recording three sacks against Savannah State last Saturday.
The Rams are also transitioning from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Tyson Summers, so there could be some growing pains there or perhaps more success than last year against the rush. Who knows. Again, success against Savannah State is not the greatest indicator.
Ultimately, it comes down to the Gophers playing to their strengths. Last week against a tough opponent, the Gophers were able to run the ball well at times on offense and also limit a vaunted passing game on defense. Minnesota will need to do more of the same in order to beat Colorado State, with the key difference being that they're not lining up against the No. 2-ranked team in the nation this time around.
Any other matchups that you think could be the difference in this game?