The Minnesota Gophers are a bit worse for wear heading into this weekend's matchup against the Kent State Golden Flashes. Injuries have scorched the depth chart on both sides of the ball, and the Gophers could use a break to heal up before hitting the road against Northwestern and Purdue in a few weeks. If Minnesota can take care of business on Saturday, they should be able to do exactly that. In the absence of a bye week until late October, the Gophers will have to make due with the Golden Flashes of Kent State.
Back in Week 1, Kent State kicked off the season against the Illinois Fighting Illini -- fresh off their firing head coach Tim Beckman earlier that week -- and proceeded to fall flat on their faces in a 52-3 loss to a team that struggled to make a bowl game a year ago. The Fighting Illini dominated both sides of the ball, scoring at will on offense and shutting down the Golden Flashes with a stout defensive effort. Kent State would rebound a week later with a win against Delaware State, an FCS program that finished with a 2-10 record last season, in a game that featured a late game extra point from April Goss. Why is this worth noting? Goss now happens to be just the second female in NCAA history to score in a Division I college football game.
While our friends over at the Hustle Belt are predicting a close game, I don't see the Gophers having too much trouble with the Golden Flashes, unless the issues from the first half against Colorado State continue. Even if Illinois is much improved from last season, I don't think they're head and shoulders better than Minnesota, and the outcome of Week 1 against another Big Ten opponent would suggest at least a similar result in Week 3 for Kent State. But with the aforementioned injuries, never say never. If the Gophers are forced to field a patchwork product with holes all across the depth chart, a less than stellar performance could await Gopher fans in TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. I don't see Kent State being able to pull off the upset, but I also don't expect to see a final score of 52-3 when the game clock hits zero. Expect a few bumps in the road.
Let's get to the matchups!
Gophers' defensive backs vs Golden Flashes' quarterback. Back in Week 1, Illinois led Kent State 28-0 after the first quarter, before extending their lead to 35-0 on the first play of the second quarter. How does something like that happen? Three interceptions for the Fighting Illini defense. Two of them were from tipped passes, but the Illinois offense was able to capitalize on each one, scoring a touchdown on the ensuing drives to bury the Golden Flashes. In other words, the Fighting Illini did what the Gophers haven't been able to do so far this season: Start fast and crush the hopes of their opponent before halftime. TCU and Colorado State were both much tougher opponents, so Kent State represents the Gophers' first real chance to impose their will on an inferior team.
The Gophers' defensive backfield -- even without starting safety Damarius Travis and his back-up Ace Rogers, who are both out again this week -- was excellent in pass coverage against Colorado State, with Briean Boddy-Calhoun snagging an interception on the first play from scrimmage and Jalen Myrick grabbing another in the second quarter. Minnesota's secondary is going to need to continue to win the turnover battle in order to keep the Golden Flashes from hanging around. Much of their success will also depend on the defensive line. Defensive tackle Steven Richardson was outstanding a week ago against the Rams, so look for him and the rest of the defensive line to continue to have success pressuring the quarterback and forcing him into making mistakes against the Gophers' ball-hawking defensive backs.
Illinois was able to insert their second-string units after halftime, all because of a defense that forced four turnovers in the first half alone. The Gophers will need to do the same. Then again, the defense can force turnovers, but there is no guarantee the offense will take care of their end. On that note, our next key matchup is...
Gophers' Mitch Leidner vs Golden Flashes' defensive backs. As lopsided as the final score was in their Week 1 matchup, Illinois' stats on offense were not as overwhelming as you might expect. As I mentioned before, the game got out of the hand in the first quarter because the Fighting Illini defense kept handing their offense the ball on Kent State's side of the 50 and Illinois was able to capitalize on each occasion. As we saw last week against Colorado State, there is no such thing as a sure thing with the Gophers' offense, even with a short field. The Gophers' defense forced four turnovers against the Rams, but Minnesota failed to score on each of the ensuing possessions. That can't continue to happen, especially if the Gophers hope to put this game out of reach before halftime.
When the Golden Flashes punted to the Fighting Illini in the first half -- rather than turn the ball over -- Illinois failed to score on 3 of 4 drives, and penalties, incomplete passes, and long third downs were what killed those three stalled drives. The Fighting Illini were effective at running the ball, but when they needed to throw the ball and pick up yardage to create shorter downs, Kent State was able to force incompletions. With how Leidner struggled in the early going a week ago, I shudder at the thought of how he'll fare against a decent secondary that ranked 48th in pass defense last season. Their Achilles' heel against Illinois was long throws downfield, which was once thought to be one of Leidner's strengths, until last Saturday when throws of more than 10 or 20 yards appeared to be a daunting task. We'll see if Leidner can rectify that against a defense susceptible to big plays in the vertical passing game.
With how much vitriol he has received from fans throughout the week, I hate to open the door for more, but Leidner and the rest of the offense are going to need to show that the abysmal first six drives of last week's game were an aberration. Kent State's defense against Illinois was more a victim of their offense's brutal mistakes than of their own failures, so I don't expect a cake walk from the start. The debut of Isaiah Gentry and the return of Jeff Jones will add some intrigue to the passing game, but the key here will be Leidner and whether or not he can build off of that impressive touchdown drive near the end of regulation against Colorado State.
Are there any other matchups that you think could be the difference in this game?